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McFeely: North Dakota high school graduates file federal lawsuit against UND for cutting women's hockey

They allege Title IX discrimination because opportunity to attend school, play hockey at UND was taken away with program's elimination

UND women celebrate
The UND women's hockey team was cut in 2017. That action has spawned two lawsuits alleging discrimination against female athletes.
Eric Hylden / Forum News Service
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GRAND FORKS — Four North Dakota women filed a federal Title IX lawsuit against the state university system this week, alleging the University of North Dakota violated their civil rights by eliminating the women's ice hockey program.

The women are recent high school graduates and assert cutting women's hockey in 2017 denied them an opportunity to attend and play sports at UND.

The lawsuit also alleges the school fails to provide equal opportunities for female athletes based in part on its "improper calculations of bona fide opportunities for female participation in intercollegiate athletics, and its over-reporting of the number of female athletes on teams."

Title IX is a set of federal laws that prohibit sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

"The University has no comment about this pending litigation, at this time," UND spokesman David Dodds said.

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The lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, North Dakota, Eastern Division, on behalf of Emily Becker, 19, of Grand Forks; Calli Forsberg, 20, of Devils Lake; Morgan Stenseth, 19, of Grand Forks; and Maya Tellman, 18, of Grand Forks.

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It is a class-action suit, meaning the plaintiffs "seek to represent a class of all current, prospective, and future female students who are harmed by and want to end the University's sex discrimination and violation of Title IX."

The plaintiffs all played high school hockey and are described in the lawsuit as skilled and experienced hockey players. Forsberg was recruited in 2016 to play for UND's women's team, but enrolled and played at Bemidji (Minn.) State when UND eliminated its program after the 2016-17 season.

UND said the program was cut for financial reasons.

The women are represented by Dan Siegel of Oakland, Calif., the same attorney who filed suit in 2018 on behalf of 11 former UND women's hockey players who alleged their Title IX rights were violated when the program was cut.

That case was dismissed in 2019 by a federal judge, but revived after appeal by the former players. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled the case should be sent back to the North Dakota District Court for review.

The North Dakota Attorney General's office represented the North Dakota University System in that case, stating the former players' claims were moot because they were no longer enrolled at UND.

Siegel agreed, dropping the suit in December 2021 but telling the Grand Forks Herald , "None of the existing plaintiffs have remaining eligibility to play collegiate ice hockey, so the court cannot grant any of them meaningful relief. We have not conceded the issue, and you will hear more from us soon."

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At the time, a UND spokesman said the university is on firm footing if additional legal action was taken because cutting the women’s hockey program was necessary for budgetary reasons.

"We remain confident that UND’s decision will continue to be upheld in a court of law in the future if it comes up," Dodds told the Grand Forks Herald. "The bottom line is that these actions were legally permissible, and were in the best financial interest of the university."

By claiming opportunities have been denied recent skilled high school graduates with college eligibility remaining, it appears the latest lawsuit is an attempt to eliminate the moot defense. It is a class-action suit, meaning the plaintiffs filed it on behalf of a larger group, in this case female athletes as a whole.

"Had UND not eliminated its women's ice hockey program, plaintiffs would have sought to participate and would have participated in that program to the extent of their continued eligibility to do so," the lawsuit states.

The goal of this lawsuit, like the previous one, is to bring back women's hockey to UND. The current suit says if UND does not reinstate women's hockey, its female students and student-athletes will be "irreparably harmed."

UND has engaged in a "past and continuing pattern and practice of discrimination against female students," the lawsuit alleges.

It accuses the school of manipulating its sports rosters to simulate equal treatment of female athletes, calls for the court to require UND to provide female student athletes with "treatment and benefits comparable to those provided to male student athletes and affording female students an equal opportunity to participate in school-sponsored sports, particularly intercollegiate ice hockey," and wants the court to force the school to provide equal opportunity "by sponsoring additional women's sports based upon the interests and abilities of the University's present, prospective, and future students."

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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