Univ of Oregon wrestlers sue the university to prevent them from dropping the program

By Save Oregon | June 09, 2008, 9:29 a.m. (ET)
Eugene, OR (June 9) -- Members of the University of Oregon's wrestling team filed suit Friday afternoon in the Oregon Circuit Court for Marion County, seeking to prevent the University from dropping wrestling as an intercollegiate sport. Circuit Judge Albin Norblad will hear the case.

The complaint alleges that the UO's plan to eliminate wrestling would violate not only the procedural requirements for dropping an intercollegiate team but also the substantive requirements of the equal privileges and immunities clause of Oregon's constitution, an Oregon anti-discrimination statute known as Section 659.850, and the Oregon University System's implementing regulations.

In essence, the University mistakenly believed that gender equity under the federal Title IX statute required UO to eliminate men's wrestling to enable UO to add men's baseball, without considering whether that would violate Oregon's constitution and statutes, as well as established University procedures. After acknowledging that Title IX did not require UO to eliminate wrestling to make room for baseball, UO spokesmen developed several new reasons to justify their original decision to drop wrestling. Like the original Title IX reasoning, however, the University's new reasons fail to consider violations of Oregon law and University procedures.

The complaint seeks a preliminary injunction that orders UO to defer dropping wrestling until the athletic department completes the required intra-University consultation with UO's Intercollegiate Athletics Committee and offers the affected students the opportunity for a hearing. Either UO's president or the Oregon University System's chancellor would make the final decision after the hearings. If UO still intends to drop wrestling after the required hearings, the parties would return to court to challenge that decision before the preliminary injunction dissolves.

The plaintiff, Equity in Athletics in Oregon, is an Oregon non-profit corporation that represents returning members of the Oregon wrestling team, prospective students who wish to wrestle at the University, and other Oregon citizens interested in the University's proving an equitable athletic opportunity. The defendants are the University of Oregon, UO President David Frohnmayer, the Oregon University System, OUS Chancellor George Pernsteiner, UO Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny, UO Associate Athletic Directors ReneƩ Baumgartner and Neal Zoumboukos, and UO General Counsel Melinda Grier.

When Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny announced the resumption of the Oregon baseball program, suspended since 1981, during a press conference on July 13, 2007, he cited the need to comply with the gender equity provisions of U.S. Department of Education policy under Title IX by dropping wrestling and adding women's competitive cheerleading. Wrestling boosters have argued that Title IX does not require UO to drop men's wrestling simply because UO intends to add men's baseball. In response, UO appears to have conceded that its initial Title IX rationale was flawed. On two occasions, in a Feb. 27, 2008, interview in the student newspaper, the Daily Emerald, and in a March 6, 2008, article in the fan publication, Ducks Illustrated, Zoumboukos acknowledged that Title IX did not require UO to drop wrestling.

Instead, Zoumboukos indicated that UO now was dropping wrestling for a combination of four criteria, neither one of which was determinative: (1) UO lacks a wrestling facility; (2) the Eugene area lacks a dedicated fan base; (3) the opportunity to capitalize on an investment; and (4) the lack of support in the Pac-10 and NCAA Division I.

While the plaintiff disagrees that the federal Title IX law even allows UO to cut wrestling, the complaint alleges that UO violated Oregon's stronger anti-discrimination laws by not applying the same criteria evenly to both men's and women's teams. For example, interscholastic wrestling is more popular in Oregon and nationally than women's lacrosse and competitive cheerleading, the Pac-10 and NCAA Division I support wrestling as much or more than those women's sports, UO wrestling has higher attendance than several women's teams, no women's teams are required to pay their own way, and the wrestling community has offered significant financial contributions to endow UO wrestling.

"Since we all agree that federal law does not require UO to cut wrestling," said attorney Richard Franklin, "the question is whether Oregon law allows UO to use a one-sided analysis to cut wrestling." Last month, the Oregon Supreme Court held that the Oregon State Activities Association violated Section 659.850 by failing to schedule basketball playoff games around the Saturday Sabbath of athletes of the Seventh Day Adventist faith.

The plaintiff alleges that UO's mistakes were compounded by the athletic department proceeding without the required hearings and consultations. "Oregon does not require administrative procedures to make people feel good," said Franklin, "we require it because it helps agencies make better, more informed decisions when they publicly air an issue and allow the affected public to voice their concerns." In 1987, when Frohnmayer served as Oregon's Attorney General, he authored an interpretation of the Oregon Administrative Procedures Act that required universities to provide students who failed a drug test the opportunity for a hearing before terminating the right or privilege of participating in athletics. The plaintiff argues that the same rationale applies to terminating an entire team. "If UO had held a pre-termination hearing, it would have become obvious before UO took any final action that the athletic department had misconstrued Title IX and failed to consider Oregon law at all," added Franklin.

Since Kilkenny announced the planned elimination of Oregon wrestling last year, a coalition of alumni led by former UO wrestling coach Ron Finley formed the Save Oregon Wrestling Foundation and has raised more than $3 million in cash and pledges to endow UO wrestling. Such efforts have succeeded at other schools. Last month, Arizona State University announced plans to drop intercollegiate wrestling, but ASU reversed the decision two weeks later after boosters promised enough money to endow the sport. To date, however, Duck athletic department officials have shown little interest in working with the Save Oregon Wrestling Foundation.

According to statistics furnished by the Oregon School Activities Association, wrestling is the second most popular boys' winter sport in Oregon high schools. For the 2006-07 school year, the latest figures available, some 4,659 boys wrestled on Oregon scholastic teams. This number does not include the 55 girls, 31 home schoolers, and 17 foreign exchange students who also participated in wrestling on the high school level.

Some 70% of University of Oregon wrestlers, averaged over the past three seasons, are graduates of Oregon high schools. This represents the largest percentage of native Oregonians on an UO intercollegiate athletic team. Only one other Duck athletic squad, the women's cross country team, has more than 50% Oregonians on its roster. The University sponsors intercollegiate sports, such as women's lacrosse, in which Oregonians do not compete on the high school level.

Wrestling at the University of Oregon has existed since 1913 as a club sport and since 1953 as an intercollegiate sport. Oregon wrestlers have won 32 All-American honors and 69 individual conference championships. Five Ducks have wrestled and one has coached in the Olympic Games.

The plaintiff is the Oregon chapter of Equity in Athletics, which is suing the U.S. Department of Education and James Madison University in Virginia over JMU's plans to eliminate men's and women's archery and gymnastics, women's fencing, and men's track, swimming, and wrestling. Equity in Athletics also is working with a foundation formed by parents and alumni to save the Syracuse University men's and women's swim teams, which Syracuse had scheduled for elimination next year. In response to those efforts, Syracuse extended the elimination date forward three years to allow all matriculated swimmers to complete their athletic careers at Syracuse, which that foundation hopes will allow enough time to endow the swimming teams.
Equity in Athletics in Oregon is represented by Richard D. Franklin of Portland, Oregon, and Lawrence J. Joseph of Washington, D.C.