If Cal goes through with the elimination of five varsity sports, it could find itself in violation of the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX and be forced to make more cuts.
That is the dilemma the university finds itself in four months after announcing its intention to cut costs by dropping baseball, rugby, men's and women's gymnastics and women's lacrosse.
The act of eliminating two women's teams put Cal out of compliance with Title IX. Without the five teams, the university, based on numbers it provided, will have to add 50 spots for women and eliminate 80 spots for men to meet Title IX requirements. That is in addition to the more than 100 male athletes already cut from men's rugby, baseball and gymnastics.
But there is a chance it will never come to that because the university is considering reversing course. After originally saying it would take at least $80 million in private donations to reinstate the five teams, officials recently said they would accept $25 million to guarantee the return of the teams for a shorter time if supporters could demonstrate a long-term plan for financing the teams.
Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour said she had received a proposal from supporters of the affected teams that includes about $12 million in pledged donations. Officials are said to be considering a range of options, from reinstating none to some or all of the teams, and an announcement is expected Thursday.
Barbour said the university's decision to consider reinstating the teams was in reaction to the outcry by supporters of the cut teams, not to a dawning unease about how Cal would comply with Title IX.
"There was, as we anticipated, a lot of emotion, a lot of passion," Barbour said, "and quite frankly a little bit more of a call to action perhaps than we anticipated."
Until now, Cal had been fulfilling Title IX requirements by asserting that it met the "interests and abilities" of its female students, one of three so-called prongs that institutions can choose to comply with the law. When a university cuts even one women's team, it no longer can rely on that claim, nor can it argue that it has a history of expanding opportunities for women, which is another option for compliance. Now, Cal has effectively backed itself into a corner and is left with only the third option -- proving that female participation in athletics is proportionate to female undergraduate enrollment in the university.
By that measure, Cal falls considerably short. Just 40 percent of the 965 participants on the university's varsity teams were women during the 2009-10 academic year, while its overall student enrollment was 53 percent female. In order to come into compliance with Title IX, officials have said they plan to trim male rosters while expanding the size of female teams, a practice known in college athletics circles as roster management.
Kristen Galles, a lawyer who represents athletes suing colleges for Title IX violations, questioned the logic behind Cal's decision, adding that the university might have exposed itself to a lawsuit by the female athletes whose teams are being cut.
"It doesn't make sense to be cutting any women's sports if their numbers are that bad," Galles said. "These schools do not get sued for not offering enough sports; they get sued when they're dumb enough to cut women's teams."
In a telephone interview, an athletic department official played down the scope of the changes that are planned if the teams are not reinstated.
"One of the things we wanted was to be realistic and not go hog wild and add a bunch on the women's side and cut a bunch on the men's side," said the official, Foti Mellis, the senior associate athletic director. "Most of the women's programs are either staying put or being asked to add maybe one kid or two kids at the most. And on the men's side, again, just a few teams have been asked to reduce their roster sizes by just a few."
Mellis said that by next fall the department planned to limit its male rosters to a total of 377, and to expand the female participants to 393. According to federal education statistics, Cal had 461 male participants and 341 female participants in the 2009-10 academic year, not counting the athletes on the eliminated teams. Mellis said this year's participation numbers were comparable to last year's.
"In hearing the number, it is a pretty large number," said men's tennis coach Peter Wright, who, like other coaches of men's teams, said he had been told to expect small roster reductions if the teams were not reinstated. "But I know that a couple of teams have squad sizes that are large."
While Mellis would not say which men's sports would be subject to the largest cuts, a handful of Cal's men's teams -- including water polo, crew and football -- are larger than the average squad size for other NCAA teams in those sports in Division I, which comprises the largest athletic programs.