Eleven members of the Michigan State women's swimming and diving team filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday that attempts to stop the university from eliminating their team at the end of its current season.
Michigan State announced in late October that the athletic department would discontinue its men's and women's swimming and diving programs following the 2020-21 season. Athletic director Bill Beekman cited the long-term impact of the financial crisis brought on by COVID-19 as one reason for eliminating the programs.
The swimmers' class action lawsuit argues that the university is already violating Title IX rules by failing to offer equal opportunities to females athletes on campus, and the decision to eliminate both programs will push those numbers further out of compliance.
"We saw an opportunity to do something for the betterment of female athletes everywhere and we jumped on that," sophomore Sophia Balow told ESPN. "We know that MSU has to be held accountable to do the right thing."
Balow said she and teammates have tried "every avenue we can find" to preserve the program. She said they decided to file a lawsuit after conversations or attempted conversations with Beekman, the board of trustees and the university president did not produce any change.
Michigan State had 25 more male athletes (370) than female athletes (345) in the 2018-19 academic year, which is the most recent data provided by the U.S. Department of Education. Attorney Jill Zwagerman, who is representing the swimmers, says her firm's review of online rosters showed that the gap has grown wider in the past two years.
The swimmers also argue that Michigan State artificially closes a much wider gap in female athlete opportunities by padding the rosters of some of its teams. The women's rowing roster in 2018-19 listed 89 team members and the track program listed 173 women on its combined rosters for the same year. The lawsuit claims that many of the athletes listed on those rosters did not participate in competition.
Zwagerman said she contacted the university in November and asked to open a dialog about the Title IX implications of cutting the swimming program. She said Michigan State replied by saying they believed they were in compliance with Title IX participation requirements.
"I'm disappointed especially in light of all the bad choices that Michigan State has made in the past in regards to women's athletics," Zwagerman said, referencing the university's handling of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal. "While of course it's different circumstances, it still is adversely affecting women. We'd like to see Michigan State stop treating its women athletes like second-class citizens."
A Michigan State spokeswoman said the university had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit Friday afternoon so it had no comment at the time.
Along with their lawsuit, the swimmers also requested that the courts file an injunction that would prevent Michigan State from firing its coaching staff or taking further steps to eliminate the sport while their court case is pending. They asked that the federal court in western Michigan make that injunction ruling by February 1.
"If they cut the program, they can't get it back to where it is now in a year or two," Zwagerman said. "It demolishes the program, and then if we win down the road, they would have to come in years later and rebuild the program from scratch. It puts them in an entirely different position than having a well-established program."
The Spartan swimmers are not the first group to turn to the court system to try to save their sport. Zwagerman's firm successfully argued for an injunction in a similar case two years ago when Eastern Michigan University made plans to drop two of its varsity sports teams. The University of Iowa's swim team filed a similar complaint late last year. A judge in that case sided with the plaintiffs in issuing an injunction to keep Iowa from taking steps that endanger the swim program's future while that lawsuit is ongoing.
Balow, a Michigan native who swims long-distance freestyle, said the injunction is needed to provide some piece of mind for any swimmers who want continue to compete next season and are weighing a decision to transfer to another school. She also said an injunction could help protect the team's coaching staff, whose contracts will expire at some point this summer. She said her team has been following the Iowa team's legal battle closely during the past several months.
"Obviously we're on the same side when it comes to this kind of stuff, and we're hoping we'll have similar luck and our case will go the same way," Balow said.