Sexual Orientation Discrimination No Longer Tolerated In Athletic Departments

As more states legislatively recognize that gays and lesbians have the same rights as heterosexuals, it is vital that athletic administrators understand that sexual-orientation discrimination will no longer be accepted.

When enacted in 1868, the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was seen as a way of ensuring that the laws, rules and regulations of the states would be applied in an equal manner to everyone, especially historically discriminated-against groups such as African-Americans. However, while the clause is designed to protect individuals from discriminatory treatment by governmental entities, it is important to note that it is only the floor. States can, and often do, pass additional protections under their own state constitutions.

One area where states are expanding legal protections is gay and lesbian rights. For example, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut have legalized same-sex marriages. Vermont, New Hampshire and New Jersey have enacted civil-union statutes, while Maine, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii have passed domestic-partnership laws that allow same-sex couples many of the same rights granted to those in civil unions.

The lawsuit filed by Lorri Sulpizio and Cathy Bass against Mesa College may still be in the courts, but as more and more states legislatively recognize that gays and lesbians have the same legal protections and rights as heterosexuals, it is vital that athletic administrators around the country understand that coaches and other administrators are no longer going to quietly accept sexual-orientation discrimination. To decide otherwise, as the Connecticut Supreme Court recently held, would require the court and society to apply one set of constitutional principles to gay people and another set to all others.

Case Summary

Fresno, Calif., may have lost its unofficial position as Title IX lawsuit capital of the Golden State to San Diego. In a span of eight days in September, San Diego State University settled one case for $1.45 million and was slapped with a second discrimination lawsuit, and Mesa College inked an agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights to resolve gender-equity disparities in its facilities and programs.

SDSU's settlement with former San Diego State swim coach Deena Deardurff Schmidt includes a $317,420 lump-sum payment and a $682,580 annuity, and provides $450,000 in attorneys' fees, some of which will go to Schmidt. An Olympic gold medalist in 1972, Schmidt filed suit in November 2007, alleging several years of mistreatment at the school, plus "unequal and inadequate" facilities, pay, practice times and administrative support during her 13-year tenure. The settlement followed, by two weeks, a lawsuit filed by SDSU assistant strength and conditioning coach Courtney Bale, alleging disparate treatment and unequal pay because of gender. Her complaint claims that she was told by then-SDSU trainer Gary Johnson in 2005 that she would not receive a raise because she was a woman who primarily coached women's sports. In 2006, SDSU posted a job opening for a second assistant strength coach position for which Bale applied. Instead, SDSU hired a man, Wendell Richards, who after a year was given a $41,000 salary, compared to Bale's $32,000 salary after five years of employment.

Mesa College's agreement with OCR followed an investigation prompted by a discrimination suit filed by Lorri Sulpizio, the women's basketball coach, and Cathy Bass, director of basketball operations, who were fired within a day of each other in April 2007 after nearly a decade with the college. The registered domestic partners, who have three children, claimed that the school fired them - one month after a newspaper article identified them as lesbians - because of their sexual orientation. The women also alleged that they were retaliated against for asking that female athletes receive facilities equal to their male counterparts. The OCR identified gender disparities involving the scheduling of games, the provision of locker rooms and facilities, and the provision of medical facilities and services. The college agreed to provide documentation confirming the proper construction of a new softball field before the spring (previously, the softball team had to play on an all-grass soccer field), avoid or resolve scheduling conflicts so female athletes are assured use of the women's locker room (the women's basketball team had been displaced from the locker room by visiting football teams), and ensure equal access to athletic trainers for male and female athletes.

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