Facing the threat of a class-action Title IX lawsuit over its treatment of female athletes, La Salle University has agreed to an unusual settlement that proactively mandates the Philadelphia school reinstate specific women’s programs to achieve substantial gender proportionality between athletics and its undergraduate enrollment.
The agreement follows the school’s announcement, in September, that it would eliminate seven sports programs by the end of the 2020-21 academic year, three of which were women’s teams—softball, tennis and volleyball. Then on May 3, La Salle announced that it would, in fact, be keeping one of the due-to-be-chopped men’s programs, swimming and diving.
In response, two volleyball players, Sarah Nahas and Lizzy Osborn, retained Title IX attorney Arthur Bryant, who had recently succeeded in compelling Clemson not to cut its men’s track and cross country programs. On May 21, Bryant sent a demand letter to La Salle threatening a sex discrimination suit, noting that the school’s website claimed its undergraduate enrollment for 2019-20 was 64% women. At the same time, the demand later stated, the school’s varsity athletic team rosters were less than 53% women.
Subsequently, Bryant told Sportico, La Salle conveyed to him in a telephone call that the school’s website included inaccurate numbers about its undergraduate enrollment, which it has since reported to be 61.5% female.
“Understanding that this letter is being written in June of 2021 and the recruiting process is still fluid, La Salle intends to and believes it will achieve [compliant] participation numbers,” the settlement agreement states.
Nonetheless, the school has agreed to reinstate or create women’s teams, beginning in 2022-23, if it remains out of gender equity compliance. For example, if the female participation gap is found to be within seven to 13 athletes, the school will add back women’s tennis; for a gap between 14 to 22, volleyball would be reinstated. If the gap exceeds 50, tennis, volleyball and softball would return, plus any additional teams, “if viable.”
The settlement agreement states that the school will make participation and enrollment numbers publicly available, along with the underlying data, for accountability’s sake.
Even though his clients were volleyball players, Bryant explained it would be impossible for that team to be functional by next year because a number of the athletes already transferred to other schools, which is why tennis was given precedence on returning. But Bryant isn’t necessarily expecting that the reinstatement schedule will be triggered next year.
“It gives them a powerful incentive to make sure they are in compliance this year,” he said.
“The plan set forth by La Salle Athletics required thoughtful consideration for the betterment of the department and the well-being and best interests of our student-athletes,” La Salle interim president Tim O’Shaughnessy said in a statement released by the school Tuesday. “The reinvestment of our athletics budget to address the overall experience of our student-athletes and ensure equitable opportunities and treatment was featured prominently in this plan. We are excited about the future of La Salle Athletics.”