Women's swim ECU

Women’s competitors prepare to dive in the Minges Natatorium pool during a meet at East Carolina.

East Carolina is paying a $189,339.50 settlement to an attorney’s office and reinstating its women’s swimming and diving and women’s tennis teams to avoid litigation surrounding Title IX.

ECU, which cut men’s and women’s swimming and diving and both tennis teams on May 21, is only reinstating the women’s teams. The school also announced Thursday it is developing a new gender equity plan that will feature input from each of its now-18 teams.

Future roster management, in terms of overall men’s and women’s student-athletes compared to campus enrollment, was a main factor. The reinstated teams are likely to resume competition in the fall of 2021.

ECU Interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson has referenced possible changes since May, emphasizing it was an institutional decision to reboot the women’s programs.

“Roster management was going to be the primary tool, but it became clearer and clearer even through self scrutiny of the numbers, that because of increased female proportion, we are headed toward a 60-40 split in female to male at the university level,” said the outgoing Mitchelson, who said there was an increase in female enrollment during the fall semester. “We were going to have difficulty doing that simply with roster management. I think the adjustments were going to be more dramatic through time. I can’t tell you if we would be here today (without the threat of a lawsuit), but it could be.”

ECU held closed-session Board of Trustees meetings Dec. 6 amid an ultimatum by attorney Arthur H. Bryant of a class action lawsuit in federal court against ECU. Bryant, who said the settlement agreement prevents the need for class action, represented Pirate student-athletes from the eliminated teams.

Athletics director Jon Gilbert said ECU did not receive any formal notices from the NCAA regarding Title IX.

When asked how Title IX issues were not foreseen, Gilbert indicated COVID-19 and financial challenges were at the forefront in May.

The Pirates saved $2.6 million when they eliminated the four teams. Reinstating the women’s teams will reduce those savings to about $1.2 million, Gilbert said Thursday.

“When you eliminate a sports program, certainly, there is the threat or the possibility of litigation,” he said. “That has happened at multiple places. As we discussed the direction of where we were going, we knew that was a possibility. Ultimately, back then, we made a business decision on where we were from a financial standpoint while trying to stay compliant with Title IX and all of those obligations.

“We’re going to continue to do that. Our plan certainly has been expedited and modified, and I do believe today was the right decision.”

A statement Thursday from Bryant, of Bailey Glasser’s office in Oakland, Calif., lauded ECU student-athletes Meghan French, Chelsea Marstellar and Anna Otto for their roles in creating an agreement.

“This is a major victory for women athletes at ECU, Title IX and all who care about gender equity and the law,” Bryant said. “The elimination of these women’s teams flagrantly violated Title IX. ECU should be praised for agreeing to reinstate the teams, develop a gender equity plan and get into compliance with Title IX, but this settlement should put all schools on notice. If they violate Title IX, they will be held accountable.”

A letter from Bryant to university counsel Paul H. Zigas on Nov. 20 said women get 50.49 of intercollegiate athletics opportunities while comprising 56.57% of undergraduate enrollment.

The Pirates will now have 11 women’s teams and seven men’s.

East Carolina sponsored the most sports among all American Athletic Conference members when they were at 20 prior to the May reduction to 16, which is the minimum requirement to be a Division I-A football playing member.

ECU won the American men’s swimming and diving championship meet in four of the last six seasons. The Pirates’ last women’s conference championship was in 2003.

Gilbert said he is not currently considering cutting or adding any men’s sports, including swimming and diving.

Mitchelson said the settlement payment to Bailey & Glasser, LLP, which is to be paid by Jan. 31, will come from institutional trust fund money.

“In lieu of a settlement, litigation is considerably more expensive,” Mitchelson said.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.