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Davis

Davis, California

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Guest Opinion: Michael Burch

The decision of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 8 to uphold the right to sue for three former UC Davis female student-athletes marks another legal victory for them and women’s wrestling. Fundamentally, this debate is about the free exercise of students’ rights and corporate politics in democratic education.

Former UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef – the one who was compelled to attend publicized meetings at the State Capitol regarding gender discrimination against women wrestlers, and, yes, the same person who was later widely reported to have made an unapproved payoff to a vice chancellor in 2005 to cover up another discrimination case against the university – was in charge when the women’s wrestling “controversy” began.

This same chancellor, when asked in sworn deposition to explain his supervisory role of the UC Davis campus, stated, “This is a $2.3 billion operation. It’s larger than anything except state government in this entire region, and it really is the only way a CEO can run an operation like this.” His words speak volumes. Vanderhoef was a CEO of a corporation before he was a chancellor of university students. In my opinion, the public image of the corporation and its leadership has taken precedence over students’ civil rights.

The overwhelming voices support the women wrestlers over corporate policy, though. When women wrestlers defy certain gender boundaries in sport, they are supported first by the academic community on campuses around the country. For decades now, researchers have undermined old notions of women’s “nature” that socially constructed women as frail, weak, emotional and in need of male control. Such research has encouraged many women to challenge old stereotypes. Consequently, some women have chosen paths that many are still not completely comfortable with. We see women wrestlers, rugby players, racecar drivers, ultimate fighters and soldiers, all of whom may just be breaking down stereotypes that could make it possible for us to see a female Commander in Chief someday.

Let us also recall that UC Davis students in 2001 protested vigorously in favor of the women wrestlers. Over 1,000 students signed petitions in a 24-hour period asking for women to be allowed to remain on the team. Hundreds of students packed into a Memorial Union room for a student senate hearing called specifically to address the matter, and later that student senate voted in full support of the women wrestlers against the administrators. It was a voice that was heard at the State Capitol. It led to so much media inquiries that UC Davis finally relented and put the women back on the team – only to remove them again the next fall when things had quieted and students were unaware.

The significance of this event reached the East Coast, where it was covered in front page articles by the Boston Globe and part of a larger story on women’s wrestling on the front page of the New York Times. At the end of the 2001 calendar year, the Davis Enterprise selected it as the sports story of the year. It is not possible to play this conflict down. When the decision by the Appeals court was recently released, within two days it was being carried in numerous media outlets across the country, including the New York Times once again.

There are people all around this country who care about this case and support the women’s cause. I wouldn’t have thought as much at the time, but here we are nine years later. The women’s protest has produced one of the largest Title IX class action lawsuits since its inception in 1972. They have also been the force behind UC Davis adding two new women’s sports opportunities (golf and field hockey) since the first lawsuit was filed.

There is the thundering testimony of thousands upon thousands of female wrestlers in California and around the world now. Since 2001, the sport of women’s wrestling has grown tremendously – just as the women wrestlers predicted it would. We have seen broad international competition (85 countries now participate), leading to numerous world championships and two Olympics for women wrestlers. U.S. women have won World Championship and Olympic medals. Ironically, at Stanford University, a female wrestler, Patricia Miranda, who was allowed on their team at the same time UC Davis was eliminating women wrestlers, went on to win a medal in the 2004 Olympics. Even in the male-dominated collegiate wrestling world, which is mostly unaccommodating of female wrestlers, we have seen 10 smaller universities go against the tide to start fully funded varsity women’s wrestling programs, receiving little encouragement from the NCAA or the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

In the final analysis, the decision against the women wrestlers was made by the few against the opinions of the many – the community and the student body. Notwithstanding, one vision here says that UC Davis is or should be a safe haven for free intellectual pursuits and democratic engagement. The other vision is that of UC Davis the corporation, choosing to spend millions of dollars to avoid leading – focused more on protecting the image and leadership of the corporation who don’t seem to understand that women want and have a right to play varsity contact sports.

The vision I still support is that of a few dedicated young UC Davis women, now alumnae, who have demonstrated that equity in education starts with the voices of students, not the failed policies of a corporation. Will UC Davis prove otherwise? They can now have their day in court if they would like. Perhaps the former CEO and the director of athletics will have something to say.

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