Nearly two months after the College of William and Mary discontinued seven varsity sports, the College announced Oct. 19 that Tribe Athletics will reinstate womens’ gymnastics, women’s volleyball and women’s swimming. This announcement comes as a result of the potential class action lawsuit filed by Bailey & Glasser LLP, which stated that cutting these three women’s sports violated Title IX.
This decision comes after Interim Athletic Director Jeremy Martin P.H.D. ’12, M.B.A. ’17 was appointed Oct. 6 after previous Athletic Director Samantha Huge resigned. Since his appointment, Martin and Tribe Athletics have been working with administration, alumni and student athletes to attempt to find a solution that solves the College’s athletics budget and Title IX problems. The reinstatement of the three women’s sports serves as at least a partial fix.
“So as we took a subsequent, in-depth review with the decisions that were made, we realized that we needed to take some action to make sure we hit the gender equity goals that we’ve established,” Martin said. “This regarded a moment in which we recognized that decisive action would advance our equity goals, so we took it and were able to provide greater clarity to some of the teams.”
In the initial letter announcing the discontinuation of the seven varsity sports, College President Katharine Rowe, College Provost Peggy Agouris and former Athletic Director Samantha Huge said gender equity was part of the reason the seven sports were cut in the first place. The letter said that these cuts assured Title IX compliance; however, some of the female athletes did not agree.
Members of the women’s varsity gymnastics, volleyball, and swimming teams decided to pursue a lawsuit against the College after the initial discontinuation. Attorney Arthur Bryant sent the first letter detailing the potential lawsuit to Rowe Sept. 23.
“Based on the information we had, we thought it was obvious that William and Mary was in violation of Title IX and that the elimination of these three women’s teams was going to make that even worse,” Bryant said. “But, William and Mary’s public announcement said these changes were going to bring it into compliance with Title IX. So, that made us wonder if there was information we did not understand. We wrote the letter both to make sure the University understood what we thought and had an opportunity to try to explain to us why we were wrong.”
Bryant explained that his firm found multiple striking problems with the College’s decision and ran an analysis that showed this decision did not put the College in compliance with Title IX. The firm met several times with representatives from the College in order to explain their analysis that proved the College would violate federal law before they filed a lawsuit.
“So they’re publicly saying they’re in violation of a federal law and over the next five years they’re going to take some steps to get themselves less in violation of a federal law, which was just stunning,” Bryant said. “… And, to William and Mary’s great credit, when it took a hard look at things, it realized it was making a mistake, and it agreed to reinstate the three women’s teams … That is, they are going to be in compliance, they have committed, during the 2022-2023 academic year and future academic years. So that’s an extraordinary change that they deserve a lot of credit for.”
The threat of a potential lawsuit forced the College to reevaluate its Title IX compliance and rescind their decision regarding the three cut women’s teams.
“Gender equity was always the goal so the litigation risk prompted an additional, more thorough review as to what was far and fast enough,” Martin said. “That was behind the discovery that we needed to move further and faster, and that’s why we acted decisively to make sure we are pushing forward, pushing to build a foundation of equity for the department.”
However, many of the female athletes on the three teams that have been reinstated say that bringing back just the women’s teams is not enough.
The Women’s Track and Field team is taking more direct action by publishing an open letter Oct. 24 addressed to the College’s administration and Board of Visitors. The letter outlines their demand that all seven discontinued sports be reinstated and threatens action if this demand is not met.
“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.”
Women’s track athlete Liv Paxton ’21 described why the team committed to boycotting their season.
“We feel like it’s kind of a slap in the face to not bring back the men’s team, and for them to expect us to still compete and represent the school when they only brought back a few women’s sports,” Paxton said. “It made us feel like as female athletes we are just being seen as a number to be Title IX compliant, they don’t actually care about us because they’ve taken away our teammates and humiliated us on a national scale.”
Swimmer Rebecca Rodgers ’22 said that the women’s swimming team will be meeting later this week to discuss the possibility of joining women’s track and field in boycotting their season. She also expressed her frustration with the College and Tribe Athletics.
“They did not reinstate our team, they reinstated half of it,” Rodgers said in an email. “It’s heartbreaking and frustrating to know that the school simply reinstated our teams not because they were in the wrong but because they wanted to fight a potential lawsuit. They do not care about us, they care about the image of this institution.”
As a result of the College’s decision, many female and male athletes have considered transferring and committing to other schools for their respective sports.
Class of 2023 President Conor Sokolowsky ’23 is one of the only student-athletes in SA. Sokolowksy was instrumental in creating the For the Bold Resolution in which SA demanded more transparency in decisions with input from students, donors, faculty and alumni, a live and recorded Q&A session, the seven sports team reinstated and the university to reevaluate the athletics department’s role and long-term goals.
Sokolowsky says that many of his female and male swimming teammates have begun opening the transfer portal to look at their options.
“It’s a family, and so our women’s team is super distraught,” Sokolowsky said. “I know some of them are still going to be transferring, or even just stopping the sport just because we don’t have the guys team as well. Even if the guys were to stay on campus it just isn’t worth it to them anymore. Because they might as well just be losing half of their team.”
While male and female athletes are working to have all seven teams reinstated, Bryant says this will not put the College into a further Title IX violation as the three-part test determining a school’s Title IX compliance does not look into male athletic participation rates at all.
“The school could get into compliance with part three of this three-part test and say ‘we now have a program that fully and effectively accommodates the interests and abilities of the women here,’” Bryant said. “And so we’re in compliance that way, it doesn’t matter what we do with men.”
Interim Athletic Director Jeremy Martin P.h.D. ’12, MBA ’17 is determined to continue the dialogue between the administration and student athletes but says that there is no simple solution to reinstating the men’s teams.
“We’re continuing conversations and are committed to fulfilling the process that we laid out in terms of discussing what pathways there could be,” Martin said. “What we know after yesterday’s announcement is that our equity goals are the most concrete. We do know that there’s no easy pathway and so we’re trying to be as right as we can in the process while still engaging in creative options when they emerge.”
Martin expressed his commitment to working for the College and its student athletes to find an answer to the problem.
“I do not expect trust to be given to me, but I hope that I will be given the opportunity to earn your trust,” Martin said. “Our student-athletes are incredible people who have done everything expected of them to become a Division I athlete and represent William and Mary. It is energizing every day to get up and try to serve the people that are our student-athletes and coaches; they are some incredible folks and I’m grateful for the chance.”