Female Athletes Secure Settlement Agreement Ensuring Michigan State University’s Title IX Compliance for Years to Come
Female student-athletes at Michigan State University capped a two-year battle against their school on Friday by securing an agreement guaranteeing that MSU will undergo a comprehensive Gender Equity Review, create a Gender Equity Plan, and bring all aspects of its intercollegiate athletic program into full Title IX compliance by the end of the 2026-2027 school year. Title IX, enacted 50 years ago, prohibits sex discrimination by all schools receiving federal funds and requires schools to provide female and male student-athletes equal opportunities, athletic financial aid, and treatment.
Lori Bullock of Bailey & Glasser, LLP, in Des Moines, IA, led the legal team, which included Joshua Hammack of Bailey & Glasser, LLP in Washington, D.C.; Jill Zwagerman and Danya Keller of Newkirk Zwagerman, P.L.C. in Des Moines, Iowa; and Brian Koncius of Bogas & Koncius PC in Bingham Farms, Michigan.
“These women were treated like second-class citizens even before their team was eliminated, and this settlement will ensure that future Spartan women will be treated equally at MSU,” said lead counsel Lori Bullock. “While these women are not back in the water as Division I swimmers and divers at MSU, by standing up to a Power 5 athletics program like Michigan State, they have demonstrated that women everywhere can demand equality. They united and said, ‘enough is enough.’ I am humbled that I was able to stand alongside these incredible students in their fight for equality.”
Added co-counsel Jill Zwagerman: “We hope Power 5 schools across the country are paying attention to this lawsuit. There has been a shift in how we perceive sports at the college level, and women are going to fight for their right to be treated equally. They will not go away. They will not be silenced, and this lawsuit and settlement are proof of that.”
In October 2020, Michigan State University announced that it would eliminate its Women’s Swim and Dive Team even though it already offered insufficient opportunities for female student-athletes. The decision prompted eleven members of the team—Sophia Balow, Taylor Arnold, Ava Boutrous, Julia Coffman, Kylie Goit, Emma Inch, Sheridan Phalen, Madeline Reilly, Olivia Starzomski, Elise Turke, and Sarah Zofchak—to file a lawsuit against the University demanding equal athletic participation opportunities, equal athletic treatment and benefits, and equal athletic financial aid for female student-athletes at MSU.
Because of the school’s existing participation gap, the student-athletes also sought a preliminary injunction after filing suit. The trial court initially denied the motion, but the Sixth Circuit vacated the order and held that the court had applied the wrong legal standard. On remand, the trial court granted the student-athletes’ motion, holding that the student-athletes had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their participation claim. Maintaining that it needed to take no action to address gender discrimination, MSU filed a petition for certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter.
In an unusual move, fifteen states’ attorneys general submitted an amicus curie brief to the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the student-athletes successfully defeated that petition, meaning the Sixth Circuit’s decision would control.
On the eve of trial, after many days of court-led settlement discussions, the parties were finally able to reach an agreement that ensures MSU’s compliance with Title IX through at least 2030. The agreement requires the appointment of an independent Gender Equity Review Director that will conduct a full gender equity review of MSU’s athletic program concerning treatment and benefits and athletic financial aid. MSU is also required to work with that individual to create a Gender Equity Plan to address all issues of inequity identified by the Gender Equity Review and bring MSU’s athletic program into full Title IX compliance by the end of the 2026-2027 school year.
“These brave women have worked tirelessly, for nearly two years, to get MSU to come into compliance with Title IX. MSU fought them every step of the way. Today, our clients achieved a victory for women for years and years to come. We look forward to the day that MSU fully complies with the law, and—when that day arrives—there is no question that these eleven women will deserve all the credit,” said Joshua Hammack, a partner at Bailey Glasser.
The settlement does not reinstate the Women’s Swim and Dive Team, but it does not end the battle to force MSU to do the right thing and reinstate the team. “I am extremely happy with the relief that was granted today for us and future female student-athletes at MSU,” said Plaintiff Sophia Balow. “I am very proud and extremely humbled to stand amongst such incredible, strong women. This process has been difficult, and I am disappointed that after 2 years of litigation MSU continues to demonstrate its unwillingness to right its wrongs from the past. But the battle for Spartan Swim & Dive is alive and well, and we look forward to continuing to advocate for the reinstatement of Michigan State Swimming & Diving.”
Plaintiff Elise Turk added: “Our settlement today, while so worthy of celebration, was bittersweet. We came into this lawsuit with the hopes of bringing our team back and laying down a future precedent for how collegiate female athletes deserve to be treated. Even though our team will not be making a return in the near future, it’s gratifying to know that Michigan State University will be evaluated and held accountable for any future mistreatment of their female athletes. I’m proud of my teammates and myself for speaking out and standing up for improved treatment of our peers, even if it meant battling the institution where we had spent 4 years wearing its colors and chanting its song. I’ve been a Spartan since I was a child, and I continue to bleed green. But it’s because of my love for the Spartan nation that I am passionate about and proud of the upcoming change that they so deserve.”