A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that Quinnipiac University had engaged in gender discrimination in its sports program, agreeing with a lower court that found the Connecticut school failed to offer adequate athletic opportunities to women.
The three-judge panel for the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected arguments by university lawyers that competitive cheerleading should be considered a legitimate varsity sport.
The university had argued that the school’s athletic rosters were proportionally divided between men’s and women’s sports.
But a federal judge ruled in 2010 that Quinnipiac had padded its ranks of female athletes by double-counting injured cross country runners as track participants. He also disallowed the school’s attempt to claim competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport.
Instead of the 440 athletic positions claimed by the school, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill counted only 400 and declared Quinnipiac in violation of Title IX, the 40-year-old federal law that requires gender equality in school sports.
Judge Underhill’s ruling was important because it suggested that colleges and universities may need to perform increasingly precise calculations to ensure opportunities offered to women in sports are proportional enough to satisfy federal law.
Of the 5,696 students enrolled at Quinnipiac in 2009-2010, roughly 62 percent were women. A strict reading of Title IX would require that women occupy 62 percent of all varsity sports positions offered by the school.
Under the school’s calculation, women held 62.27 percent of all varsity spots, including competitive cheerleading and track.
In contrast, Judge Underhill’s calculations found that women athletes held only 58.25 percent of varsity sports positions.
In affirming Judge Underhill’s ruling, the appeals panel agreed that a 3.62 percent disparity between female enrollment and female varsity athletes is substantial enough to violate Title IX.
“We acknowledge record evidence showing that competitive cheerleading can be physically challenging, requiring competitors to possess ‘strength, agility, and grace,’ " the judges wrote.
“We do not foreclose the possibility that the activity, with better organization and defined rules, might some day warrant recognition as a varsity sport. But … that day has not yet arrived,” the appeals court said.
Competitive cheerleading is different than the traditional, more passive type of sideline cheerleading. Rather than directing fan enthusiasm, competitive cheerleading is a combination of group dance and gymnastics. Like gymnastics, teams are judged on their execution and the difficulty of their routine.
The appeals court decision stems from a class action lawsuit filed in 2009, shortly after Quinnipiac announced plans to eliminate varsity team sports for women’s volleyball, men’s golf, and men’s outdoor track and field.
Five volleyball players and their coach sued, charging that the action violated Title IX.
In concluding the school was in violation, Judge Underhill ordered the university not to eliminate volleyball as a varsity sport.
“All students, regardless of sex, are required by law to have the same meaningful athletic opportunities available to them,” Lenora Lapidus, director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said in a statement after Tuesday’s decision. “Cutting corners doesn’t meet this standard and female athletes deserve better.”
It was not immediately clear whether the university planned to appeal Tuesday’s decision.