Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Justice Served in Fresno State Case

While I was out of the country, in the end of June and July, the Fresno State Title IX discrimination case went to trial and the jury issued their verdict. Though this is old news now, I’ve not had a chance to comment on this important case since I’ve been away. So, I’m going to do it now.

For those who are unfamiliar with the case – in a nut shell – the Fresno State former women’s volleyball coach, Lindy Vivas, sued the university charging that she was dismissed from her position in retaliation for her efforts to achieve gender equity in the Fresno athletic program. She charged that she was discriminated against because she is a woman and because she was perceived as a lesbian. The jury agreed with Vivas to the tune of a 5.8 million dollar award. The university had offered a $15,000 settlement. The jury’s verdict and monetary award was a decisive victory for Vivas, Title IX and those of us who abhor discrimination against lesbians and gay men (or those perceived to be) in athletics.

Opponents of Title IX often try to intimidate women coaches and administrators into silence and discourage them from challenging gender inequities in athletics by playing the “evil lesbian” card. In the past this strategy has worked and still does in some cases. Let’s hope that the outcome of the Fresno State case puts other homophobic and gender equity challenged university and athletic administrators on notice that this kind of bigotry will no longer be tolerated.

In the Fresno State case the administers looked (and apparently acted) like members of a preadolescent boys-only club in somebody’s backyard about 20 years ago. The descriptions of their arrogance and unprofessional behavior made it easy for the jury to decide in Vivas’s favor. According to multiple testimonies they even celebrated an “Ugly Women Athlete” Day complete with posters. I remember something like this happening in the third grade, I think. What were these guys thinking? Apparently, they weren’t.

In the past several months we’ve seen at least three discrimination cases successfully settled or won:
• Former basketball player, Jen Harris, won a large monetary settlement in her anti-lesbian discrimination case against Penn State (and coach Rene Portland resigned a few weeks later).
• Former Birmingham, Alabama high school girls basketball coach, Roderick Jackson won his case against the school system charging that they retaliated against him by firing him after he complained about the unfair treatment the girls team received
• Now the Fresno State case

These cases demonstrate the importance of coaches and athletes standing up to discrimination to send a message to other schools that gender and sexual orientation discrimination will not be tolerated and that schools who are caught participating in or condoning this kind of discrimination pay a big price, not only monetarily, but also in reputation. Imagine trying to recruit athletes to Fresno State right now.

Plus, the troubles for Fresno are not over yet. The former women’s basketball coach and the former senior women’s athletic administrator there also have lawsuits pending charging the school with more sex discrimination. Despite this, Fresno State has vowed to appeal the Vivas judgment and fight the additional charges. Earth to Fresno State: Settle the other cases now while you can and then clean up your act. It wasn’t the women athletes at Fresno who were ugly, the jury decided it was the sexism and homophobia of several men in leadership positions there that was ugly.