- 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 court decision that legal experts have labeled the first of its kind.
- In a ruling last month, U.S. District Judge Carlos Mendoza wrote that esports programs at a private nonprofit college, the Florida Institute of Technology, do not offer “genuine participation opportunities under Title IX,” which bans sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools. Colleges must ensure equality between men’s and women’s athletics to meet their Title IX obligations.
- Florida Institute of Technology, or FIT, had been sued by six members of its varsity men’s rowing program in October, alleging the institution’s decision to shift the team to the club level violated Title IX and that men were underrepresented as athletes compared to the institution’s student body. But FIT argued it was near parity when esport participants were taken into account.
Esports proliferated at colleges over the last half-decade. Institutions of all types have set up scholarships, started academic programs and sometimes constructed mammoth arenas to try to lay a stake in what is valued as a $1.2 billion-plus industry globally.
Even the COVID-19 health crisis did not significantly derail esports’ progress, as some colleges found during lockdowns they could take advantage of online gaming to attract applicants.
Questions about regulating esports have arisen, however. The National Association of Collegiate eSports, which began in 2016, serves as an NCAA counterpart. But the esports association is not nearly as expansive or well-resourced and is still establishing across-the-board rules.
Not every esports program chooses to affiliate with the association, either.
Title IX-related concerns have also emerged. Colleges host their esports programs in different departments — sometimes in student affairs offices, but often athletics, sparking questions about whether they’re subject to the same regulatory requirements as traditional sports.
The court decision Feb. 17 marks the first time a ruling has come down on the issue of Title IX and college esports.
Mendoza, the district judge, found the issue clear cut. He wrote in court filings that esports “does not require athletic ability” and that they bear little resemblance to FIT’s varsity sports teams.
An association does not set the actual rules of the games, like the NCAA does, and nothing suggests FIT’s esports program “recruits off-campus or competes in a progressive playoff system,” Mendoza wrote.
FIT officials had classified esports as athletics as the institution last year moved to transition men’s and women’s rowing, men’s and women’s cross-country, and men’s golf to the club level despite backlash. The women’s golf team was discontinued in 2019 during a previous round of athletics cuts.
The college argued esports participants have to try out for teams, like in the traditional sports world, and they can access similar support services to athletes, like trainers.
More pertinently though, FIT included esports players in a calculation that determines if a college is Title IX compliant, according to court records.
One way colleges can prove compliance is by demonstrating the proportion of men’s and women’s athletes match the ratio of men to women in their overall enrollment. FIT said by categorizing esports participants as athletes it met this requirement.
But without designating esports players as traditional athletes, FIT is infringing on Title IX, said the plaintiffs in the case. Mendoza in his ruling temporarily blocked the college from converting men’s rowing into a club sport and ordered that by mid-March it receive “full funding, staffing, and other benefits.”
FIT spokesperson Adam Lowenstein said in an email the university followed the court directive and reinstated the men’s rowing team’s varsity status. The college also posted a job listing for a head coach for the team and has started the interview process for hiring an interim one, Lowenstein said.