Women’s Track and Field announces boycott of season unless men’s teams are reinstated

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After a month of controversy surrounding the decision to cut seven athletic programs, Tribe Athletics announced it would be reinstating the women’s gymnastics, swim and volleyball teams to comply with Title IX regulations. Oct. 25, the women’s track and field team decided that the reinstatement of the women’s but not men’s team was unacceptable.

Twenty-six women’s track and field athletes signed an open letter to the Board of Visitors and administration refusing to compete for the Tribe until the institution revealed its decision-making process and reinstated all of the discontinued men’s teams.

A main cause of both the discontinuation and reinstatement of the seven varsity sports, as well as the Women’s track and field team’s open letter, is Title IX.

Title IX is a law that protects students from gender-based discrimination. In terms of athletics, the test to determine whether universities comply with Title IX policies is three-fold.

The school must show they provide equal athletic opportunity in proportion to enrollment, show commitment to expanding programs to the underrepresented sex, or show they accommodate the interests of the underrepresented sex in the present program.

In other words, the College must demonstrate that the opportunity to participate in varsity sports is consistent with enrollment numbers across genders.

Before program cuts in 2020, the Tribe Athletics program housed 20 teams: 10 men’s and 11 women’s teams.

A larger roster equates to more opportunities for participating. For example, the football team, with 102 players on its roster, demonstrates more opportunity than men’s tennis, with 10 players.

The cuts showed similar proportions between men’s and women’s teams, around 25 percent of total enrollment.

However, athletes from women’s swimming, gymnastics and volleyball brought threats of legal action to the College for failing to meet the Title IX test of providing athletic enrollment consistent with student enrollment.

The lawsuit shifted the College’s language from that of financial concerns to that of Title IX concerns. This can be seen in Interim Athletic Director Jeremy Martin’s Oct. 19 email to the William and Mary community announcing the reinstatement of the three sports.

“After further review conducted in response to an impending lawsuit, it was determined that the discontinuations and related roster adjustments for remaining sports were not likely to accomplish the goal of equity in participation by next fall,” Martin said in the email. “Therefore, as interim athletics director, I recommended to President Rowe, who affirmed, that women’s gymnastics, women’s swimming and women’s volleyball will continue as NCAA Division I sports.”

This language can be compared to the earliest announcement of the seven varsity sports being discontinued.

“However, the costs … have become unsustainable,” College President Katherine Rowe said in the sent email announcing the cuts on Sept. 6. “The pandemic has made these budget constraints acute and has brought us to a point of reckoning.”

In addition to showing the change in justification for cutting the programs, Martin’s email presented a new explanation for cutting the men’s teams.

Martin explained the teams were cut to increase equality between men’s and women’s programs going forward, as new opportunities for women would be slower and harder to come by.

The women’s track and field team took issue with this change in justification. Apart from issues of transparency, they found that using sex as a basis for reinstating teams was inherently discriminatory.

In response to the changes, they decided to write an open letter where they announced their decision to boycott the upcoming season.

“We will begin a campaign of passive resistance to the unfair practices and policies of the College’s administration, including the dishonest manner in which these decisions were arrived at,” the letter states.

“As such, you can expect to see us front and center voicing our concerns about these issues; you can expect us to take our argument to our student body, to our faculty, and to our alumni; what you should not expect is for us to show up in uniform, representing this institution, until this matter is resolved.”

The members of women’s track and field believe that their boycott will reduce the College’s ability to legally comply with Title IX. Track athlete Lauren Finikiotis ’21 described the their motives for the boycott.

“They need us to compete on the basis of Title IX,” Finikiotis said in a written statement. “Without a women’s track team, the school would be facing a major violation in the very law they used as justification to cut our men’s team.”

When asked how the boycott will affect Title IX, Martin did not provide a response, stating that the College will soon be releasing information regarding Title IX.

It still remains unclear whether the boycott will damage the College’s attempts to reach Title IX equity and if the athletes must compete for participation to be achieved.

Twenty-six of the 43 total athletes signed a letter, refusing to compete for the Tribe until the men’s teams are reinstated and the university shares the process by which it decided to cut the teams in the first place.

“We are doing the very thing W&M has ingrained in us,” Finikiotis said.  “I believe that the administration has greatly underestimated the Women’s team.  By protesting, we are using the privilege we have to stand up to the administration and demand change.”

Finnikiotis hopes the boycott shows the school that they should value their female athletes not just for Title IX compliance but also for their successes.

“Through their actions, the administration has told their female athletes that they are only valued for their gender not ability,” Finnikiotis said. “We will not be minimized to a number. Through their actions, the administration is telling the entire student body that Title IX is only an obstacle to achieving their own agenda. This decision is telling for the treatment of gender equity across campus.”

The 17 athletes on the women’s track and field team who chose not to sign the letter will still have the ability to compete in the spring.

Finikiotis did made it clear that she and other members of the track team do not believe Tribe Athletics has created an open and welcoming environment for athletes to speak out.

“We respect the decisions of our teammates to compete and will support them no matter what,” Finikiotis said. “However, it is important to note that many students who did not sign the petition did so in fear that the administration would retaliate against them and revoke scholarships. People are afraid to speak up, including fellow athletes from different sports, because of the way the athletic department has instilled fear into anyone who disagrees with them.”

By the spring, the team hopes the issue is resolved and that they will be able to compete together alongside the men’s team.

As for the administration’s response to the news of the boycott, Interim Director Martin declined to give much detail.

“We respect our student-athletes’ right to express themselves and encourage them to use their voices in a thoughtful manner,” Martin said in a statement. “I appreciate their support of fellow student-athletes and will look forward to engaging them in the near future.”