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Delaware State Reinstates Women’s Equestrian Team in Legal Battle

Facing scrutiny over possible Title IX violations, Delaware State University has agreed to reinstate their women’s equestrian program through 2010-11 after announcing its elimination earlier this year for budgetary reasons. The move resolves part of a legal battle between the historically Black institution and student athletes who filed suit to have the program continued after the current year, officials said.

In February, the Lady Hornet equestrians filed for a preliminary injunction order to preserve the team and ensure its presence at the school. On Wednesday, DSU lawyers filed a motion in federal district court consenting to a court order that allows the team to compete through the 2010-11 year. DSU officials will fund the team and all awarded scholarships will be honored, according to the agreement. 

The Delaware district court ordered that DSU fulfill the team funding and scholarship obligations under the presumption that if budget cuts were to occur the equestrian team would not suffer more than other athletic teams on campus.

“We still believe that the elimination of the team is a lawful action on our part and is in the best interests of institution,” said university spokesman Carlos Holmes. “The equestrian team has expressed their love for the program and desire to continue competing and  we have listened. We’ve decided to extend it one more year but we are not committing the university to beyond that year.”

Caroline Foltz, a sophomore agricultural business major, is a scholarship rider for the Lady Hornets and said the development is great news for the team ahead of the national championships next week in Waco, Texas.

“I’m glad we have at least one more year and we are still going to continue to fight to be put back for longer,” Foltz said, adding their riders have made appearances at nationals in three of the last four years. “At least we will have our team back while we fight to get it longer.”

In another legal action taken in late February, fifteen members of the team represented by the Philadelphia-based Women’s Law Project filed a class action suit in federal court against the school, also claiming that DSU violated Title IX federal guidelines for athletic gender equity provisions. The case is still pending and the Office of Civil Rights for the U.S. Department of Education is investigating.

“The consent order accomplishes what the plaintiff sought in their preliminary junction motion by keeping the team in place,” said attorney Abbe Fletman, who is representing the equestrian team. She added her clients will continue the litigation.

The Title IX law prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded intercollegiate sports, requiring schools to provide female athletes with varsity athletic opportunities proportional to their percentage in a school’s student body. Women’s teams are to receive equal scholarship opportunities, funding, and treatment.

There are three parts to Title IX: The first is the proportionality of full-time undergraduate female students and women’s athletic opportunities. Secondly, schools must demonstrate a history of expanding women’s athletic programs and responding to athletics interests from women on campus. Finally, a school can be found in compliance if they have met the abilities and interests of women with its current program.

The 15 DSU plaintiffs have alleged that even with the equestrian team, the Dover-based  institution has failed to provide an equal number of athletic opportunities for women on campus.  The DSU student body is 40 percent male and 60 percent female, according to numbers from the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis of the Department of education.

DSU athletic opportunities were distributed at 56 percent for men and 44 percent for women, a disparity of 16 percent. The gap increases to 18 percent with the cuts of the riding team’s 20 female athletes. 

Erin Buzuvis, an associate professor of law at the Western New England College and a co-founding contributor on the Title IX Blog, told a HBCU sports site: “Since none of the three prongs are satisfied, DSU’s decision to cut equestrian is a clear violation of Title IX’s requirement for equity in the number of opportunities.”

Historically, HBCUs have struggled to comply with Title IX and as male student populations dwindle, the sometimes cash-strapped institutions have trouble leveraging gender equity with revenue generation. In 2008, the College Sports Council released a study that found all of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools (which are all HBCUs) in litigation or failing to meet the proportionality standard.

“Cutting the football team—that’s not going to happen,” Holmes said, adding that to stay in the MEAC conference, DSU needs 14 intercollegiate teams. They have 15 not counting the equestrian and men’s tennis teams.

DSU lawyers defend the school saying they satisfy the second requirement because they have worked to increase the percentage of women athletes in the last five years from 32 to 44 percent. They also said they are starting a competitive cheer team, which is expected to increase the number of female scholarship athletes at the school.

However, competitive cheer is not an NCAA-recognized varsity sport. Equestrian is designated as an “emerging sport” with 24 varsity Division I and II teams at schools such as Auburn and Cornell Universities. The equine industry has been advocating for the sport since 1998, working toward establishing 40 equestrian programs around the country.

DSU’s equestrian team was competing in its fourth season when school officials decided in January to discontinue it along with the men’s tennis team as a cost-saving measure, said DSU athletic director Derek Carter.

Newly-appointed university president Harry Williams said the inflated athletic budget outpaced other schools in their conference—the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference—and needed to come down. Carter said the school would save $700,000 in their budget with the cuts.

The equestrian team was the brainchild of former DSU president Alan Sessoms as a means to engage the equine industry and horse culture of  Delaware. He saw the team as an “opportunity to recruit different kinds of students,” and to help bring balance to the men-women athletic divide.

Sessoms, who is now the president of the University of the District of Columbia, said he found overwhelming support from the horse community.

“It changed the attitude about the university in various communities that wouldn’t have given DSU  the time of day before. They were giving us horses, tremendous discounts on facilities, outstanding coaches and donated their time,” he said. “They’ve [DSU] cut and they’ve sacrificed. That’s their call but I don’t think it was the right answer.”

The team, which began with four members, expanded to 20 within two years, and was expecting more recruits in the fall. Foltz said the team travels a considerable amount to compete since so few schools in the region participate in the sport.

Melia Blakely, a Canadian recruit, signed a letter of intent with DSU but sued the school for breach of contract when the team was eliminated. Blakely’s lawyer Ron Polinquin said his client reached an out-of-court settlement and will not attend DSU in the fall.

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