This week, as Aztecs mania grips the city of San Diego, Kamryn Whitworth finds herself conflicted.
“I want to be excited, but I feel like a phony,” she said.
On the one hand, Whitworth, a former San Diego State rower, is sincerely proud of her alma mater’s men’s basketball team, a “great group of athletes” that has reached the Final Four for the first time in school history. Then again, the glamor of SDSU’s Cinderella run is yet another reminder for female athletes like Whitworth of their contrasting experience on the pumpkin side of the university’s athletic fairytale.
In early 2022, Whitworth and 16 other women athletes filed a sex discrimination class action lawsuit against SDSU, which is believed to entail the first such claims for monetary damages under the federal Title IX laws.
The plaintiffs have accused SDSU of depriving women of more than $1.2 million in “equal athletic financial aid” over the course of two academic years. The financial tally was based on figures the school reported to the U.S. Department of Education in adherence to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.
The litigation came on the heels of the school’s decision to eliminate its women’s rowing program at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. To justify the cut, SDSU cited both cost-cutting measures related to COVID and its purported need to reduce the number of women scholarship athletes in order to be Title IX compliant.
The men’s basketball Final Four bid has already netted SDSU an extra $500,000 in future NCAA Tournament distributions, according to the Mountain West Conference, in addition to a number of other financial windfalls resulting from the national limelight.
The school, which spent a league-leading $62.2 million on athletics in 2021-22, is reportedly under serious consideration to join the Pac-12. Though this move would cost SDSU the half-million-dollar tourney bonus, it would enrich the Aztecs by millions of dollars–if not tens of millions–each year.
“Imagine what SDSU’s women could do if the school stopped discriminating against them and gave them the equal treatment and athletic financial aid that Title IX requires,” Arthur Bryant, an attorney representing the female athletes, said. “SDSU’s men and women all deserve the same shot at that one shining moment.”
In a statement provided by an athletic department spokesperson, San Diego State said it was “proud of its record of promot[ing] female athletic opportunities,” and asserted that the school’s funding for women’s scholarships “remains among the highest” in its conference and across the country.
Bryant, however, says how the university compares to its rivals is “utterly irrelevant” by the standards of federal law. “Here, SDSU is clearly treating its male athletes better than its female athletes,” he said, “which violates Title IX.”
For Whitworth, the taste of rice cakes with almond butter—which she says often defaulted as the rowers’ in-season lunches, as compared to the hearty, bountiful fare offered to the football and basketball players—still lingers.
Before COVID, Whitworth said she and several other athletes approached a school Title IX representative to complain about their lack of nourishment; in response, the women were offered extra sweatshirts.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs have alleged both gender-equity violations as well as retaliation, after SDSU’s women’s track and field head coach Sheila Burrell allegedly criticized her athletes who joined the lawsuit during an all-squad Zoom session held a week after the case was filed. In their pleadings, the plaintiff’s lawyers said they asked SDSU for Burrell to publicly apologize and issue a retraction to the team, which she declined to do on advice of the university.
Another plaintiff in the case, Kaitlin Heri, an Aztecs pole vaulter who set the all-time Mountain West Conference record last May, believes that Burrell’s remarks had a chilling effect on other women athletes joining in as plaintiffs.
“I think that put a damper on our lawsuit,” Heri said. “I think we could have gotten a lot more girls in. But after those remarks, most of the girls were scared to join, [wondering] ‘What if I get my scholarship cut?’”
Having graduated last year, Heri says her sense of indignation has lessened now that she is no longer on campus. “I am not constantly having to see the inequity every day,” she said. (Burrell did not respond to an email seeking comment.)
As for the men’s basketball glory, Heri said, “I think they deserve everything they are getting. I think it would be nice if female athletes who accomplished just as great things could get the same recognition.”
In defending itself against the lawsuit, SDSU has cited the NCAA’s scholarship limits for each sport; for example, the association allows a maximum of 20 athletic grants-in-aid for women’s rowing, compared to 85 for football.
But the plaintiffs have accused SDSU of further limiting athletic opportunities for women by capping women’s program dollars at amounts lower than what the NCAA permits. For example, according to the lawsuit, the head rowing coach was instructed by his superiors to divvy up a maximum of 15 full in-state and five out-of-state scholarships among the team. The lawsuit said that similar dollar constraints were placed by the school on other female sport coaches, thus creating a “sex-based barrier” for female sports participants. For the 2018-19 year, the school charged about $11,000 less for in-state residents than for non-residents.
During the proceedings, U.S. District Judge Todd Wallace Robinson directed the plaintiffs to calculate specific monetary damages for each of the individual athletes in the case. Though insisting this was impossible to nail down with only “publicly available information,” the plaintiffs stipulated that female athletes were deprived an average of $2,608 in financial aid during the 2018-19 academic year; $2,204.03 in 2019-20; and $1,874.40 in 2020-21.
The university, in its effort to dismiss the claims, argued that by using averages, the plaintiffs have failed to “identify any individualized harm.” SDSU also contends that the athletes should not have standing to litigate equal opportunity violations, because none of the plaintiffs had explicitly made requests for more scholarship money that was then denied by the school.
However, during a hearing earlier this month, Judge Robinson pushed back against that argument.
“It seems as though under your theory, the only such plaintiff would be a plaintiff who had a specific conversation with their coach, and the coach said, ‘I’d love to give you more money, but the university has capped my funding,’” the judge told SDSU’s lawyers, according to a court transcript.
Both sides await the court’s ruling on whether the equal athletic financial aid and retaliation claims can proceed to the discovery phase, which would then provide the plaintiffs access to the school’s official Title IX figures. Up until now, it has relied on those published on the EADA website.
“I hope it doesn’t get dismissed and that we finally get what we deserve, no matter how long that takes,” Heri, who currently works as a server at a restaurant in San Diego, said. (She plans to catch SDSU’s Saturday afternoon game against Florida Atlantic while waiting tables on her shift.)
The concurrence of revenue-sport success with Title IX issues is certainly not new for San Diego State.
Last year, a teenage girl filed a lawsuit claiming she had been gang raped in October 2021 by multiple Aztec football players, including star punter Matt Araiza, who later played for the Buffalo Bills until he was released following the allegations. Araiza and the other athletes denied the accusations, and after a police investigation, none were criminally charged.
A Los Angeles Times report found that although the matter involved SDSU undergrads, the school waited more than seven months to launch either a Title IX investigation or student disciplinary proceeding, despite the pleadings of several university administrators to take immediate action.
As the newspaper noted, SDSU football was in the midst of a six-game winning streak at the time the rape allegations were made, and on its way to a 12-2 season and bowl victory. That lawsuit is now slated to go before a jury in October.
(This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate reference to a USA Today data analysis of schools’ female athlete participation rates.)