Athletes Win Historic Title IX Settlement with Clemson University

Women are 57 percent of undergraduate students but only 44 percent of college athletes—and they trail behind men in treatment and benefits at most schools. But that all may soon change.

Athletes Win Historic Title IX Settlement with Clemson University
A recent settlement with Clemson University marked the first time male and female student-athletes have threatened to sue together to enforce Title IX. (Hector Alejandro / Flickr)

Forty-nine years ago, when Congress passed Title IX prohibiting sex discrimination in education, feminists hoped the law would mean equality in college athletics. Early on, the federal government interpreted the law to require that college athletics programs provide three things: equal opportunities for participation; equal treatment; and equal benefits.

Over the years, most enforcement efforts have centered on the first of these: participation. However, courts and the government interpreted the law to require “equity”—which did not mean an equal number of athletic opportunities, but just progress towards equality—and they largely ignored equal treatment and benefits. As a result, almost 50 years later, women still have not reached equality in sports participation at many schools—women are 57 percent of undergraduate students but only 44 percent of college athletes—and they trail significantly behind men in treatment and benefits, such as recruitment money and scholarship dollars, at most schools. But that all may soon change.

On November 5, 2020, Clemson University announced a decision to eliminate the men’s varsity intercollegiate track & field and cross country teams at the end of the academic year because of “significant financial challenges due to the ongoing pandemic” and concern about “the ability for long-term Title IX compliance.”

In response, attorneys for male and female athletes separately wrote letters to Clemson University’s president threatening to file Title IX class-action lawsuits. The men argued the elimination of these teams would mean they had fewer opportunities than women with regard to their respective enrollments. The women on the rowing, cross country, and track & field teams argued they were not receiving equal athletic financial aid, treatment or benefits. The women supported the male athletes’ claims as well. This was the first time that male and female student-athletes have threatened to sue together to enforce Title IX.

The strategy worked.

On April 22, Clemson University entered into a landmark settlement in the two cases. In the settlement, Clemson agreed to provide women with equal athletic financial aid, treatment and benefits. Clemson also agreed to reinstate men’s track & field and cross country teams, add a new women’s varsity team, and give men and women equal opportunities to participate. The university will work with an outside monitor to develop a Gender Equity Plan and bring all aspects of its intercollegiate athletics program into compliance with Title IX by the 2023-24 academic year.

“We are thrilled that Clemson’s courageous male and female student-athletes stood up for their rights and forced Clemson to treat them equally and comply with Title IX,” said Arthur Bryant of Bailey Glasser’s Oakland, Calif., office, lead counsel for the male student-athletes. “As these historic settlement agreements show, Title IX guarantees all student-athletes equal opportunities, athletic financial aid, and treatment. If schools don’t provide that, they will be held accountable.”

The students celebrated the settlement. “It isn’t easy fighting against the school you love dearly, but, when it comes to equal opportunity, it’s necessary,” said women’s triple jumper Harleigh White, one of the plaintiffs in the women’s case. “As a senior student-athlete, a nursing major/psych minor, and a leader of the women’s empowerment group, I knew we had to battle. Track and cross country are team sports, we are a family, and I will always fight for what is right.”

The lawyer for the female students—Lori Bullock of Newkirk Zwagerman, P.L.C., in Des Moines, Iowa, said:

“My original letter to Clemson’s President said ‘Clemson is apparently depriving male student athletes of equal opportunities to participate in violation of Title IX and female student athletes of equal athletic financial aid, treatment, and benefits in violation of Title IX. All of this has to stop.’ Now, as a result of these students’ willingness to step up and fight for equity, it will.”

“What’s unique here is that both the men and women sued on different Title IX grounds—and they both won. That’s never happened before,” Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist told Ms. “In the past, you had men suing against Title IX saying Title IX was a quota system. Here you have the men and the women on the same side of the battleground against the university.”

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During the 2019-2020 academic year, Clemson provided $16,859,840 in athletic financial aid, but only $6,650,912—or 39 percent—to female student-athletes. This equated to depriving women of at least $1.8 million in athletic financial aid just that year. In the same year, Clemson spent $2,350,773 in recruiting expenses for all varsity teams, but only $394,360 for women’s teams—a mere 16.7 percent of the total recruiting expenditures. These kinds of disparities have been going on for years. In terms of participation, Clemson was in the unusual position of slightly favoring female athletes: Men were 50.01 percent of enrolled students and 49.5 percent of the school’s intercollegiate varsity athletic teams before the cut.

“Title IX is very clear that equal participation is just one standard. Schools are also required to provide equal treatment and equal benefits to women,” said Zimbalist. “That includes scholarships, lockers rooms, equality of travel and meals, quality and number of coaches, and several other things.”

The university pledged to take several very specific steps right away to ensure equitable athletic financial aid, treatment and benefits for men’s and women’s teams—including equitable dining options, equipment and supplies, medical and athletic training services and equipment, flights to away games, high quality travel uniforms, lodging, individual lockers and name plates.

But women will also get more participation opportunities. In the settlement, Clemson agreed to add one or more women’s varsity sports teams. “Women will have more slots as a result of this double action,” said Zimbalist.

Zimbalist thinks this settlement will have a significant impact on other schools: “What’s particularly gratifying is that Clemson is and has been for the last five years one of the two major football powers in the country, so they have a lot of attention. This case is likely to get more people than a typical case talking about gender equity in college sports.”

Zimbalist also anticipates that the settlement will influence federal Title IX standards. “Because of this lawsuit, there’s a good chance the Biden administration will set a new standard that insists on equal treatment and benefits,” said Zimbalist.

“I think you’ll see a lot of pressure to give women more equal if not completely equal promotional and advertising resources, which is a big deal. You’ll see them getting equal recruitment money or coming closer to equal recruitment money, which is also a big deal. Then things like travel, lodging, locker room facilities, number of coaches, background of coaches are also all supposed to be equalized. Historically, almost all of the cases have been around participation, and most of the discussion around Title IX are around participation numbers and participation ratios. This has got to broaden that understanding, broaden the conversation.”

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, equal may finally mean equal.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.