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After college equestrian's death, questions about safety, gender equity for athletes

After college equestrian's death, questions about safety, gender equity for athletes

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FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- On a sunny afternoon last fall, three college freshmen saddled their horses and headed out for a ride. Shana Virginia Eriksson was in front, her pony tail bouncing beneath her black helmet.

Shana, 18, had always loved horses, and now she was a member of the equestrian team at California State University at Fresno, with Olympic ambitions.

The girls left the barn area and headed across a road, because their usual arena was being dragged. Passing a field, they aroused the curiosity of a herd of cows, which surged toward them. Suddenly, the horses panicked.

As the other horses bolted, Shana pulled hers into a tight spin. In the next instant, the 1,200-pound animal fell on her. She died three days later.

That might have been the end of the tragic story. An athletic, motivated young woman died doing what she loved best.

But questions that followed make this story more complicated: Did pressure to ensure gender equity for athletes under federal Title IX requirements play a part in the accident? Did warnings go unheard, or unheeded? Was safety compromised?

An Associated Press review of hundreds of pages of university documents, obtained through the California Public Records Act, and interviews with current and former university staffers, found that:

-- The equestrian team's head coach had quit shortly before Shana's fall citing safety concerns about the size of the team and limited facilities; university officials deny she made her concerns clear to them.

-- The equestrian team's numbers, highest in the nation with about 100 riders and 70 horses, were listed on annual Title IX compliance reports, and the former coach says the university felt pressure to keep a long roster to balance the numbers of athletes in men's sports.

-- University policy allows students who board their own horses at the campus barn to ride them in situations that some horse-program managers consider dangerous. Currently, almost all boarders are team members.

Fresno State officials say Shana made a mistake, and that it was her own decision to ride her horse, a sometimes skittish mare, into an area where hazards were known. They say the trail ride that day was not associated with equestrian team activity.

Although there were no coaches hired at the time of the accident, officials say the equestrian team was adequately supervised by graduate students and a barn manager.

More than 285 U.S. colleges, with 5,000 riders, compete in equestrian events. Once a club sport, it gained NCAA varsity status in the late 1990s. Today there are 14 teams in NCAA Division I, the highest level of competition.

Fresno State's equestrian club went varsity in 1996, partly to help the school meet Title IX requirements following a lawsuit. A perennial national contender, it finished sixth in the 2003 Varsity Championships, considered the year's biggest competition.

But soon afterward, the coach, Megan McGee, quit her job, leaving the team two weeks before Shana's death.

"I felt like Chicken Little," McGee said in an interview. "For a long, long time I was telling them this is a house of cards. You can't expect this to go on without problems arising. This many kids and this many horses is not feasible. Finally I had to leave."

Approved in 1972, Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex by any school that receives federal money. Schools show compliance many ways: by ensuring that numbers of athletes match their gender ratios in the student population, by increasing opportunities for female athletes, and by fully accommodating women's interests.

In recent years, college athletic departments have been adding large equestrian, field hockey and rowing teams, whose numbers of female athletes balance their football squads and other male teams.

"A lot of schools are adding girls' teams with lots of bodies in them ... just for the numbers because Title IX has turned into a numbers game," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a group representing 1,800 universities. "The question is, whether they have, in this pell-mell race to add teams, allowed safety and supervision to slip."

Ann Baer, Oklahoma State University's associate athletics director, agrees Title IX has become "about numbers. .... Equestrian is a sport where you can get a lot of people involved."

By the time Fresno State's McGee quit as coach, she said, she felt "pressured to keep building the team, but there wasn't the budget or NCAA allowances to add enough coaches and other support. It grew out of the seams, and I couldn't go on like that."

The Fresno State equestrian team budget this year is $540,176, barely up from $539,287 in 2002-2003. McGee said she asked for more barns and rings and sought to increase the ratio of coaches to athletes -- by reducing the roster of riders, pushing the NCAA to allow more than three coaches, or setting up an informal system of coaching with graduate assistants and older students.

McGee said she offered to stay until a new coach could be found, but Athletic Director Scott Johnson said he never heard about that offer or her concerns about safety, which she says she expressed in letters to university officials before she quit and in a newspaper interview afterward.

The university, in a statement, said safety issues were addressed when presented, including the placement of "Horse Crossing" signs McGee requested at an intersection. But McGee declined an invitation to discuss safety issues after her resignation, the statement said.

Shana chose Fresno State, her mother said, because it was a few hours from her home in Tahoe City and because she thought its successful Division I team could help take her where she wanted to go -- the 2008 Olympics.

But the equestrian season started last fall with no coaches, after McGee and both of her assistant coaches left. Team members started to practice with some guidance from graduate assistants who were assigned to temporarily oversee the team, under an administrator's supervision.

"Official pre-season practice" began with the start of the semester, said a team notice posted at the barn. "You may ride before the new coaches are hired but you cannot receive coaching instruction from any of the current Equestrian staff. However, you may receive instruction from the current staff related to supervisory and safety concerns."

Shana was in the lead as she and her two friends headed out of the equestrian area.

"We were riding our own horses and we just went out for a ride," Sarah Farley, one of the other riders, said in a phone interview.

At the time, university officials say, an assistant athletic director technically in charge of the team was not present.

Dana Harris, who at the time was the barn manager and is now an assistant coach, told investigators she saw Shana and was "perplexed that Shana had not mentioned to her that she was taking her horse out on the trail," according to a report prepared for the university. Harris assumed Shana would know better, she said, because "using common sense on the riders' part," they should have known not to take a young, skittish horse on a trail ride where none of them had been before.

Harris said that there was no one in charge at the barn when Shana and her friends took the horses out, but that there doesn't need to be, and that riders with their own horses -- whether they're on the team or not -- can "come and go as they please."

"It's ride-at-your-own-risk," Harris said.

But former coach McGee said that for the reasons Harris mentioned, Shana would not have been allowed to ride under McGee's watch. Team members agree.

"Last year we weren't allowed to go anywhere without permission and orientation, and if we did we had to go on a horse that the coach approved and with someone who had been there before," said sophomore team member Rebecca Evans.

Ridigity of rules varies among programs. Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for example, requires all riding to be done in indoor and outdoor rings unless permission has been granted to ride elsewhere.

When the riders reached the busy street, Shana held out her hand to stop traffic. After crossing, the equestrians approached the cattle.

"For some reason, cows began to charge at us," Farley told police. "Our horses got spooked and started to spin around. My horse took off running and I couldn't stop it so I jumped off."

Kasey MacFarlane's horse was running, too.

"I turned around and saw (Shana's) horse's legs go out from underneath it. The horse fell right on top of her. I ran over and she wasn't moving," MacFarlane told police.

Shana's funeral overflowed with friends and family, and a video montage of her life -- clowning with fellow high school cheerleaders, skiing in the Sierras, winning ribbons on horseback -- brought smiles through the tears.

"Is there anything we can do?" asked Fresno State President John Welty, approaching the Erikssons, holding out a hand.

"I'd like some information," answered Shana's mother, Karan Eriksson.

"The university represented itself to me as a high-end, national show program for my daughter and my horse," says Karan Eriksson, tucking her hands into the pockets of one of Shana's old riding jackets, a hug from the past. "For this to happen, mistakes were made."

Former coach McGee agrees.

"This never should have happened," she said. "Those kids should never been out in that area, on those horses, at 5 in the afternoon."

Shana was the second NCAA female athlete to die doing her sport, said Dr. Fred Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina. The first was a skier, who died in 1998. At least 18 male college athletes have died doing their sports during the past 20 years.

"I think most schools who are adding sports are adding them with big budgets and plenty of coaches," said Mueller. "I would hope that they would have adequate safety and supervision."

A recent NCAA study showing that women's numbers increased to 44 percent of student-athletes in Division I also revealed that financial support for women's athletics has not kept up.

Dollar-for-dollar equality in per-athlete spending is not required; often, schools must simply show spending is adequate for each team's members. Revenues earned by various sports are not part of the equation.

NCAA senior vice president Judy Sweet said, "At this point we have no reason to believe there are safety issues that might be related to this participation increase."

And yet injuries to female athletes are increasing, said Linda Jean Carpenter, a professor emerita in physical education at Brooklyn College. Numerous studies have confirmed that noncontact knee injuries occur two to eight times more often in female athletes than in men; whether that's because of physical differences or training is undetermined, she said.

Carpenter added: "Access to training facilities and athletic training has increased markedly, but it hasn't kept up with the numbers of women participating."

In 1992, the California National Organization For Women sued the California State University system, alleging discrimination by Fresno State against women in athletics programs. At the time, women constituted 54 percent of the student body and 27 percent of the athletes.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights found Fresno State out of compliance with Title IX in 11 of 13 areas. The university was ordered to implement a 7-year, $7 million corrective plan. As part of it, the school added its equestrian team.

In 2001, the civil rights office declared Fresno State in compliance with Title IX.

University administrator Diane Milutinovich disagrees. There is still a disproportionate number of male athletes, women have less practice time, use lesser facilities and play for coaches who are generally paid less, she said.

After 21 years as an athletic administrator at Fresno State, including 12 as associate athletics director, Milutinovich was reassigned in 2002, against her wishes, to direct the student union. The school says her job change was due to budget cuts. She says officials didn't like her repeated questions about gender equity.

But Fresno State's Title IX compliance officer, Desiree Reed-Francois, says the school meets the federal requirements: Although female athletes are underrepresented as a proportion of the student body, she said, the school meets the Title IX requirement of having a strong history and continuing practice of program expansion for female athletes.

On a winter afternoon three months after Shana's death, a member of the team with a long blonde braid headed out of the equestrian area on her horse and trotted onto a dirt path alongside a road busy with traffic.

"Now where's she going?" said new equestrian coach Chuck Smallwood. "See, they can do this, but it's very scary to me!"

Smallwood and Art Parnham, chairman of the Department of Animal Sciences and Agricultural Education, say university policy allows students who board their own horses on campus to ride them where they want, when they want. A safety review of this policy is being conducted for the university.

Following the resignation of McGee, Karan Eriksson says she was assured by administrators that the university would supervise Shana when she rode and that written and oral instructions she says she left with Harris about the care and limits of the horse would be followed. Those instructions prohibited trail riding, she says. Harris says no directions were left with her, and that she was not responsible for the horse.

Fresno State maintains that Shana was acting as a boarder not as an equestrian team member when she took the horse out on the day of the accident.

"This lady went on a trail ride on her own horse," said Smallwood.

The girls' activity was "a voluntary workout," said Johnson, who as athletic director is dealing with problems in other sports, too.

Last September, Fresno State was placed on NCAA probation for four years for violations involving academic fraud, recruiting and eligibility -- most in the men's basketball program, but also in men's soccer and women's basketball.

The NCAA Infractions Committee also found a lack of institutional control.

Karan Eriksson echoed that phrase as she spoke of university officials' actions in Shana's case.

"They've tried to put together a plausible story to explain what happened, but what I see is a total lack of institutional control," she said, "and now my daughter has died."

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