On the U of L verdict

If you were going to put together a Hall of Fame for women’s sports in the state of Kentucky, Tom Jurich would have to make the short list.

In his role as University of Louisville athletic director, he has made the program a model that gender equity experts point to when they are consulted by schools looking to improve their women’s sports. He has overseen the building of a new facility for every women’s sport at the university and has dramatically increased the number of women’s athletes competing at U of L while landing events like the women’s Field Hockey Final Four. He has received a national leadership award from the Citizens for Sports Equity and when he was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006, his accomplishments in gender equity were among those cited.

All of that, however, only makes the verdict in a gender discrimination suit against the U of L athletic department in favor of a female former track coach more troubling.

Let’s be clear on this — there’s no place in any department, athletic or otherwise, for the way assistant track coach Mary Banker says she was treated by head track coach Ron Mann and assistant Dale Cowper. A jury awarded her a $371,000 verdict last Friday.

Banker, who was hired as a recruiting coordinator for both the men’s and women’s track programs, said she was asked to bake cookies, handle party decorations and put up with all manner of sexist comments. When she complained to U of L’s human resources department, she was let go — after a deadline had passed by which the athletic department was to inform her if her one-year contract were not going to be renewed.

That last fact seemed undisputed from court documents. The bottom line was that U of L was to let her know by a certain date if she were not going to be retained, and did not. The decision, she surmised, came after she raised a fuss over treatment she was getting from the male coaches. She claimed retaliation. A jury in Jefferson Circuit Court agreed.

The jury, however, rejected her claim that she was working in a hostile workplace. And the judge had earlier thrown out her claim of gender discrimination.

So what we have here is this — a jury has awarded a verdict to Banker based on what it found to be retaliation against her for complaining about treatment in the department. The legal question at hand was how her termination was handled. But there remains, beside that point, the question of how she was treated by male coaches.

U of L told The C-J today that it would have no comment because the final disposition of the case still is in the hands of the judge. As well, because it is a civil rights matter, the school could also be assigned to pay Banker’s legal fees by the court, which would up the final total significantly. You can read the C-J news story here.

Banker also said she felt uncomfortable around language used toward male athletes — essentially language that questioned their manhood. While such language isn’t appropriate in any office, on the athletic field it is not unusual. I don’t like it, but it is the norm. She also accused Cowper of making inappropriate statements about female athletes to which she took offense. Whether or not that’s against the law, it’s unprofessional and should be treated as such by U of L.

This was not, as most blog sources have reported, a “sexual harassment” case. That entails bullying of a sexual nature or the promise of work rewards for sexual acts. That was not even alleged by Banker and had no part in the case. In fact, let me quote from a memorandum filed by Banker’s attorney, just to be clear, because I keep getting calls and mails wondering why the “sexual” part of this isn’t included in C-J accounts. It’s because there wasn’t any.”So that the record is clear,” a plaintiff’s memorandum reads, “plaintiff does not assert any sexual harassment claims.”

So given the nature of the verdict here — including the dismissal of gender discrimination charges and the rejection by the jury of the hostile workplace claim — we’re left with the versions of two sides over what was said, and how this female coach was treated. I’ll just say this: If the actions of these coaches were as alleged (and we have no acknowledgment from the jury, it appears, one way or the other), they acted with offensive arrogance and ignorance and should be subject to discipline.This alleged behavior should be beneath the standards of any university, and certainly should fall beneath the standards of an athletic director who has expended so much time and energy to put women’s sports programs on a more equal footing with men.

When U of L’s women’s basketball team went to the national title game two years ago, it put a spotlight on those efforts. When Jurich arrived at U of L, national gender equity consultant Lamar Daniel estimated that the showering space devoted solely to women’s sports at the university amounted to a few shower heads.Think about this. In the 2008-09 season, the last for which government figures are available, U of L took in $27 million less in revenue than UK, and still spent $1.5 million more on women’s sports. U of L had more female athletes than Indiana, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Texas, USC and Notre Dame. It’s not just an image Jurich has worked to portray or lip service that U of L gives — they have put their money and their scholarships behind their talk about the importance of women’s sports.

So U of L’s athletic department, one would think, has come too far for something like this to pass without action, or at the very least explanation, less to the coach involved, than to the community. If legal concerns are preventing comment or action now, it does not eliminate the need for some type of explanation when the matter reaches its conclusion.

It has been a rough stretch for U of L. Karen Sypher’s extortion trial and some of the sordid news regarding basketball coach Rick Pitino that emerged from it, while more a reflection on him personally than the university, still dragged the school’s name through some areas that no organization wants to go.

But this incident isn’t about the personal behavior of a coach off campus. It’s about the way a coach was treated in her official duties for the university, and how an athletic administration chooses to handle it. It doesn’t jibe with the treatment Jurich has accorded women in the athletic program at U of L.

And even if it wasn’t gender discrimination in the eyes of a judge, it looks bad.


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