In a case that highlights what some describe as an anti-lesbian bias in college sports, two former Mesa College athletic department employees are suing their former employer for discrimination.
Lorri Sulpizio, Mesa’s women’s basketball coach, and Cathy Bass, director of basketball operations, are registered domestic partners who were both fired in April of 2007. After nearly a decade with the college, the two were dismissed shortly after a local news story pictured them together and identified them as lesbians.
The suit not only brings forth allegations of discrimination made on the basis of sexual orientation, but also claims the women were retaliated against for demanding that female athletes be treated fairly and given equivalent facilities as their male counterparts at the San Diego, Calif.-based college.
Sulpizio, in particular, had complained for years about women’s sports programs being shortchanged at Mesa; the suit alleges that she was punished for championing Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the federal law that explicitly prohibits sexual discrimination in educational institutions.
Sulpizio said she hopes the case will improve the environment at Mesa and, perhaps, have a ripple effect across the world of collegiate athletics. “The main thing that I’m really motivated to accomplish is to make some change, to have a positive impact, to change the culture and climate,” she said.
Mesa officials said they would not comment on the case.
Discrimination Claims Not New to Sports
While higher education has been at the forefront of both the gay rights movement and feminist causes, tolerance in the classroom hasn’t always expanded into gyms. Last year, the women’s basketball coach at Pennsylvania State University, Rene Portland, resigned amid allegations that she’d discriminated against a player based on the player’s perceived sexual orientation.
A 2005 case also had striking similarities to the allegations made in the Mesa College case. California State University at Fresno was forced to award a former women’s volleyball coach $5.85 million in a case that alleged she was retaliated against for speaking up about gender inequalities in athletics.
Sulpizio and Bass are seeking monetary damages from Mesa, but no dollar amount is declared in the suit.
The former Mesa employees are being represented in part by the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Helen Carroll, sports project director for the center, said she thinks the Mesa case illustrates that discrimination is happening across the spectrum of the athletic world. “I think what it shows is that this is happening in every level of the college and university system.… It’s prevalent and happening everywhere,” she said.
According to Sulpizio, she and Bass were never given any indication that they weren’t performing up to expectations. When their contracts weren’t renewed, neither was given an explanation for their dismissals, Sulpizio said.
During the years that Sulpizio and Bass were heading the basketball program, Mesa had a record of 31-31 in the Pacific Coast Conference, including a 10-0 season in 2001-02 and 6-6 season last year, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Athletic Director Targeted in Suit
Named in the suit is Dave Evans, the athletic director at Mesa. According to the complaint, Evans exhibited a keen interest in the sexual orientation of Sulpizio and other coaches. He conducted an “investigation” of Sulpizio’s orientation in 1999, and then pressed her unsuccessfully to identify other gay coaches in 2003, according to the lawsuit.
“There certainly were instances where it was uncomfortable surrounding the issue of sexuality, and I think I sort of tried to evade that,” Sulpizio said. “It was made pretty clear early on that it really wasn’t an acceptable thing.”
Evans instituted a policy in 2003 that forbade athletes from sharing beds on road trips, something that had been common practice at Mesa and continues at other collegiate athletic programs, according to a timeline created by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Evans was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment, according to his assistant.
The “last straw,” Sulpizio said, was a March 2007 article, printed in the Bernardo News Journal, which identified Sulpizio and Bass as domestic partners with three children. By the next month, both women were terminated within one day of each other.
Title IX at Heart of Complaint
While the allegations about discrimination against gay employees are plentiful in the Mesa case, there are just as many instances where the plaintiffs allege violations of Title IX that went unchecked despite their complaints.
The complaint outlines numerous specific inequities, including allegations that visiting men’s football teams routinely displaced female athletes from their locker rooms. Furthermore, women were required to practice and compete on a softball field with no dirt infield, according to the suit. Their male counterparts in baseball, however, had exclusive use of a regulation field.
Carroll, a former basketball coach herself, said this case and others like it show a change in how coaches are responding to gender inequities and discrimination.
“Now the coaches are standing up and saying, ‘no you can’t do that to that to me anymore,’ ” Carroll said. “I think in the past women coaches have left quietly.”