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March 09, 2004

Measuring Equity: By Head Count? By Funding? By Revenues?

FROM THE GOLDEN STATE comes a barrage of second-guessing and recriminations in the sober aftermath of the tragic death of a Fresno State athlete.

A fateful series of circumstances led to the accidental death of freshman equestrienne Shana Virginia Eriksson. A member of the equestrian team at Cal State-Fresno, Ms. Eriksson, 18, was a skilled rider with aspirations for the 2008 Olympics.

Last fall Eriksson and two other freshman riders were passing a field when a herd of cows inexplicably charged at them. Eriksson’s horse panicked, lost its footing and fell atop her. The 1200-pound horse weighed more than four football linemen, and Ms. Eriksson had no padding to protect her. Three days later she died from her injuries.

Now fingers are being pointed everywhere, with blame being shared by Shana herself, her horse, the cows, the lack of control at the barn, Fresno State oversight, Title IX, etc.

It’s hard to dispute that the circumstances were initiated in 1972, with the passage of Title IX prohibiting gender discrimination. Generally schools have demonstrated compliance by ensuring gender ratios in athletics equaling the school’s entire student population.

In 1992, the California National Organization For Women sued for violation of Title IX, alleging discrimination by Fresno State against women in athletics. Women constituted 54% of the student body and 27% of the athletes.

Fresno State was ordered to implement a 7-year, $7 million corrective plan. Adding the equestrian team was part of the plan. Other schools have brought female athlete numbers up by adding field hockey, rowing, and even cheerleading, as varsity sports.

By 2001, Fresno State was declared in compliance with Title IX.

In this case, Fresno State altered the gender make-up of its entire athletic program to approximate that of the student body—by head count at least. However, further investigation of the equestrian program revealed that funding was not commensurate with the number of women—and horses—on the team.

From the start, many women’s activists have suggested equality of funding—not heads—proportionate to the gender composition of the student body. That would obviously wreak havoc with the hundreds of football programs whose funding dwarfs all the women’s teams combined.

Meanwhile, the football crowd crows about their revenue generating status.

Both sides have a point.

Equestrian head coach Megan McGee and both of her assistant coaches quit two weeks before Eriksson’s accident, citing safety concerns. “I felt like Chicken Little," McGee said. "For a long time I was telling them this is a house of cards. This many kids and this many horses is not feasible."

The Fresno State team is the biggest in the nation, with 100 riders and 70 horses.

Equestrian has become more and more an avenue to add large numbers of female athletes for Title IX purposes. More than 285 colleges with 5000 female riders have equestrian teams.

"A lot of schools are adding girls' teams with lots of bodies in them ... because Title IX has turned into a numbers game," said Sheldon Steinbach, of the American Council on Education.

Shana’s mother, Karan Eriksson, is unhappy with what she sees as the university’s lack of control. “The university represented itself to me as a high-end, national show program," says Mrs. Eriksson, "For this to happen, mistakes were made."

Shana was only the second NCAA female athlete to die doing her sport, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. At least 18 male college athletes have died doing their sports during the past 20 years.

The NCAA has placed Fresno State on probation for four years for violations involving academic fraud, recruiting and eligibility. The NCAA Infractions Committee also found a lack of “institutional control.”

Karan Eriksson echoed that phrase as she spoke of university officials' actions. “What I see is a total lack of institutional control." she said.

(this was excerpted from the San Jose Mercury News of 3-6-04)