University of Minnesota men’s gymnastics team fights on

June 15, 2023 | By CALEB TROTTER

After the University of Minnesota eliminated its century-plus-old varsity men’s gymnastics team at the end of the 2021 school year, Evan Ng sued to try and save his team. Evan’s legal claims were straightforward: Because the team was eliminated due to the University’s aim to establish a quota for male athletes, the team’s elimination violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as the federal Title IX law. Unfortunately, Evan recently had to dismiss his case when it became clear that the courts would not resolve the merits of his claims before he graduates. 

Evan loves gymnastics. He competed in high school and was sold on attending the University of Minnesota after meeting the gymnastics team’s head coach, Mike Burns. He was crushed when the university announced it would eliminate three men’s sports programs—gymnastics, tennis, and indoor track and field—after the 2020-21 school year. The decision had nothing to do with the teams’ performance. The university administrators wanted to cut the number of male athletes because of Title IX, which, they argued, required the proportion of male athletes to align with the proportion of male undergraduates.  

As is typical in lawsuits challenging the elimination of collegiate sports teams, shortly after filing his case in 2021 Evan asked the district court for a preliminary injunction reinstating the gymnastics team to allow him and his teammates to continue competing while the lawsuit proceeded. In March 2022, the court denied Evan’s request, holding that Evan waited too long. According to the court, Evan—an unemployed college freshman at the time—should’ve immediately found lawyers to sue and seek an injunction when the University’s decision was made in October 2020, rather than join his teammates, coaches, and supporters in first trying to convince the University to change its decision. 

Evan chose to appeal the court’s decision to the Eighth Circuit, lest that decision encourage costly litigation by discouraging future students from seeking to convince universities to change course before filing lawsuits. The Eighth Circuit heard Evan’s case in October 2022, but didn’t issue a decision until April 2023 at the end of Evan’s junior year. Regrettably, that decision agreed that Evan should have immediately sought an injunction instead of waiting to see the results of the efforts to persuade the University. Because that decision also failed to address any arguments about the merits of Evan’s claims, it left him back at square one in the litigation on the eve of his senior year. 

Some lessons can be learned from Evan’s case. For students who are considering litigation—at least in the Eighth Circuit—speed may be of the essence. That may be particularly true if the practical relief being sought—e.g., the reinstatement of a sports team—will only directly benefit the student for his or her few remaining years of college.     

While Evan’s fight for the Minnesota varsity men’s gymnastics team did not result in getting the team reinstated, all is not lost for the team. Rather than give up on his team and leave them to fend for themselves, the team’s former coach, Mike Burns, has fought for them every step of the way. Coach Burns knew that if the team were to ever be reinstated, it would be immensely helpful to maintain a gymnastics presence at the University. To that end, he helped Evan and his remaining teammates establish a club men’s gymnastics team at the University. By all accounts, the team is thriving and growing. 

There is also hope that a change in leadership at the University of Minnesota could lead to revisiting the decision to eliminate the varsity men’s gymnastics team. Elections were recently conducted for new members of the University’s governing Board of Regents, and a new President of the University will soon be chosen. 

Regardless of what happens in Minnesota, Pacific Legal Foundation will continue to be on the lookout for opportunities to defend the right of students to enjoy equal opportunity to participate in school activities free from unconstitutional sex-based quotas.