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Ex-Minnesota gymnast sues over team’s elimination, ‘misguided’ effort to comply with Title IX

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/29/2021 Liz Clarke
a person sitting on a table: “Honestly, I couldn’t care less if we stayed in that crappy gym at Cooke Hall for the next 10, 15 years — as long as we had a program,” said Minnesota's Shane Wiskus, © Darron Cummings/AP “Honestly, I couldn’t care less if we stayed in that crappy gym at Cooke Hall for the next 10, 15 years — as long as we had a program,” said Minnesota's Shane Wiskus,

A former University of Minnesota gymnast is suing the school for its decision to drop men’s gymnastics after last season, arguing its decision was a flawed and unlawful interpretation of Title IX.

Sophomore Evan Ng seeks the program’s reinstatement in his lawsuit, which was filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota against the university’s president, board of regents and athletic director.

The suit argues men’s gymnastics was cut based on a “misguided, unlawful, and unconstitutional attempt to comply with Title IX.” That flawed attempt, it states, lies in reducing the number of male athletes to satisfy the Title IX criteria that the proportion of male and female athletes reflect that of the broader student population.

“Simply eliminating men’s teams or engaging in roster-management isn’t actually benefiting anyone; it’s a numbers game,” Caleb Trotter, Ng’s lawyer, said in a telephone interview. “That’s not how we should be treating people, and the Constitution prohibits it.”

Trotter works for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which describes itself as a nonprofit that defends Americans’ individual liberty and constitutional rights against governmental overreach and abuse.

Trotter said the firm took the Minnesota case expressly to challenge the use of “sex-based quotas” in the application of Title IX. The hope, he said, is that a favorable decision would set a legal precedent that opens doors for the reinstatement of other men’s varsity sports that have been cut in the name of Title IX compliance.

Minnesota spokesman Jake Ricker said via email the university’s decision to eliminate three men’s varsity sports was difficult.

“Importantly, this lawsuit isn’t just about the University: It is a broad challenge to how Title IX has been implemented by the U.S. government across colleges and Universities nationwide to achieve equal opportunity,” Ricker wrote. “The University has and will always honor its legal obligations.”

Minnesota’s Board of Regents voted in October 2020 to eliminate men’s gymnastics after 118 years, along with men’s tennis and men’s indoor track and field, on the recommendation of Athletic Director Mark Coyle.

Coyle informed the affected athletes of his recommendation during a Zoom call in September 2020, saying the teams had to be cut to help remedy a projected $45 million to $65 million budget deficit caused by the pandemic and to ensure compliance with Title IX.

But after supporters of men’s gymnastics presented a plan in April to reinstate the team under a self-sustaining budget that relied on philanthropy and sharp spending reductions, they were informed by the chairman of the Board of Regents that the proposal “wasn’t a solution.” While finances mattered, the chairman wrote, Title IX compelled the university to “pare down” men’s sports.

According to Trotter, sex-based quotas are unconstitutional and problematic under Title IX because rather than create opportunities for a group that has been disadvantaged they “enshrine sex discrimination” in university policy.

“It’s kind of backward: In an effort to not discriminate, that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Trotter said.

Minnesota’s decision to eliminate men’s gymnastics after the 2020-21 season, along with Iowa’s decision to do the same, was the latest blow to the sport’s viability in Division I, reducing the ranks to 12 programs.

It was particularly disheartening for Gopher alumni given the team’s storied history. Minnesota gymnastics has produced 21 Big Ten titles, as well as three-time Olympian John Roethlisberger and 2020 Tokyo Olympian Shane Wiskus.

Minnesota athletes whose teams were cut were allowed to keep their scholarships, but longtime coach Mike Burns’s job was eliminated in August. He has stayed on with no compensation to coach a reconstituted, student-led club team that includes a handful of varsity gymnasts from last season’s squad.

Other former Gopher gymnasts transferred or graduated, while some current seniors are carrying extra credits to graduate a semester early.

“They kind of want to be done with the University of Minnesota, and I don’t blame then,” said Burns, 63, who after 34 years coaching college gymnastics is juggling part-time jobs coaching at a local club, delivering packages and driving for Uber.

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