Athletes sue Stanford over decision to eliminate 11 varsity sports teams

May 12, 2021, 5:09 p.m.

Student-athletes filed two lawsuits against Stanford in federal court on Wednesday, challenging the University’s decision to cut 11 of its 36 varsity sports programs. 

Athletes from eight of the teams that will be eliminated allege breach of contract and intentional misrepresentation because Stanford misled them into joining the programs. In a separate legal challenge, athletes on five of the women’s teams accused the University of Title IX sex discrimination stemming from the cuts.

The 11 teams cut are men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling.

Stanford’s July decision to discontinue nearly one-third of its varsity sports teams after the 2020-21 academic year due to budget deficits was met with outrage from student-athletes and alumni who have raised millions of dollars and urged the University to reinstate the eliminated varsity programs.

“Stanford’s misrepresentations to these students and their families is in violation of California law and threatens to cause them lasting irreparable harm,” said Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney for student-athletes on the eight teams. “The students are at the top of their game, and will lose the irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfill their dreams to compete at the varsity level if Stanford is not stopped from eliminating these teams.”

Rebecca Peterson-Fisher, an attorney representing athletes from the women’s teams, said that even before Stanford’s decision, athletic opportunities at the University were disproportionately afforded to men.

“Their plan to cut these teams will widen the gender gap even further,” Peterson-Fischer said in a statement. “Stanford cannot go forward with these planned cuts without further violating Title IX.”

The lawsuit claiming breach of contract and misrepresentation alleges that the University had discussed plans to cut several sports in advance of last July’s decision but continued to encourage recruited athletes to enroll with the promise of a complete collegiate athletic career. The athletes who filed suit are seeking their sports’ reinstatement and monetary damages.

Student-athletes from the men’s rowing and co-ed and women’s sailing teams are not involved in the lawsuit, and it is unclear whether the three excluded sports were consulted about the lawsuit. Members of the men’s rowing team said they were not aware of the lawsuits before they became public.

Kessler said that while reinstatement would only apply to the eight sports, the suit’s outcome could set a precedent for the three excluded sports.

The second lawsuit, which alleges sex discrimination, was brought by athletes on the fencing, field hockey, squash and synchronized swimming team, as well as an incoming lightweight rower.

The suit alleges that the cuts will leave Stanford with an athletics program that “disproportionately allocates athletic participation opportunities to men in violation of Title IX.” The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction that would prevent the sports cuts and a permanent injunction requiring the University to be in complete compliance with Title IX. 

Student-athletes, alumni, parents and supporters of the reinstatement efforts met with an attorney as early as February to discuss the possibility of a Title IX lawsuit, according to a Zoom recording obtained by The Daily. It is not clear if the lawsuits are connected to the meeting.

Stanford spokesperson Farnaz Khadem said the University was surprised and disheartened to learn of the lawsuits but stressed that they would not influence internal conversations about restoring the programs’ varsity statuses.

“We understand that the lawyers and plaintiffs bringing these lawsuits are not part of the cooperative effort being led by 36 Sports Strong,” Khadem said in a statement. 

36 Sports Strong, the alumni advocacy group committed to reinstating all 11 sports, has engaged in fundraising efforts and discussions with the University. 

Jeremy Jacobs ’06, a spokesperson for the group and men’s volleyball alum, said in an email that “some parents had mentioned to us that they were organizing some lawsuits and we read about them in the media, but we have not been involved in their legal effort.”

“36 Sports Strong will continue its advocacy, separate from the lawsuit, and we will continue to proactively work with the school to find a way to reinstate these teams,” Jacobs added.

While the University had previously maintained that the decision to cut the 11 varsity programs was final, it is now reconsidering its decision following pressure from student-athletes and alumni. 

Although no resolution was reached between 36 Sports Strong and Stanford officials during a closed-door meeting last month, both sides said they were optimistic about continued dialogue. A final decision is expected in the coming weeks.

This article has been updated to include statements from Jeffrey Kessler and Rebecca Peterson-Fisher.

Sofia Scekic '22 is a former managing editor for the sports section. She is from Wisconsin and is studying Public Policy. An avid Green Bay Packers fan, she has watched nearly every game for the past nine years. Contact her at sscekic 'at' Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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