Miami athletes are right to sue

By Bill Koch

The Cincinnati Post, November 18, 1999

From the moment he arrived on the Miami University campus in the fall of 1998, Mario Contardi loved the place.

He loved everything about it, from the tennis team he would play on to the picturesque campus to the academic program. He had friends there. It was close to home.

”It was a perfect fit,” he said.

But he didn’t know how much he loved it until he left it behind this fall for the University of Virginia. Then he found out that he missed it so much he had to return, even if it meant he would no longer be able to play intercollegiate tennis.

The University of Virginia is a beautiful place, an excellent school, but it wasn’t the place for Contardi.

”I was miserable,” Contardi said. ”I had something to compare it to, a school like Miami.”

When Miami eliminated the men’s tennis team from its athletic program last spring, Contardi tried to get on with his life. He really did. He was forced to make a choice, and he made it. It was tennis or Miami. He couldn’t have both.

He chose tennis. And then he discovered that he had made a mistake.

Now Contardi is back at Miami, suing the school he loves so much. He and eight other male athletes who had their sports eliminated by Miami last spring in an effort to bring the school into Title IX gender equity compliance filed suit in federal court Thursday. The suit charges that Miami was guilty of sex discrimination when it eliminated the men’s tennis, men’s soccer and wrestling programs.

It seeks reinstatement of the three teams plus compensation to the athletes for the losses they suffered as a result of Miami’s decision.

Contardi is part of a cause now, represented by something called the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based law firm that specializes in civil rights and constitutional law, as well as the Cincinnati law firm of Furnier & Thomas and Chicago attorney Lou Goldstein, who has worked on similar cases in Illinois.

He’d much rather be a tennis player.

Instead, he’s one of more than 50 young men who have seen their lives twisted out of shape in the seven months since Miami eliminated the three sports.

He appeared at a press conference Thursday morning at the Cincinnatian Hotel to share his story with the media in an attempt by his new lawyers to put a human face on how the Miami decision affected the athletes who lost their sports.

You couldn’t help but feel for him and the others who faced similar disappointment and disruption.

”I had an unbelievable experience my first year at college,” Contardi said. ”The tennis was fantastic. I had 10 new best friends right away – my teammates and my coach. We learned camaraderie and teamwork. I was exposed to a lot of diversity. I miss it a ton.”

When you listen to a kid such as Contardi tell his story, you want to lash out at someone. The problem is deciding where to direct your wrath. Miami officials didn’t cut those sports because they wanted to see these kids harmed. They did it because they felt they had no choice, given the law and their financial circumstances.

”None of us wanted to eliminate opportunities for young men or young women,” said Miami athletic director Joel Maturi. ”I’m offended if anyone would think that any of us at Miami wanted to do that.”

Even when he first heard last winter that the tennis team may be sacrificed on the altar of Title IX, Contardi didn’t believe that it would actually happen. Surely, these people would come to their senses and try to find a way to save the team.

”When we first heard about it, that’s exactly what we thought,” he said.

But it happened. His worst fear became reality.

So Contardi finds himself surrounded by lawyers who say not only that what Miami did was illegal, but that what the school did was unnecessary because it was already in compliance with Title IX by virtue of having added women’s soccer and synchronized ice skating within the past few years.

That, Contardi’s lawyers say, demonstrated a history of expanding opportunities for women, which is one of the three avenues for complying with Title IX.

A judge will eventually rule on the legality of what Miami did. But we don’t need a judge to understand that, legal or not, necessary or not, these students were the victims of an injustice.

I don’t know what the solution is, but it was wrong to discriminate against one group to benefit another, and it was wrong to promise male athletes an opportunity to play a sport for four years and then yank that sport out from under them.

A lot of young men like Contardi – student-athletes who loved Miami – are still suffering the consequences.

Now they’re doing something about it.

Good for them.