Members of Fresno State women’s lacrosse team have filed a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit in federal court against the university.
Five players say that the university is violating Title IX and discriminating against the lacrosse team, as well as female student-athletes and potential student-athletes.
The lacrosse members also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to preserve the lacrosse team and all other Fresno State women’s varsity teams as the case proceeds.
On Oct. 16, the lacrosse program was one of three cut due to ongoing financial challenges of the pandemic, the university said. Men’s tennis and wrestling were the other sports cut.
Since 1992, Fresno State has had multiple Title IX violations and lawsuits. In 1992, the California National Organization for Women sued the California State University system, saying Fresno State discriminated against women in the athletics department.
Twelve years later in 2004, Associate Athletic Director Diane Milutinovich filed a lawsuit against Fresno State, saying she was forced out of her administrative position in 2002. Milutinovich reached a settlement in October 2007.
Several Fresno State head coaches, including Margie Wright, Ramona Pagel, Linda Vivas and Stacy Johnson-Klein; alleged discrimination by the university, and they received compensation either through a settlement by the university or through a jury.
After years of litigation, CSU Chancellor and former Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro said on Feb. 10, 2016, that the university received word from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights that it has closed its case against Fresno State after nearly 25 years.
Castro said the university wants to continue to be a national leader in this area, but Arthur Bryant, the attorney representing the lacrosse members, said the university has not changed its ways.
“Fresno State has long been a national Title IX poster child for sex discrimination in its intercollegiate athletic program,” Bryant said in the news release. “In 2016, it [the university] announced it had changed its ways. Sadly, that wasn’t true. The school is not close to providing women with gender equity. Fresno State’s elimination and treatment of the women’s lacrosse team are blatant violations of Title IX.”
Fresno State spokesperson Lisa Boyles provided The Collegian a statement on the situation.
“The university stands behind its position that, as a result of state budget reductions and significant revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university had to make the difficult decision to eliminate three sports teams: men’s tennis, men’s wrestling and women’s lacrosse after this academic year,” Boyles said. “The department of athletics will ensure continued efforts toward Title IX compliance as a result of these reductions. The university is unable to comment any further regarding matters involving pending litigation.”
The Collegian reached out to Fresno State Athletics for a statement on the matter, and a spokesperson said it could not comment on the case due to this being a university-level item.
Bryant represents lacrosse team members Megan Walaitis, Taylor Anders, Hennessey Evans, Abbigayle Roberts and Tara Weir.
“It is truly sad and disappointing that we have to sue Fresno State to make it comply with Title IX, treat women equally, and preserve our team,” Walaitis said in a press release. “But we have to stand up for our rights and fight. Fresno State actively recruited us. We love being here and playing. But it’s trying to eliminate our team, already treating us like we’re not a varsity team and discriminating against women throughout its intercollegiate athletic program.”
The lawsuit was filed on Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, and the plaintiffs are requesting a hearing be set on or before March 15, 2021.
Castro, Interim President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval and Athletics Director Terry Tumey were all named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs say Fresno State has consistently failed to provide the women’s lacrosse team with equal support that the men’s teams receive. Several examples include issues with practice fields, outdated equipment and the lack of a proper coaching staff.
“The decision to eliminate the women’s lacrosse team was entirely consistent with Fresno State’s history of sex discrimination in its intercollegiate athletic program, but it came as a surprise to the women on the team and their coaches,” the lawsuit said.
Bryant said he reached out to the university several times, stating that removing the lacrosse team is a blatant violation of Title IX. When Bryant received no initial response, he said he was going to move forward with litigation.
Fresno State University Counsel Darryl Hamm responded to Bryant’s letters, saying that Fresno State’s commitment to gender equity and that the university was compliant with Title IX.
Following these messages, Hamm and Bryant sent several letters to each other, disputing many of the claims made. Hamm mentioned the university’s roster management program fully complies with Title IX, but Bryant said there is still a gender equity gap.
In an interview on Dec. 11, Castro supported the university’s decision to eliminate the lacrosse program, and he said that Fresno State was aware of Title IX regulations at the time of the decision.
“Given what occurred over the last nine months, it was clear to me that we needed to make an adjustment, and we made that adjustment in terms of calling for the elimination of three sports,” Castro said. “And we did so in a way that was cognizant about Title IX regulations and will actually position us in a way where we’re even more equitable than we were before.”
Bryant and the plaintiffs feel that Fresno State gives the program second-class treatment.
“By this lawsuit, plaintiffs seek to end the current second-class treatment of Fresno State’s women’s lacrosse team, preserve Fresno State’s women’s lacrosse team going forward and block Fresno State’s latest efforts to discriminate against females in its intercollegiate athletic program,” the lawsuit said.
Written by Zaeem Shaikh, Anthony De Leon and Jesus Cano.