CARBONDALE — Adding another sport was the last thing Southern Illinois University's athletic department wanted to do in 2017.
Facing another budget deficit in 2016-17 — the department had a $3.05 million deficit in 2015 and $3.16 million in 2014, according to figures from SIU that were published in USA Today — the department ran out of options. It had cut costs after not filling positions, consolidating responsibilities among staff, and reducing travel, but also battled sinking ticket sales in its revenue sports.
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SIU decided to cut men's and women's tennis in late 2016, saving 12.5 scholarships and approximately $660,000 in a $21 million budget. It also reduced men's swimming and diving's scholarships by 3.9 to 6.0 per year.
The move, however, exasperated a gap in their participation levels for male and female students that was already in violation of Title IX. Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded education program or activity. In this case, it requires public colleges to offer as many athletic opportunities for men and women, relative to their enrollment. Programs typically have to be within about five percent between their roster spots available for men and women, relative to their respective enrollments.
Without men's and women's tennis and less scholarships for the men's swimming and diving team, SIU believed it would pass any challenges to its Title IX policies, but when former tennis coach Judy Auld and one of her former players filed a complaint in 2016, it did not.
"At the time the decision was made on tennis, there was a feeling that this was something that could be done without running afoul of Title IX," SIU President Randy Dunn said. "In the subsequent complaint that was brought, that was not going to pass muster, and we found that out after the fact, and that led into the discussion about what the remediation action was going to be to settle that complaint."
An independent Title IX study by Helen Grant Consulting, that SIU paid for, found violations in the level of participation rates and the pursuit of program expansion. There was a 7-percent difference between the participation rates of male and female students and their enrollment levels in 2015-16, representing 65 opportunities. The Salukis were also found in violation of a rule that tests if a program showed interest in expanding opportunities for minorities, because they hadn't added a women's sport since adding swimming and diving in 1989.
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To increase their amount of athletic opportunities for women, the report suggested the school reduce the size of the rosters for some male sports and increase them for some of their women's sports. SIU's football team, for example, had 110 players in 2015 and 102 last year. This year, the Salukis will be capped at 100 players.
Adding women's soccer, which SIU announced in 2017, was part of an agreement the school made with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in late 2016 to appease the Title IX complaint filed by Auld and one of her former players.
"We realized from our Title IX study that our rosters were out of line," SIU athletic director Tommy Bell said. "I kind of knew it when I got here, but then we brought in the expert to get a Title IX study done, and she indicated the rosters were not there, as well as some other things that we needed to correct that we would — in the event of a full investigation — we may be found deficient, so we made a number of those corrections. There were some really good suggestions that we picked up on, but as the budget kept going, we had pressure to reduce programming, and so we chose to reduce programming. But we knew our rosters were large."
Dunn and Bell adamantly denied any notion that they dropped tennis and reduced the scholarships for the men's swimming and diving team in order to add women's soccer later. SIU announced it was dropping tennis and reducing the scholarships in January 2017. Women's soccer wasn't added, officially, until much later in the year, and both said it could be a benefit to both the athletic department and the university.
There were six players on the men's tennis team in its final season and eight on the women's team. The new women's soccer team could have between 25-30 players, giving the athletic department enough available roster spots to appease its Title IX requirements while also giving the school more paying students. NCAA Division I programs can offer 14 scholarships for women's soccer programs, and few players in the Missouri Valley Conference get full rides, Drake coach Lindsey Horner said.