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North Carolina and Coach Settle Sexual Harassment Suit

January 15, 2008

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has settled a former female soccer player's lawsuit alleging that the university's high-profile women's soccer coach harassed and sexually discriminated against her and that North Carolina officials failed to stop the behavior.

As part of the settlement, the university agreed to pay $385,000 to Melissa Jennings and to revise its sexual harassment policies and procedures after an independent review; Anson Dorrance, the coach, went further than he had before in acknowledging having engaged in "inappropriate and unacceptable" behavior by participating in "group discussions of ... team members' sexual activities." Dorrance will face no punishment from the university.

The North Carolina settlement comes as numerous other colleges and universities have absorbed multimillion-dollar verdicts in cases brought by current or former athletes or coaches under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds.

Dorrance and the university had for a decade vigorously fought the charges -- originally brought by two players, one of whom, Debbie Keller, settled in 2004 -- that Dorrance created a hostile environment that amounted to sexual harassment and denied her a right to an education under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and that North Carolina and its officials permitted the hostile environment to occur. Lower courts rejected the players' case, but last spring, a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ordered Dorrance and UNC to stand trial, saying Jennings had “proffered sufficient facts for a jury to find that Dorrance’s degrading and humiliating conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a sexually hostile environment.”

The majority opinion -- basing its opinion on the former athletes' version of events, as is the norm when considering a motion that would otherwise dismiss a case -- said that Dorrance, who also coached the U.S. women's soccer national team, regularly “bombarded players with crude questions and comments about their sexual activities and made comments about players’ bodies that portrayed them as sexual objects. In addition, Dorrance expressed (once within earshot of Jennings) his sexual fantasies about certain players, and he made, in plain view, inappropriate advances to another.”

Dorrance and university officials have consistently contested the athletes' assertions, and that did not change even as they agreed to settle the lawsuit. "This settlement in no way constitutes an admission of anything beyond what Coach Dorrance has already apologized for," Richard A. Baddour, the athletics director at Chapel Hill, said in a prepared statement.... He apologized to Jennings 10 years ago for making comments in jest that were thought to be inappropriate. The University and Coach Dorrance steadfastly deny the other allegations."

Although North Carolina officials characterized Monday's settlement as breaking no new ground, the agreement seems to go further in acknowledging past errors and the need for change in the future than the university has previously.

Under the arrangement, a copy of which is available here, Dorrance agreed to provide Jennings with a letter saying that he had "participated with members of the UNC-Chapel Hill women’s soccer team in group discussions of those team members’ sexual activities or relationships with men. I realize that my comments offended Ms. Jennings. I understand that my participation in those discussions was inappropriate and unacceptable. I apologize to Ms. Jennings and her family, as well as all other members of the soccer team." Unlike his previous apology, the letter makes no mention of his having made "comments in jest that were thought to be appropriate;" Monday, he acknowledged that they were inappropriate.

"If he had written a letter like that 10 years ago, we could have avoided all this," Jennings's father, Craig Jennings, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed Monday.

And while Jennings agreed to provide the university with a letter acknowledging that "neither Mr. Dorrance nor any member of the coaching staff for the UNC-Chapel Hill women's soccer team made a pass at me or asked for a sexual relationship," her letter also states that "Mr. Dorrance and members of the coaching staff made multiple overt sexual comments that were uninvited and offensive."

University officials said that the $385,000 payment -- which is significantly more than the $70,000 North Carolina paid in 2004 to settle the claims brought by Debbie Keller -- was merely to "reimburse her for most of the attorney's fees she accumulated" over the course of the lawsuit.

Craig Jennings said that the most important part of the settlement from his daughter's perspective -- though it went unmentioned in the university's news release about the agreement -- is the provision that will require the university's Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee to hire Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a professor of law at Florida Coastal School of Law, to review and "propose appropriate changes to" the university's sexual harassment policy and procedures by March, and to adopt a revised policy by next fall.

"This is what we've worked hard on," said Jennings. "There is an opportunity for UNC to build a model for all universities and schools, to protect all future students and community members."

The North Carolina news release and other university statements focused mostly on defending Dorrance.

"He is an outstanding worldwide ambassador for women¹s sports, amateur athletics and the University of North Carolina," said Baddour, the athletics director. "We have heard from a countless number of players who stand firm in their belief in, support of and thanks to Anson and the women's soccer program. Many of our former student-athletes expressed their desire to testify on Anson's behalf and about the positive experiences they had while playing for him. But, we just didn¹t want to subject them to a court proceeding."

Added Chancellor James Moeser: "We have never believed that the case had any merit. We've stood by Coach Dorrance since this case started and we stand by him now. Anson has for 25 plus years demonstrated a strong support of his student-athletes, is a great teacher, and has been a leader in advancing opportunities for women in intercollegiate athletics."

 

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