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Female athletes file Title IX sex discrimination class-action lawsuit against Oregon

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell12/01/23


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Thirty-two current and former female student-athletes filed a sex discrimination class-action lawsuit against the University of Oregon on Friday, alleging the university deprives women of equal treatment and benefits, equal athletic aid and equal opportunities to participate in varsity college athletics in violation of Title IX.

Twenty-six women’s varsity beach volleyball team members and six women’s club rowing team members filed the 115-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon. 

The suit seeks to hold Oregon accountable for “discriminating against all of its female student-athletes and potential student-athletes, make Oregon pay damages to the women it has deprived and is depriving of equal treatment and equal athletic financial aid, and stop Oregon from violating Title IX in the future.”

Title IX is the 51-year-old federal law that protects students from sex-based discrimination at any school that receives federal funding. This is believed to be the first Title IX complaint addressing athletes’ ability to monetize their brands through NIL.

But the NIL element is just one component in a suit that alleges widespread sex discrimination across numerous fronts: financial aid, amenities, resources, recruiting budgets, locker rooms and facilities, hotel accommodations, scheduling and more. 

An Oregon spokesperson sent On3 a lengthy statement late Friday afternoon that said the university is committed to providing a “quality, positive experience for all our student-athletes. UO athletics provides all student-athletes, including our female athletes, with academic support, tutoring, student-athlete development, medical care, mental health support, meals and snacks, and nutrition and sports training.

“With the modernization of NCAA rules in recent years, we are also proud that we have been able to provide student-athletes with the maximum academic benefit allowed within the restrictions of the Alston decision, in addition to these other benefits.”  

Plaintiffs are represented by lead attorney Arthur Bryant of Bailey & Glasser, LLP, who has represented more women athletes in Title IX litigation against schools and universities than any lawyer nationwide.

“Title IX has been the law for more than fifty years. Oregon needs to comply with it, now,” Bryant said in a statement to On3. “The history of Title IX has shown: If women want equality, they need to fight for it. So that’s what the women at Oregon are doing.”

The lawsuit comes less than five months after an exhaustive report in The Oregonian detailed potential Title IX violations at Oregon related to the treatment of the beach volleyball team. The Oregon athletic department offers 20 varsity sports and generates more than $153 million in annual revenue. The beach volleyball team is the only one that receives no athletic scholarship funding. The newspaper reported that no other public university team among Power Five conferences spends zero on athletic scholarships.

Suit: Oregon provides more NIL opportunities to men

The complaint claims that football team members are given so much publicity and university-driven NIL support that three of the team’s players – quarterback Bo Nix (eighth); running back Bucky Irving (35th); and wide receiver Troy Franklin (68th) – are listed among On3’s NIL 100 list. Conversely, the complaint notes that no Oregon female athlete is listed.

On3’s NIL 100 is a defacto ranking of the top 100 high school and college athletes ranked by their On3 NIL Valuation. The On3 NIL Valuation sets the standard market NIL value for high school and college athletes. The On3 NIL Valuation calculates an athlete’s NIL value using dynamic data points targeting three primary categories: performance, influence and exposure.

The suit states: “Oregon’s female student-athletes are given so much less publicity and NIL support that no female student-athlete receives anywhere near the amounts mentioned on that list.”

Oregon provides its male and female student-athletes with a wide array of publicity and other treatments and benefits to increase their NIL-related training, opportunities and income, the suit states, both directly and by working with and through its NIL collectiveDivision Street, and Opendorse, the school’s NIL marketplace.

“Through these actions, Oregon provides its male student-athletes with much greater NIL-related training, opportunities, and income than its female student-athletes,” the complaint asserts, while also adding: “To the extent that schools are involved in helping student-athletes develop, identify, arrange, or receive NIL-related training, opportunities, or income, Title IX’s equal treatment and benefits requirements apply to those activities, opportunities, and income, too.”

In a recent interview with On3, Bryant said: “NIL and Title IX are about to collide – and it’s just a question of when and where. Title IX says schools have to provide male student-athletes and female student-athletes with equal treatment and benefits, and almost no school in the country is doing that now without NIL. With NIL, it is far, far worse.”

Legal experts for months have told On3 that a Title IX reckoning is coming to the NIL space. A wide swath of leading college sports voices – including first-year NCAA President Charlie Baker – have increasingly raised concerns about schools’ relationships with collectives triggering significant Title IX concerns. 

“The Office of Civil Rights would say right now that if a collective is affiliated … with a college or university then they need to be spending as much money on women’s sports as they spend on men’s sports and as much money on women athletes as they spend on men athletes,” Baker told LEAD1 CEO Tom McMillen during a panel discussion in Dallas last spring.

As it pertains to NIL specifically, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey recently told On3: “Right now Title IX concerns should be raised. That should have all of our attention. Everyone around these endeavors needs to be mindful that those realities exist in our society. We don’t just get to be inattentive because there’s a new competitive [entity] like collectives, or these NIL deals.”

And Baker assumed the role as NCAA president at a time when there is heightened awareness and scrutiny of gender inequalities that exist on various fronts. In fact, it was former Oregon women’s basketball star Sedona Prince who helped shine a spotlight on the issue.

Her TikTok video during the 2021 NCAA women’s tournament in San Antonio illuminated in vivid detail the differences in the so-called weight room area for the women athletes and the impressive weight room facilities at the men’s tournament.

Title IX concerns related to NIL are growing.

Last month, Bryant told On3 that he was “outraged” over what he called a “blatant, in-your-face” case of “extraordinary sex discrimination.” He was referencing the Utah-focused collective, the Crimson Collective, leasing 85 scholarship football players – and no female athletes – 2024 Dodge Ram 1500 Big Horn trucks for free.

Legal experts called the Utah football players’ truck deal a high-profile example of the complex Title IX question that the broader college athletics industry is wrestling with more than two years into NIL. It is a new age in which donor-driven collectives generally provide an overwhelming majority of their dollars to male athletes. Increasingly at issue is the extent of the relationship, if any, between schools and collectives.

“It should be a huge Title IX concern for [Utah],” Bryant told On3. “It appears to be a flagrant, stunningly obvious violation of Title IX that could cost the school millions of dollars.”

Plaintiff: Male athletes treated ‘incredibly better’

Amazon Park is where the Oregon women’s beach volleyball team practices. (Bailey & Glasser)

In meticulous detail – which includes several photos – the suit attempts to paint a picture of the alleged inequalities in treatment, resources and the experience between being an Oregon football player and a women’s beach volleyball player. 

The suit states Oregon gives more than a third of its male student-athletes – the men on its football team – “unbelievably better treatment than it gives to any of its female student-athletes: palatial locker rooms, their own theatre with seats upholstered in Ferrari leather, nearly-unlimited publicity, including to advance their NIL opportunities and income; and myriad other forms of support that one can hardly imagine.”

Oregon does not provide the women’s beach volleyball team with any practice or competitive facilities, according to the complaint. Instead, the suit claims, it forces team members to practice and compete at a public park that lacks stands for spectators, has bathrooms with no doors on the stalls, and is frequently littered with feces and drug paraphernalia.

Multiple women’s beach volleyball athletes, according to the suit, said the university promised them during the recruiting process that the school was working on new on-campus competition and practice facilities and that the athletes would ultimately receive athletic financial aid. Those scholarships and facilities never materialized the suit claims.

Lead plaintiff Ashley Schroeder, captain of the women’s beach volleyball team, said, “Based on the way the beach volleyball team has been treated, female athletes at Oregon do not need much food or water, good or clean clothes or uniforms, scholarships, medical treatment or mental health services, their own facilities, a locker room, proper transportation, or other basic necessities. Male athletes are treated incredibly better in almost every respect.”

Oregon also told On3 in a statement: “For beach volleyball, in addition to all other benefits, UO has already previously committed to increasing scholarships and to building a beach volleyball facility on campus at a site identified via the Campus Planning process. This site planning process began in 2019 and the project is now in the development phase. 

“The university believes it complies with Title IX. UO has not yet been served a copy of the complaint, and therefore we are unable to comment on any further specifics.” 

By not creating a women’s varsity rowing team, the suit asserts, Oregon has deprived each rowing plaintiff of the opportunity to be a Division I varsity athlete. The complaint states each rowing plaintiff was harmed by Oregon’s failure to offer female students proportional opportunities to participate in varsity athletics. In particular, it adds, each rowing plaintiff was denied the opportunity to compete for an athletic participation slot on an equal basis with her male counterparts and “treated as a second-class citizen, which had stigmatizing effects.”

The lawsuit cites Oregon’s data to try to show the school is depriving women of equal treatment and athletic aid. According to the university’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act figures, women are 49% of the student-athletes, but Oregon spends only 25% of its athletics dollars and 15% of its recruiting dollars on them. To make up for the unequal athletic aid it paid its male student-athletes from 2017-18 through 2021-22 – the past five years for which data is publicly available – Oregon would have to pay more than $4.5 million in damages to its female athletes, the suit states.

NCAA rules permit Oregon to award the equivalent of up to six full athletic scholarships to the female athletes on the women’s beach volleyball team, the complaint states. Oregon, however, gives no athletic financial aid – full or partial athletic scholarships – to the female athletes on the women’s beach volleyball team, the suit states.

As for coaches’ salaries, the complaint states Oregon pays the head coaches of its men’s teams more than six times what it pays head coaches of its women’s teams and has done so for almost 20 years. In 2021-22, the suit claims, the average salary for a head coach of its men’s teams was $1.53 million, while the average for a head coach of its women’s team was $256,204.

Suit alleges differences on multiple fronts

The complaint includes alleged inequalities in a variety of areas, including gear and equipment. 

Oregon’s football players receive new gear four to six times each season, including six unique football helmets for their 12 regular-season games, six jerseys, six pairs of pants, multiple pairs of cleats and socks, four pairs of sweatsuits, pads and arm sleeves, according to the suit. 

The football equipment room includes an “athlete fitting room,” the suit states, where each player has a personal appointment during the preseason to be measured and sized for shoes, pants, jerseys, pads and all other equipment. This room includes a throne, an image of which is included in the suit.

Meanwhile, the Oregon women’s beach volleyball team is provided all their athletic gear once at the beginning of the school year and does not receive new or additional gear throughout the season, the suit claims. The gear given at the beginning of the year is often used and does not fit because Oregon makes no effort to ensure that the gear is obtained in the players’ sizes, the suit claims.

The complaint also highlights alleged differences in hotel accommodations.

The women’s beach volleyball team does not have the option to stay in hotel rooms, the suit states, even for many of their away tournaments. Instead, they have been hosted by players’ families, often sleeping in cramped and shared quarters or on air mattresses, according to the suit.

If the beach volleyball team members are fortunate enough to receive hotel rooms, the suit states, they are often required to sleep up to four a room, including with student team managers, and the hotels are low quality or in unsafe areas. For example, the suit claims at one tournament a member of the women’s beach volleyball team contracted a life-threatening case of MRSA after being bitten by bugs in her hotel room.

Locker room differences also cited in suit

The suit also highlights alleged differences in locker rooms and facilities. 

The Oregon football facility includes a players’ lounge, equipped with multiple big-screen televisions, video-game consoles, pool tables, ping pong tables and foosball tables made in Spain with hand-painted kickers resembling the Oregon team and their rivals from around the Pac-12, the suit states.

The complaint states the locker room includes a barber shop that is exclusively for football players and football staff, the suit claims. The complaint adds that it also includes a player-exclusive shoe wall and gear room where football players receive Nike shoes and other gear exclusive to the football team. The football facility has a 150-seat theater, which doubles as a team theater for movies and sporting events with seats upholstered in Ferrari leather.

No female student-athletes are provided with locker rooms, practice or competitive facilities that are “remotely close” in quality to those provided to the male student-athletes on the men’s football team, according to the suit.

The women’s beach volleyball team does not have its own facilities – it does not have a dedicated locker room with individual lockers for every team member, nor does it have a dedicated practice and competition court, according to the suit.

Instead, the team must use Amazon Park, a city of Eugene park, to practice and host competitions, the suit states. It adds that athletes sometimes have to rake the sand to remove animal feces and drug paraphernalia before the court can be used.

Plaintiffs committed to ‘fighting for what is right’

To prevent drug users and unhoused people from living in the bathroom facilities, the toilet stalls at Amazon Park do not have doors or toilet paper, the complaint states. The team has to bring its own toilet paper to practice and, because beach volleyball players practice without footwear, the suit states, they must take time to put shoes on before using the restroom or enter with their bare feet, which is a health hazard.

Players often feel unsafe to use the bathroom facilities, the suit asserts, because there are often vagrants inside or around the restroom building. The athletes have witnessed these vagrants injecting intravenous drugs or using crack cocaine, according to the suit.

Adding to players’ concerns about safety, on Nov. 28 the members of the women’s beach volleyball team were unable to practice because a deceased person was discovered near Amazon Park and the police closed off the players’ access to the sand courts, the suit states.

The suit says a creek runs parallel to a walking path that is adjacent to Amazon Park and unhoused individuals often lay in the path along the creek. There is a chain-link fence that runs along the creek, which is perpendicular to the back end of the sand courts. Along the fence line of the park, the suit claims, there is often human feces. When volleyballs are hit off the court during practice they are stopped by the fences, and often roll into the fecal matter, the complaint states. There are no sanitation or disinfection sources available at Amazon Park to clean balls or hands on site, according to the suit.

“We are proud to represent these courageous women who have decided to stand up and fight for the equality Title IX requires and against the sex discrimination that Title IX prohibits,” said co-counsel Lori Bullock of Bailey & Glasser.

“These young women did not go to school imagining they would sue their university, but they are committed to fighting for what is right.”