Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Another Title IX Retaliation Case With Homophobic Overtones

The NCLR Sports Project is representing the former head women’s basketball coach and her partner, the team director of operations, at Mesa Community College in San Diego. Lorri Sulpizio and Cathy Bass have been at Mesa for seven years. They allege that they have been subjected to hostile treatment because of their sexual orientation and that they were fired after coach Supizio complained about gender inequity in the athletic department. Is this starting to sound familiar?

The number of Title IX retaliation cases in which coaches and administrators who complain about gender inequity in the athletic department are fired seems to be growing. In almost all instances the firings occur despite outstanding performance records. These lawsuits indicate the continuing resistance among some male administrators to ethical and legal requirements that women and men should receive equitable treatment in athletics. These cases also highlight the stunning arrogance behind administrative decisions to fire coaches solely because they have the audacity to demand equality. How dare these uppity women challenge the status quo!

The interconnections between homophobia and sexism in these cases keep popping up too. The cases often include charges that administrators in these situations use the L-word to intimidate women coaches, regardless of their sexual orientation, create a hostile climate for lesbians or they accuse women coaches of “inappropriate relationships” with women athletes or student managers without credible evidence to back their charges. In the Mesa Community College case, the plaintiffs are lesbians and charge that they were fired in part because of their sexual orientation.

Here’s the Dishonor Roll of Title IX retaliation cases so far: Fresno State, University of California Berkeley, Feather River Community College, Florida Gulf Coast University, Montana State, University of Hawaii, and now, Mesa Community College. Jill Lieber of USA Today recently wrote a great article about these cases. The Title IX Blog is also an excellent place to visit if you want to keep up the most recent development on Title IX.

The good news is that coaches and administrators who choose to challenge Title IX retaliation, with or without a little homophobia thrown in for good measure, are winning big time in court or receiving settlements that should make other athletic departments sit up and take notice. “Should” is the operative word here. You’d think that the Fresno State jury awards to the coaches and administrators who filed lawsuits there would at least give other administrators pause. Unfortunately that has not been the case at Florida Gulf Coast University. The school and athletic administrators there seem determined to go down in flames rather than acknowledge that there are any problems at all with gender equity and homophobia in the athletic department. There are so many lawsuits filed and apt to be filed at FGCU that the lawyers will need to take a ticket to determine who gets to rake the school and athletic department over the coals first.

As activist and author Suzanne Pharr said, “homophobia is a weapon of sexism.” The truth of her statement is clear in the noxious mix of these two social diseases in many of these cases. It’s a good reminder that we cannot only fight sexism and we cannot only fight homophobia and heterosexism. Neither can we only fight racism or classism or only fight transgender oppression. They are all connected and grow from the same root: the desire to hoard power and resources for the few at the expense of the many.

Some schools and athletic departments have to learn the hard way that these inequities will no longer be tolerated. Coaches and administrators as well as athletes who experience discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity are speaking up more often. They get lawyers. They sue. They often win. The old days when administrators and coaches who enforce discrimination could count on intimidation, submission and fear are gone.

It’s too bad really. Equality is not as painful as some folks apparently think it is. Surely it is not as painful as a public trial with multi-million dollar jury penalties or years of bad press and large financial settlements. Ask Fresno State. Ask Penn State. Unfortunately, I have a feeling you might be able to ask FGCU and Mesa CC about this too in the not to distant future.

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