June 5, 2008

Title IX Lawsuit at U. of Tennessee Martin

There is an equity and discrimination lawsuit that has been filed by the former coach at U. of Tennessee Martin. You can read the actual court filed document here.

I had heard about such a lawsuit via the professional rumors, but I did not know the details until taking time to read through the court documents. Before going into my opinion, I would like to applaud Coach Draper for having the courage to not go quietly into the night. Regardless of how this lawsuit turns out, regardless about the facts and who may be right or wrong, it takes individuals who have a conviction that they and the sport of volleyball deserve better treatment. If it is an unfounded lawsuit, then the plaintiff will pay the financial and professional costs.

After reading the details contained within the court papers, this will be an interesting trail. We must remember that we are only hearing one side of the story - a story volleyball coaches are sympathetic too, but still just one side.

By a casual reading, many of the program negatives that Coach Draper illustrates are all too common within Women's College Volleyball - unequal staffing, sub par facilities, unequal access to facilities, false promises, etc. Should these accusations be correct, I hope that improvements are provided for the volleyball program and restitution for Coach Draper. A victory within this section of the lawsuit could go a long ways towards helping other programs which continue to suffer from these inequities. All too often, it takes the threat of a lawsuit or an actual lawsuit to bring relief.

Some of the other court paper examples trying to support the lawsuit may be a bit tougher to classify as discriminatory - not being complimented for a good season, getting the cold shoulder, Athletic Director involvement with players and families, etc. This could just be a personality conflict between the Athletic Director(s) and a coach. Unless you are the men's basketball coach or football coach, you will always lose this battle.

The retaliatory aspect of the personality conflicts do carry the potential for discrimination. By not following established university policies, by not fulfilling the terms of the employment agreement and by holding the coach to a different standard than her male peers, the athletic department treads upon the grounds of discrimination. Again, we are only hearing one side of the story.

I believe that the recent lawsuits in Women's College Volleyball (Fresno, Florida Gulf Coast and UT Martin) are similar to what women's basketball went through a number of years ago. Back then, a few coaches reinforced their demands for equality by bringing Title IX and discrimination lawsuits. Without a doubt, these lawsuits, along with the proactive nature of the women's college basketball coaches association have elevated women's basketball to the premier women's college sport and the envy of all sports, save two.

Within all of this, there is something that has been overlooked - football, men's basketball and women's basketball coaches rarely file lawsuits. Each of these three sports have multi-year contracts, with specific severance clauses. Out of professional respect and the threat of a lawsuit, when a coach is relieved of their position; either through lack of success or personality conflict, this coach receives a significant severance package. If these coaches were walking away from positions empty handed, you can be absolutely sure that lawsuits would be filed.

That may well be the most important item we as college volleyball coaches have overlooked - the safety net. Volleyball coaches do not have one - the other NCAA Head Count sports enjoy a very large net. The reality is that very few coaches leave programs on their own terms, in any sport. The difference is when the big three leave, even when they retire, they depart with their pockets full. Without bringing up specific individuals, think about how many big three sport head coaches have make serious personal and professional mistakes that led to the ending of their employment, but still walked away with substantial monies.

What women's basketball accomplished by their demands for equity was a safety net. Until volleyball coaches make termination more expensive than severance packages, we will have no safety net. Right now, it is just a simple business decision for an AD to not provide a comparable severance package. Either because of a personality conflict or lack of program success, the Athletic Directors are able terminate volleyball coaches with very little cost. Too many coaches are on employment letters or one year contracts, which may be just at-will employment agreements.

If a volleyball coach has engaged in systematic and major NCAA rules violations, committed a crime or behaved in demonstrated way detrimental to the health and welfare of the student-athletes, then they should be terminated for cause and receive no compensation. But, until more coaches have the spirit to step up and demand better treatment, volleyball coaches will continue to be relieved of their positions and exit campus with nothing more than memories.