The University of North Florida last week agreed to a $1.25 million settlement with a former women’s basketball coach who alleged the university discriminated against her and her players because of their gender.
The former coach, Mary Tappmeyer, had led the women’s basketball team since its inception in 1991. She alleged that during her time as coach she witnessed years of widespread gender discrimination against female athletes and said she was fired last year for complaining about the athletes’ treatment.
John Delaney, president of the University of North Florida, said Friday that the university agreed to the settlement only to avoid the defense of the lawsuit. Delaney said the university “unequivocally rejects the allegations” made by Tappmeyer.
"It's just absolutely wrong," Delaney said. “Each time Coach Tappmeyer brought an allegation to our attention it was investigated thoroughly and completely. After much consideration, we made a business decision to settle the case because the litigation had the real potential to cost the university more than $1 million in legal fees, even in victory.”
Tappmeyer’s settlement is one of several recent cases of coaches of women's college teams saying they were victims of sex discrimination. Last year, three former University of Minnesota at Duluth coaches sued the Minnesota Board of Regents, alleging gender and sexual orientation discrimination by university administrators. All three coaches are women, including Shannon Miller, a successful women's hockey coach at the university.
Miller's contract was not renewed the previous year, amid much controversy after university officials said they could no longer afford to pay her salary, though she was paid less than her male counterpart. The other two coaches -- Jen Banford and Annette Wiles -- coached softball and women's basketball. Banford's contract was also not renewed, and Wiles said she was "forced to resign" due to a "hostile and discriminatory environment."
In January, the University of Tennessee agreed to a $750,000 settlement with two former strength coaches and a former associate director of sports medicine who alleged they were paid less than employees working with men’s teams. One of the strength coaches is male, but he worked with a women’s team.
Though the Tennessee employees were successful in reaching a settlement, that case highlights why many gender discrimination lawsuits are generally thought of as difficult to win: the gap in men's and women's coaches' pay doesn't often fall under the Equal Pay Act of 1963, because the disparity tends to happen no matter which gender is coaching women. In many cases, it's less about the gender of the coach and more about the gender of who is being coached.
At the same time, few women are ever hired to coach men's teams. While 60 percent of women's teams are now coached by men, only about 3 percent of men's teams are coached by women.
Linda Correia, Tappmeyer’s lawyer, said the success of recent settlements with UNF and Tennessee sends a “clear message” that colleges cannot get away with discriminating against female coaches and players.
“UNF was strangling the program," Correia said. “They were setting the program up to fail. Coach Tappmeyer stood up for her players. This resolution shows that it is not OK for colleges to retaliate against coaches for standing up for their players’ equal rights.”
Tappmeyer’s claims against the university are many. She said the university’s athletic director instructed her to avoid recruiting lesbian athletes and that he encouraged her to recruit white Midwestern players, as “nobody wanted to watch an all-black team play.” Tappmeyer also alleged that the athletic director wanted her to hire male assistant coaches, replaced any outgoing female coaches with men, made salary decisions that resulted in unequal pay for female coaches and wanted pregnant assistant coaches fired.
Tappmeyer said she was held to higher performance standards than her male counterpart and that she was paid significantly less. Women’s teams also had unequal operating budgets and locker rooms compared to men’s teams, she said, and the university frequently provided academic exceptions to UNF’s admissions requirements for male recruits but would not offer similar exceptions for female players.
“There is evidence that the women’s basketball student-athletes’ grade point averages were higher along with test scores,” the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity wrote in a report responding to Tappmeyer’s allegations last year. “In addition, by your own admission, you stated that your basketball philosophy was not about winning but about ‘books, basketball, and then boys and beach.’ EOD has confirmed that all student-athletes on the men’s and women’s basketball teams have met the criteria for admission to UNF and while there were exceptions to the university’s admission profile, there were exceptions made for both the women’s and men’s teams.”
The report concluded that there was no evidence to support any of Tappmeyer’s allegations, and that “there was no appearance of discrimination” against her on the basis of gender. That includes the fact that the men’s basketball coach was paid about $80,000 a year more than her. He started coaching at UNF nearly two decades after Tappmeyer.
The university argued that the pay difference made sense and was not discriminatory, as the men’s coach, Matthew Driscoll, was hired as UNF made the switch from Division II to Division I, and that a higher salary was necessary in order to attract a men’s coach who could succeed at the more competitive level. Driscoll was hired in 2009 after serving as Baylor University's assistant men's basketball coach.
Correia called the university’s justification of the higher salary and denial of the other allegations weak. She said while the university promised to not retaliate against Tappmeyer, the coach was fired soon after she brought her allegations to administrators. The university said Tappmeyer was fired because she had 11 straight losing seasons, but Correia said Tappmeyer’s lack of success was directly related to the lack of support she and her team received from the university.
Though the team's record had been poor in recent years, the program did see some success under the coach, even after its switch to Division I. In its first appearance in the Atlantic Sun tournament in 2009, the team advanced to the title game, only to lose by one point. Tappmeyer's players, the university boasted, had a 98 percent graduation rate.
“You don’t settle with someone for this kind of money if there is no merit to the claims,” Correia said.
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
What Others Are Reading