UConn reaches settlement with rowers in gender equity suit

Sports

FILE — Members of the UConn women’s rowing team rally about being cut by the university after the season, in Storrs, Conn., April 19, 2021. The University of Connecticut has settled a federal gender equity lawsuit, reaching an agreement to keep its women’s rowing program for at least the next five years. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant via AP, File)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — The University of Connecticut has settled a federal gender equity lawsuit, reaching an agreement to keep its women’s rowing program for at least the next five years.

The lawsuit was filed by 12 rowers after the school announced in June 2020 that the sport would be among several eliminated in budget cuts. A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order in May that prevented the school from dissolving the team.

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

Following that ruling, the school announced in July that it was reversing its decision to eliminate the team.

In addition to keeping rowing through at least the spring of 2026, the school agreed in the settlement Wednesday to a number of improvements for the program, including renovating the team’s boathouse and increasing the number of scholarships in the program from 14 to 20. The school also agreed to hire three full-time assistant coaches and increase the recruiting budget from $7,000 to $35,000 a year.

“The university is pleased we were able to resolve this litigation and arrive at a settlement,” UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said Thursday. “Our focus is on supporting this program and moving it forward.”

Felice Duffy, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said perhaps most importantly UConn also has agreed to hire two independent monitors to annually audit the school’s Title IX compliance. Those monitors also would approve any school plan to come into full compliance with the law.

“That’s bigger than just the rowing team,” she said. “That’s going to help all the athletic teams at UConn.”

The school had planned to eliminate women’s rowing, men’s swimming and diving, men’s cross-country and men’s tennis as part of a plan to reduce a $42 million athletic deficit by about $10 million a year, cutting the need for a subsidy to the athletic department by 25% over three years.

At the time, the school said it had considered the civil rights implications before making the decision.

But Underhill found compelling evidence that UConn has been inflating the numbers of participants in its rowing and other women’s programs to make it appear it was complying with federal law. He also wrote that evidence showed UConn experienced participation gaps each year for the past 13 years.

Duffy said she hopes other schools will look at this case and give their female athletes real opportunities.

Maggie Mlynek, one of the rowers who brought the lawsuit and has since graduated, said she believes the case will go a long way toward solidifying the school’s reputation as a great spot for female athletes and not just in basketball.

“At a time that we really didn’t think there was going to be a future, now we have everything a rowing team could ever want or need to succeed,” she said.

UConn rowing coach Jennifer Sanford said she is proud of Mlynek and the other 11 rowers who filed the lawsuit because they believed the case was always about more than just their team.

“They saw value in fighting for the reinstatement of our program, but also saw beyond that, hoping that our case would protect other rowing teams across the country from being cut in the future,” she said. “I’m pleased that the University has made the commitment to fully support our program and look forward to moving ahead, building the program with our current student-athletes and enthusiastic recruits who will represent the University of Connecticut with pride.”

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