BY SOFIA SCEKIC
PHOTO BY SPORTGRAPHICS.COM
In the summer of 2020, as the Covid pandemic was forcing universities to reassess their finances, thousands of athletes found themselves with one shared experience: on a Zoom call listening to university athletic-department administrators say that their beloved teams were being cut. Rowing was among the most common to be eliminated or suspended indefinitely, primarily because it doesn’t generate revenue.
Across universities, students-athletes, coaches, alumni, and other supporters of the programs mobilized immediately to brainstorm ways to bring the sports back. Many were unsuccessful, but at four universities, five rowing programs achieved reinstatement. The UConn women and Dartmouth lightweight men saw their teams brought back because of successful Title IX lawsuits. At Stanford, two teams—the men’s and the lightweight women—were reinstated because of the university’s improving financial situation. And at Nova Southeastern University, the Division II women’s program was reinstated after a two-year hiatus, a period during which alumni focused their energy on demonstrating the value of rowing to both student-athletes and the university.
At UConn: Significant lack of compliance with Title IX requirements
To say Felice Duffy has some familiarity with UConn is an understatement: She filed a Title IX complaint against the university in the 1970s to get a women’s soccer team; she completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a Ph.D. there; and most recently, she worked with the school’s women’s rowing team to file a Title IX complaint that reinstated the team.
“I get many calls from athletes, coaches, and people who are interested who ask, ‘Hey, do you think there is even a Title IX case?’ Or, ‘Can you come talk to my team?’” Duffy said. She practices at Duffy Law, a New Haven-based firm she founded that focuses primarily on Title IX.
She had heard about UConn’s decision to cut the open-weight women’s rowing team from numerous people, and the team captain at the time, Maggie Mlynek ’21, reached out to her in July 2020 to learn what bringing a lawsuit against the university might look like.
Mlynek scheduled several times for Duffy to speak to the team, during which Duffy discussed what being a plaintiff in such a case would entail. She convinced the team that they did indeed have a valid Title IX complaint, and 12 student-athletes joined the case ultimately as plaintiffs.
“It was a smaller group of girls on the team who wanted to opt into it; it was definitely voluntary,” explained Molly O’Neill ’24, one of the plaintiffs.
It was not something O’Neill expected to deal with. She recalled a Zoom meeting several weeks before the rowing team was cut during which university administrators told a few teams that they were considering eliminating some sports and that the teams on the call were “on the chopping block.”
“We weren’t really sure what was going to happen, but our coaches told us we’d be protected under Title IX,” O’Neill said. “And I was like, ‘OK, sounds like we’re going to be fine then, if there’s a law in place to protect us.’ So I wasn’t super-worried about it.”
Shortly thereafter, the team was told it would be cut in May 2021.
“After the initial announcement, we were just in shock, so no one really knew what to do,” said Head Coach Jennifer Sanford. “We just had to figure out, Is there a way to reinstate the team? And it seemed like the only solution was to explore Title IX.”
The team worked with Duffy and another Title IX expert, Donna Lopiano, to explore how UConn was not complying with the law. In general, there are three ways an athletic department can be out of compliance: general participation (which must be proportional to the gender breakdown of the undergraduate population); scholarships and financial allocations; other program components, including benefits for and treatment of student-athletes. The UConn plaintiffs focused on the first component, because cases dealing with non-compliance in the other two areas often take years to move through the courts.
The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act requires each school to report male and female participation numbers to the federal government each October. These numbers are used to determine whether a school is complying with Title IX participation requirements. According to Duffy, however, the EADA number is a conservative estimate that schools can manipulate. At UConn, to achieve Title IX compliance, at least on paper, the rowing team was required to keep about 60 athletes through October. But once the EADA numbers were reported, the team could reduce the roster of athletes to about 45.
UConn’s EADA figures showed that the participation gap between male and female athletes was six, which is not a substantial number. But, Duffy said, if one looked at actual participation numbers, the gap was significant, thus rendering the university out of compliance.
“We spent the entire fall doing a deep investigation to make sure that there was a gap, because this is the only thing that we can file the temporary restraining order for, and to show that if you cut this team, the school would be even more out of compliance. They couldn’t cut rowing because they were already out of compliance. So we had to prove that.”
By January 2021, Duffy and the other lawyers working with UConn were confident that they had a case and that the school’s true participation gap was somewhere between 35 and 100 athletes. A petition for a temporary restraining order was filed, and several plaintiffs testified in court for nearly nine hours. The effort paid off. A month later, the judge issued an order reinstating the team for at least two years.
While preparing the lawsuit and working on testimony, the student-athletes were also gearing up for what might have been their final season. Covid added additional challenges, which O’Neill described as “crazy.”
“So many people were going in so many different directions,” she said. “Not having the stability of knowing that you’re going to return the next year, I can’t even explain how weird it was.”
O’Neill entered the transfer portal when the team was cut but stayed at UConn after the reinstatement. Several of the team’s best athletes departed for other schools as soon as the team was eliminated, while others explored how the varsity team could shift to club status if the sport was not reinstated. Many juniors and seniors believed this was their last time rowing, which triggered plenty of emotion, while many freshmen and sophomores, the classes represented primarily in the lawsuit, were focused on preparing to serve as plaintiffs.
“It’s impressive that we managed to race that season,” O’Neill said. “I’m proud that we all stuck it out, knowing that we had no idea what was going to happen. When the lawsuit was taking off, that helped—knowing we had a chance to get the team back.”
“We tried to keep things positive every day, and we were really flexible with the athletes,” Sanford added.
As with other teams that were cut, UConn faced recruiting challenges. Sanford was not able to recruit at all from the summer of 2020 until May 2021. And once the temporary restraining order was granted, it guaranteed the program’s existence for only two years. Result: Once Sanford could recruit again, she had to warn prospective rowers and their parents that they might have only two years of rowing because the lawsuit was still unsettled.
“I said to the parents, ‘I can’t sit here as a representative of the university and tell you that the outcome is going to be in our favor and that we’re going to be here,’” Sanford said, “‘but I can tell you that I’m very confident.’”
Although recruiting athletes was difficult, several decided to take a chance and committed, Sanford said.
After the temporary restraining order was granted, Duffy and the plaintiffs continued working with the school to resolve the full Title IX complaint, which was settled in December 2021. The benefits of the settlement include more scholarships, more coaches, an updated boathouse, and two indoor tanks so the team can practice indoors in winter. The university also agreed to keep the rowing program for at least five years (the span of time they’ll be making the improvements), and to undergo monitoring to ensure “full compliance in all sports in gender equity by June 2026,” Duffy said.
“We never had the resources before to take the program to the highest level,” Sanford said. But now, as a result of the lawsuit, “all the support is going to be there for us to be a top-20 team, and then just keep going up.”
At Dartmouth: A Title IX lawsuit restores five men’s and women’s teams
Nearly a fifth of Dartmouth’s 4,600 undergraduates participate in varsity athletics. School administrators were under pressure to reduce athlete admissions, said Dan Roock, former head coach of men’s lightweight rowing, but instead of eliminating several slots on each team, the athletic director cut five varsity teams.
“It came as a total surprise to all five teams cut,” Roock said. “No clue, no warning, no thought that this was coming down the pipe.”
The cuts created numerous unintended consequences, including falling out of compliance with Title IX participation requirements with the discontinuation of women’s swimming and diving, and women’s golf.
The two women’s teams filed suit in December 2020, and by late January 2021, the case was settled, and the college reinstated all five sports.
“So the lightweight program didn’t come back because of anything that we or the alums were doing, although they were definitely motivated and were working hard to convince the school that lightweight rowing was an important sport,” Roock said.
Eric Cesnik ’94, a former lightweight rower who was inducted into Dartmouth’s Wearers of The Green, the athletic hall of fame, in 1999, was one of the alumni who emerged as a leader of the D150 working group. The group’s initial goal was reinstating the team, in pursuit of which had numerous meetings with college administrators during which the rowers stated their case and explained the rowing team’s value. The Dartmouth lightweights have the highest GPA of all the teams on campus, and the recruits often have the highest academic index of all Dartmouth sports, Roock said.
Since that victory, the D150 working group has focused on improving rowing participation, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and the relationship between alumni and the university, particularly when it comes to trust.
Dartmouth’s rowing program relies heavily on walk-ons, a common phenomenon among lightweight rowing teams. Trevor Michelson, the team’s former assistant coach and current interim head coach, and a vice president of alumni engagement, started a physical-education course to introduce more students to the sport.
“It builds the community and awareness of rowing, and it connects more students with rowing just in itself on the rec level,” Cesnik said. “And it can yield more rowers potentially for the varsity program.”
Cesnik and other members of the D150 group want to see improvements in DEI so the boathouse better reflects the diversity on campus. By improving DEI, he believes participation in rowing at Dartmouth will increase as well.
“The power of rowing that we all know firsthand is the feeling of inclusion it gives you, so we just want to make sure that’s shared,” he explained.
In terms of rebuilding trust, Cesnik pointed to the recent renovation and expansion of the boathouse, which involved significant donations from alumni. Many alums were dismayed that several sports programs that were cut were considered endowed.
“There’s a certain amount of, well, what do we need to do to make sure endowed means endowed?” Cesnik said.
One thing that set Dartmouth apart from the other three schools that reinstated rowing programs was a major shakeup in the athletic department shortly after the reinstatement. The athletic director retired, and several other senior administrators left as well. The interim athletic director, Peter Roby ’79, was “terrific about making sure that students were welcomed back, that the programs were welcomed back,” Cesnik said. He also cited the support the team and alumni felt from the incoming university president, Sian Leah Beilock, who has emphasized her belief in the importance of rowing and other sports in higher education.
It’s difficult to say, Roock said, whether the negative effect on the team was because of the pandemic, the team’s being eliminated, or both. When the cut was announced, the team wasn’t training together on campus because of Covid, and it was unclear when they’d be able to race again.
Roock commended the team, particularly captain Sean Ward ’21, for sticking together.
He “stayed in touch with the whole team, and even though the future was uncertain and didn’t look good, kept them together as a squad,” Roock said.
When the team was reinstated, Dartmouth’s pandemic policies allowed only certain class years on campus each quarter, so the full team could not get back together in Hanover immediately.
Ward, who walked on at Dartmouth, and several others were training together in Hanover for the National Team (they qualified a four for U23s in the summer of 2021), while another group was training in Florida. Those athletes were still in rowing shape, so, following the reinstatement, they were able to hit the ground running and put together several races that spring, including the IRA championships.
“It was a pretty impressive showing, by the team, our community, our alumni, to always be ready so that when this did happen, when the team came back—and it definitely felt like a long shot at the time—we’d be able to pick things up,” Ward said.
The team is still working on overcoming the loss of a year of recruits because of the cut and a year of walk-ons because of the pandemic. But Ward, although no longer on the team, said recent developments are encouraging. “They built a really strong foundation heading into this year, and I’ve heard really good things; they’re going to perform quite well this year.”
The team lost several athletes who quit after the team was cut, Roock said, but only one recruit who was supposed to come to Dartmouth for the 2020-21 season de-committed and went elsewhere. Michelson’s continued presence and the team’s camaraderie enabled the squad to resume relatively seamlessly. (Michelson had shifted to coaching the women’s team when the lightweight men were cut and returned immediately to the men’s team after it was reinstated.)
“Lightweight rowing is uniquely positioned in the sport,” Ward said, “to give people who don’t normally have the opportunity to compete the opportunity to do so.”
At Stanford: 10 months of fundraising bring back both rowing teams and nine other sports
With 36 sports and 131 national championships — both among the most in Division I —Cardinal nation has always prided itself on a robust and successful athletics program. So when the university announced in July 2020 that 11 sports were being cut after the 2020-21 school year, the outcry and backlash were immediate, and enormous.
“I found out in a group chat with some athletes who are a few years older than me, and we all started passing on the article, raging, just so angry this is the case,” said Christine Cavallo ’17, M.A. ’18. “I take to my social media and really lean into it. I’m very vocal.”
Within 36 hours, another former rower who was graduated in the 1990s reached out and asked Cavallo to join a Zoom call.
“I was like, I’m in trouble, because I truly thought that they were going to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got it handled,’” Cavallo said.
She was not in trouble. In fact, on a call the next day with over 100 alumni of men’s and lightweight women’s rowing, she was named leader of the communications team of the collective effort to reinstate the two rowing programs. It’s a role she still holds with The Rowing Association, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote and support rowing at Stanford.
Trey Holterman ’21, a co-captain of the men’s team when it was cut, found out when the university summoned the athletes and coaches from the 11 sports to a Zoom call on the morning of July 8. By that afternoon, the team was already scheming how to fight the impending cut, and they began working with alumni the next day. While the athletes wanted to help the reinstatement efforts in any way they could, they knew the most important thing was to make the most out of what they thought was their final season.
“We were helping a little bit with activation of some alumni,” he said. “But once the alumni were activated, we were told, ‘You guys focus on having a good year; it might be your last.’”
“Being on the team, we actually felt somewhat helpless,” he added, a testament to the team’s focus on their season rather than the cut. The team turned in one of their best performances in the last decade, highlighted by a fifth-place finish in the varsity eight at the 2021 IRA championships.
Holterman also praised Head Coach Ted Sobolewski for his leadership throughout the season before reinstatement: “He rallied the team in a really good way; he rallied the alumni in a really big way. He was such a rock-solid guy to have through the whole thing.”
Stanford’s reason for the cuts, the university stated, was financial distress occasioned by the pandemic. According to Steve Munn ’85, that was not the first time the men’s rowing team had faced financial hardship.
“The program found itself in the ’70s and ’80s as a reasonably successful club program but clearly not a top-level varsity collegiate program, and even maintaining that good club program was a challenge when it came to everything from budget to an appropriate boathouse,” Munn said.
When the teams were cut in 2020, several groups emerged that worked toward reinstatement. Save Stanford Rowing focused on the rowing teams; 36 Sports Strong united the 11 cut sports and the 25 sports that Stanford kept; and many of the other cut sports formed their own groups devoted solely to their sport.
The multi-pronged approach proved advantageous, as teams were able to make their individual voices heard while also presenting a united front that drew supporters from all sports at Stanford. Men’s and lightweight women’s rowing worked together throughout the whole process, in part because the lightweight women’s team is relatively young (the sport had been at Stanford for only 20 years at the time of the cut, Cavallo said), and does not have an alumni base that can donate as much money as older, more established sports like men’s rowing.
“There was a benefit to having a bit of separation, so that if one drew a bit more animosity, the others could separate from that,” Cavallo said. “Everyone was operating like that. We did eventually move toward an all-or-nothing, all-11-teams-or- nothing energy across the sports.”
The rowing teams, which had spent much of the 10 months before reinstatement seeking funding to endow head-coaching positions as well as all three Stanford rowing teams (including the women’s open-weight team, which had not been cut), provided information about The Rowing Association and funding matters to several of the other cut sports before the final presentation to the university’s board.
In the end, Stanford announced that “newly galvanized philanthropic interest” as well as other changed circumstances led to the reinstatement of all 11 teams.
“When we got the final review of our proposal to reinstate the teams and the administration and the board had fairly thoroughly considered it, there was a question of if the university reinstates these teams, are you able to show that you can financially endow them, and will you?” Munn explained. “And we resoundingly came back with a yes to that. In the case of rowing, we had already lined up the majority of the funding we needed.”
A happy surprise of Stanford’s sports-elimination drama is that no student-athletes transferred, and only one coach left his position to take another job. As happened at Dartmouth, both the men’s and lightweight women’s teams lost recruits who de-committed and went to row for other schools. Cavallo said she was aware of some rowers who quit, but according to the university, no current athletes transferred to other schools.
Now that the sports have been reinstated, The Rowing Association has shifted its focus to being better advocates for the programs within the university. There is still a financial component of its work, and a major goal is to endow all three Stanford rowing teams. Cavallo hopes also to see financial support for athletes who pursue spots on the National Team — something she did not have for six of her seven years on that elite squad. The nonprofit also works with coaches to identify their needs and priorities and then works with the athletic department to ensure the coaches have the support to achieve those goals.
“The lasting impact of this,” Holterman said, “will be positive for alumni.”
At Nova Southeastern: Open communication allows alumni to demonstrate rowing’s value
Former NSU rower Perrine Sarraute was on a family vacation in August 2020 when she received an email from someone in the athletic department calling the rowing team together for a Zoom call. The athletes joined the session expecting something about academics or a welcome-back before the start of the school. Instead, they were told there no longer would be a rowing team when they returned less than two weeks later.
“We were a little bit shocked,” Sarraute said of the team’s initial reaction. “All of us thought we were going to be rowing again in two weeks.”
NSU is a small college with an undergraduate population of about 6,500 that, like most other schools, experienced financial losses during the Covid pandemic. The rowing team is based off campus as well. For those reasons, Sarraute and others understood why the rowing team was cut.
“We don’t really bring in money, so the reasoning behind it was OK,” Sarraute said. “We’re really sad they cut rowing, but it’s more the fact of how they told us, right before coming back to school.”
Although NSU told athletes they could keep their scholarships if they decided to stay, Sarraute was disappointed that the university never followed up to check in with athletes, especially once they returned.
Nicki Felluca-Brugler ’13, who was part of NSU’s inaugural class of rowers and is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame, set up a Zoom call shortly after hearing the news to inform other alumni. Although nearly 100 people participated in the call, the core group of alumni who pushed for reinstatement over more than two years numbered about 10.
“We talked about it, worked through it, and were able to remove some of the emotion from it and work in just black-and-white terms,” Felluca-Brugler said. “What was the problem? How can we fix it? What can we do?”
Based on conversations with individuals in the athletic department, Felluca-Brugler learned that the team was suspended because of financial constraints stemming in part from the pandemic and that axing the rowing team would put the department in better shape. “We’re a hard team to digest from a financial standpoint,” she said.
Owing to the nature of the decision—an indefinite suspension, which leaves the door open for reinstatement in the future— Felluca-Brugler expressed appreciation for the athletic department’s transparency during the process. At least once a month, she spoke with the athletic director, with whom she occasionally had lunch, even though she’s a business owner in Rochester, N.Y., far from the university’s campus in Fort Lauderdale.
Like other alumni groups pushing for reinstatement, the NSU rowing alumni decided early that the reinstatement campaign would be cordial and collaborative.
“We’re a small school and we didn’t want to burn the bridge or fight people we’re going to have to work with eventually,” Felluca-Brugler said.
The desire to maintain a positive relationship with the athletic department and university is why the student-athletes and alums chose not to pursue a Title IX case. Felluca-Brugler and other alums believed the best way forward excluded lawsuits or anything that would create tension between the university’s administration and alumni.
In addition, as illustrated by UConn’s case, Title IX lawsuits can result in more money and support for women’s teams. If their lawsuit succeeded, Nova Southeastern rowers were likely to receive additional resources, Felluca-Brugler said, which would mean fewer for another part of the university.
“Why are we going to fight to get something that’s not there to give?” she explained. “So how can we be strategic? Because if we come back the same way we were, we’re just going to go away again.”
Instead, the team focused on the benefits of having a sports team off campus and how the rowing team benefits the NSU community.
“The benefit was showing that you have multiple women who are successful business owners, doctors, lawyers. The accolades that come out of women’s rowing trump most other athletic programs,” Felluca-Brugler said. “You have a group of women from your institution, where we were able to sharpen our skills as leaders through sports, who are coming back and tackling a major issue in a way that speaks to our tenacity, our background, and the education we received at this university.”
Because the team is young and was established fewer than 20 years ago, most alumni haven’t accrued sufficient wealth to make large donations to the program. Thus, part of the reinstatement conversation was focused on creative ways to help the rowing team generate revenue and take some of the financial pressure off the university. Now that the team has been reinstated, the alumni are engaged in setting up a nonprofit organization that, among other things, will help build a permanent boathouse for the team. The boathouse can be used for renting rack space, hosting teams for winter- and spring-break training camps, and leasing space to other aquatic sports — all things that will bring in revenue for the team.
Meanwhile, as alumni were concentrating on communicating with the university, many student-athletes were figuring out whether to transfer.
Sarraute, who is from Paris, came to the United States to row, so the decision to transfer was easy.
“People on my team at the time expected me to transfer. My family expected me to transfer,” she said. Sarraute, a sophomore when the team was suspended, left for Gonzaga in January 2021 after spending one more semester at NSU. Several other athletes, especially those who had several years of eligibility left, also transferred to other schools.
In September 2022, news came that the university had reinstated the team, beginning this coming September. The task now is to find a head coach and attract fresh rowers, since most of those on the team before the suspension have been graduated or left the school. Felluca-Brugler and other alumni have made themselves available to help during that process, she said, and will stay involved as consultants.
“There are things alumni can do to support,” she said. “There’s value in having mentors and liaisons to the real world. That’s something we’re going to strive for in the future of this program.”