A former University of Minnesota gymnast is suing the school for eliminating his sport, alleging that administrators engaged in sex-based discrimination by letting Title IX compliance concerns influence their decision to cut three men's teams last fall.
U sophomore Evan Ng trained nearly his whole life to become an NCAA varsity gymnast, competing in the sport since he was 6 years old. His hard work paid off when he earned a scholarship to join the U's men's gymnastics team in fall 2020.
But before he set foot on the Twin Cities campus, the university announced it would eliminate the program and two others — men's tennis and indoor track — at the end of that academic year, making Ng's first year on the team his last. U leaders said the cuts were necessary to address an athletics budget deficit and to comply with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, by better balancing the university's share of male and female athletes.
In the lawsuit filed Friday, Ng alleges the university discriminated against male athletes by cutting only their teams. He and his lawyers argued the university mistakenly believed the federal law requires the proportion of male athletes to match the proportion of men in the student body.
"The result of this mistaken notion is that the university has essentially implemented quotas based on sex for its athletics," Caleb Trotter, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation representing Ng, said during a Friday news conference on the Twin Cities campus.
Ng and his lawyers are seeking reinstatement of the gymnastics team in particular, though Trotter said a court ruling in their favor could also pave the way for the return of the men's tennis and indoor track programs.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said last fall that eliminating the men's programs affected 34 athletes. He wanted the student-athlete population to better reflect the gender balance of the student body, which was 54% female and 46% male in 2019-20.
The athletics department budget was also a major concern, with U leaders projecting it would have a deficit of about $75 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cutting the three sports programs was estimated to save the department about $2 million annually; the gymnastics team's annual budget was about $750,000.
Revenue losses from the pandemic wound up being less severe than expected, however, with the department losing just over $20 million, which it will cover with a loan.
In April, gymnastics coach Mike Burns and other supporters brought forward a proposal to maintain the varsity team for two more seasons through private funding and the program's existing endowment. U President Joan Gabel and Board of Regents Chair Ken Powell rejected the offer, according to the lawsuit, saying that "Title IX, not financial need, was the reason for the decision to eliminate the men's gymnastics team."
Trotter contended that the Title IX statute "expressly says that any kind of statistical imbalance between athletic rosters and enrollment is not grounds for finding that discrimination has occurred at a university."
In a statement Friday, U spokesman Jake Ricker said the decision to eliminate the three men's programs was difficult. However, the newly filed lawsuit "isn't just about the university. It is a broad challenge to how Title IX has been implemented by the U.S. government across colleges and universities nationwide to achieve equal opportunity," Ricker said.
And, Ricker added, "the University has and will always honor its legal obligations."
Ng, Burns and others are still hoping the university will change course. Burns and the remaining gymnasts have created a club program to keep practicing in the meantime.
At the news conference, Ng said his "dreams were pretty much crushed" when the program was eliminated. The number of Division I men's gymnastics programs has declined significantly over the years, with just 13 schools still offering the sport, leaving gymnasts such as Ng with few options.
"This isn't just about me or the gymnasts that I competed with. This program is bigger than us," Ng said. "This is also about the students who will come to compete here in the future."
He urged the university to "do the right thing" and reinstate the storied program, which was in place for nearly 120 years, won 21 Big Ten championships and sent an athlete to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.