The University of Delaware’s men’s varsity track and cross country team has filed a sex discrimination complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in response to the University’s decision to demote the team to club status to remain compliant with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. UD claims that its financial situation does not allow for an expansion of the women’s varsity track and cross country team, and so therefore a reduction of the men’s team was its only alternative.

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. It has traditionally been used to fight for equalization of athletic opportunities for women in colleges and universities.

A college or university can demonstrate compliance with Title IX by satisfying one or more of the following three prongs:

(1) By showing that the ratio of women and men competing in athletics match their proportions in the undergraduate population;
(2) By showing a history of expansion of the underrepresented sex’s athletic programs
(3) By proving the full accommodation of the underrepresented sex’s interest in athletics

The complaint alleges that UD’s actions violate the 2nd and 3rd prongs of the Title IX compliance test by arbitrarily demoting the men’s varsity track and cross country team instead of accommodating Title IX’s goal of expansion.

The UD’s decision is noteworthy because when it made its decision, it was in full compliance with the requirements of Title IX. The decision, in fact, was a measure designed to prevent a possible Title IX compliance issue in the future.

UD’s Director of Athletics Bernard Muir explained,

 “We explored every avenue in search of alternatives to this action. We found ourselves facing two options: Either we had to continue the periodic expansion of programming for women in order to be responsive to their interest and ability, or adjust the current offerings to provide equitable and substantially proportionate participation opportunities for our men and women. Continued expansion of our Athletics program is not feasible in this financial climate, and given that reality, the University made the only decision it could.”

The U.S. Office for Civil Rights will be faced with the relatively new development in the past decade in which colleges or universities eliminate or demote men’s teams instead of dedicating additional resources to the expansion of women’s athletic program to remain in compliance with Title IX. Although not illegal at the moment, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights has been asked by the now-demoted men’s varsity team to explore the legality of UD’s action in light of its apparent tension with the declared public policy goals of Title IX.

The student athletes and UD are currently engaged in mediation regarding this matter. The resolution of this matter, either through mediation or a U.S. Office of Civil Rights ruling, will have an interesting effect on the way institutions of higher learning make decisions regarding Title IX compliance.