Swim banner

A banner highlighting East Carolina swimming and diving championships hangs over an entrance into Minges Natatorium.

East Carolina has reinstated its women’s swimming and diving and tennis teams to avoid a Title IX lawsuit, but officials clarified Thursday that men’s swimming will remain as an eliminated sport.

ECU announced May 21 it cut men’s and women’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Recent pressure from California-based attorney Arthur Bryant, who also has been successful in reinstating women’s teams at William & Mary and UNC Pembroke, led to the reinstatement Thursday of the ECU women’s teams.

The Pirates’ announcement in May was immediately countered with the formation of a passionate campaign to save ECU swimming and diving that touted the school’s longstanding success in the sport. The Pirate men won four of the last six American Athletic Conference championships, including last February. ECU’s last women’s conference championship was in 2003, but it is the men who will remain out of the pool like most other schools in the AAC.

“As I mentioned in May, and specific to the swimming programs and the respect that I have for what our coaches and swimming alumni have achieved in the history of our men’s swimming program, but this specifically was related to providing additional opportunities for our female student-athletes,” ECU athletics director Jon Gilbert said.

A letter from Bryant to ECU counsel Paul H. Zigas on Nov. 20 said women get 50.49 percent of intercollegiate athletics opportunities at East Carolina while comprising 56.57 percent of undergraduate enrollment.

The Pirate men took first place on Feb. 22, 2020, in Houston at the AAC swimming and diving championships, finishing ahead of Cincinnati, SMU and Connecticut. ECU dropped swimming and diving and UConn left for the Big East in July, leaving the American with two schools that sponsor men’s programs.

ECU’s women finished in fourth place at the last AAC championship meet. Houston was first, followed by SMU, Cincinnati, ECU, Tulane and UConn.

Part of an email from the save ECU swim and dive group Thursday referenced the men’s program: “The alumni and supporters involved in save ECU swim and dive are overjoyed at this outcome, and we remain committed to seeing the men’s team restored as well to its rightful place in ECU athletics.”

In addition to Gilbert saying he is not considering reinstating men’s swimming, he said there are no current plans to cut men’s sports.

“That is not an option at this time,” said the AD, who also said ECU engaged with a Title IX consultant for advice prior to cutting four sports in May.

ECU women’s swimming and diving and women’s tennis squads are aiming to resume competition in the fall of this year.

Their most recent head coaches, Matthew Jabs for swimming and Kirstin Burgess in tennis, are both ECU alums.

“I think as part of that reinstatement process, I want to sit down with them face-to-face,” Gilbert said of new coaching hires and the consideration of Jabs and Burgess. “When we did this in May, it was extremely difficult, but it was through no fault of theirs that we did this. It was from a budgetary standpoint that we made that decision to go forward, so I want to begin the process with them face-to-face and certainly, I have some fence-mending to do in that regard with them. I want to make sure I do that with them on a personal level.”

As part of Thursday’s virtual news conference, Gilbert reinforced the balance of savings versus revenue during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For the Pirates and other teams in the state, a major challenge has been not selling season tickets and having their venues extremely limited with regard to fan attendance.

“Our budget has not changed and we still have the same issues in May that we have today, and those have been exacerbated by COVID and the many revenue buckets that have been affected,” Gilbert said. “We will work on funding (women’s tennis and women’s swimming) through our operating budget. Our staff and our coaches have done an excellent job through savings. Through all the decisions that were made in the month of May and certainly the salary reductions, furloughs and operational budget savings, I believe to date, we have saved north of $9 million in athletics.

“We’ve had significant savings, but we still need to generate revenue and that’s where our issue is. I am hopeful that will be coming in the near future.”

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