Judge puts breaks on UConn plan to eliminate women’s rowing

A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order that will prevent UConn from immediately eliminating its women’s rowing team as part of budget cuts in its athletic department.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Underhill issued the order Wednesday, ruling the rowers were likely to prevail in their lawsuit that alleges eliminating the team would violate Title IX, the federal law that guarantees equal access to women in education, including athletics.

Underhill found that there is compelling evidence that UConn has been inflating the numbers of participants in its women’s programs to make it appear it was complying with the law. He also wrote that the evidence presented in court during a hearing last week also showed UConn experienced participation gaps each year for the past 13 years.

“Plaintiffs have shown that it is substantially likely that UConn is not presently in compliance with Title IX’s effective-accommodation mandate, and cutting the women’s rowing team would only exacerbate that noncompliance by magnifying UConn’s disparity in athletic participation opportunities,” the judge wrote.

The school issued a statement saying it disagrees with the ruling and believes it is “inconsistent with longstanding guidance provided by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.”

“UConn used its best efforts to eliminate the fewest number of teams as possible, but there was no path forward that would permit the university to preserve the long-term viability of its athletics program in the absence of cuts,” the school said in a statement.

Rowing coach Jennifer Sanford said she is happy the judge decided to issue the restraining order and called on UConn to look closely at its Title IX compliance based on the evidence the judge heard during a court hearing last month on the motion for a restraining order.

Sanford had testified that she was told keep her roster at 60 rowers, when only 40-42 would be needed for a a viable Division I team, an apparent attempt to inflate the participation numbers.

“ I am proud of the women on the team, specifically the twelve plaintiffs, who have fought for their right to remain a Division One program,” she wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “As a loyal rowing coach of the University of Connecticut and Husky fan since I arrived in 1997, I am hopeful this is a positive step toward UConn Rowing continuing with varsity status moving forward, and for a very long time ahead.“

UConn said last June that it wants to reduce its $42 million athletic deficit by about $10 million a year, cutting the need for a subsidy to the athletic department by 25% over the next three years. The school decided to eliminate women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving, men’s cross-country and men’s tennis at the end of this school year.

The school said it considered the civil rights implications before making that move.

According to the school’s annual filing with the NCAA, the rowing team has a roster of 38 rowers but had 62 participants in the program and operating expenses totaling $1,345,104 in the 2020 fiscal year. UConn rowing gave at least partial scholarships to 32 rowers at a cost of $713,417 and its coaches earned a total of $196,575, according to the report.

A hearing on the rowers motion for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Aug. 2.

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