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August 06, 2004

Was Title IX Guilty In Female Athlete’s Death?

FROM CALIFORNIA’S CENTRAL VALLEY comes word of a lawsuit claiming the wrongful death of a Fresno State female equestrian rider.

The parents of the deceased Shana Eriksson have filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court, charged the school with negligent administration of an equestrian program they allege was underfunded and improperly supervised.

It gets worse. The lawsuit alleges that Fresno State misrepresented the nature of the equestrian team while their daughter was being recruited. Instead of a carefully administered program with proper instruction, supervision and orientation, the team was alleged to have been "operated in a manner to create the appearance of a well-organized program to satisfy Title IX requirements" at the expense of athletes’ safety.


Ramifications from this case could go much further than wrongful death. Could the entire underpinnings of Title IX could be at stake as well?

This tragedy’s sober aftermath has wrought a barrage of second-guessing and recriminations from all parties involved.

What everyone agrees to are the following facts:

1. It was a fateful series of circumstances led to the accidental death of Eriksson. She was a skilled rider with aspirations for the 2008 Olympics.

2. Last fall Eriksson and two other freshman riders were passing a field when a herd of cows inexplicably charged at them. [Her parents’ lawsuit alleges that the herd was known to be "violent and aggressive" toward humans and animals].

3. 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 protective padding. She died three days later.

In the ensuing months fingers have been pointed everywhere, with blame being shared by Shana herself, her horse, the cows, the lack of control at the barn, an alleged lack of oversight by Fresno State, Title IX-induced chicanery, etc.

Even a cursory study of the beleaguered school’s history would point to Title IX as being at the root of the tragedy.

Since 1992, Fresno State had been under a microscope due to lopsided Title IX gender stats. With women constituting 54% of the student body but only 27% of athletes, the California National Organization For Women sued for Title IX violation.

Fresno State was ordered to implement a 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. The Fresno State equestrian team is the biggest in the nation, with 100 riders and 70 horses.

By 2001, Fresno State was declared in Title IX compliant.

Fresno State altered the gender make-up of its entire athletic program to approximate that of the student body—at least by head count. 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 headcounts—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, football programs boast about their unique money-making 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."

It doesn’t take three years of law school to figure out that’s an incriminating statement.

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

The case has been scheduled for a December 6 hearing.

More later . . .

(this 619 word excerpt—with accompanying commentary--has been distilled from a 681 word article from The Fresno Bee of 8-4-04 and an 855 word article from the San Jose Mercury News of 3-6-04)