A Federal Judge Rules Esports Don’t Count as Athletics Under Title IX. Here’s Why That Matters.

In a legal dispute between the Florida Institute of Technology and its men's rowing athletes, a judge ruled esports do not qualify as Title IX sports due to a lack of athletic ability needed.
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Published on March 16, 2023
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  • Florida Institute of Technology argued that it was meeting Title IX requirements in its sports programs when esports participants were taken into account.
  • Members of the varsity men's rowing program sued last October, alleging men were underrepresented as athletes compared to the school's student body.
  • A federal judge in Florida ruled that esports don't qualify as athletics under Title IX and required the school to reinstate and fund the varsity men's rowing team.

Collegiate esports programs don't fall under Title IX. At least according to a federal judge in Florida.

Competitive video gaming, known as esports, does not count as athletics for the purposes of the federal antidiscrimination law Title IX, according to a February ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

The ruling by Judge Carlos E. Mendoza stems from an October 2022 lawsuit pitting the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) against six members of its varsity men's rowing program.

The rowers sued the school after it decided to shift the team to the club level, alleging that the move violated Title IX and that men were underrepresented as athletes when compared to FIT's student body. However, FIT argued it was in compliance with Title IX when esports participants were taken into account.

Mendoza ruled that FIT must reinstate and fully fund the varsity men's rowing team. But the decision, believed to be the first dealing with esports and Title IX, throws into question the future of esports programs at colleges, which are juggling the many requirements placed on them by the federal antidiscrimination law.

Former NCAA President Mark Emmert had previously expressed concerns over whether or not esports programs will ever fall under the NCAA's umbrella. Concerns he raised included diversity, equity, and inclusion issues that accompany what is currently a male-dominated sport.

In his ruling, Mendoza observed that Title IX policy encourages compliance in a manner that expands, not limits, student athletic opportunities.

"Plaintiffs do not necessarily dispute FIT's representations of its esports program but argue that legally it is still not a sport within the purview of Title IX, focusing on the fact that esports do not require athletic ability and are not governed in a manner necessary to qualify as such," the ruling said.

Mendoza also cited expert testimony by Donna Lopiano, a past president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, who testified on behalf of the rowers. She testified that esports are not NCAA sports in the context of Title IX, and that she knew of no colleges or universities that count esports as such.

In considering the status of esports within the Title IX framework, Mendoza cited a previous court case in which competitive cheerleading was ruled to be a sport. In cheerleading, the rigor, athleticism, and NCAA sanctions were similar to other sports, that ruling observed.

Mendoza, however, ultimately decided esports did not qualify as sports due to differences in off-campus recruitment, uniform rules, intercollegiate competition, and a progressive playoff system.

Competitive cheerleading was a close call; esports were not, he said in his ruling.

"[t]here are over 13 different video games recognized in E-Sports competition, with none of the rules for these games promulgated by an E-Sport national governing organization (i.e., NCAA football rules). The games are owned and created by a commercial vendor and leased to the players. Sport governance associations have no control over the rules of the game itself."

The court also found no evidence that FIT recruits esports athletes off campus or competes in a progressive playoff system. There was likewise no evidence indicating that esports athletes practice and compete as consistently as other varsity teams.