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Jury Awards $5.85 Million in Fresno State Discrimination Suit

A jury on Monday awarded a former Fresno
State volleyball coach $5.85
million in damages, ruling that the school discriminated against her for
speaking up on behalf of female athletes.

Lindy Vivas, 50, was fired in 2004, two years after coaching
her team to its best season in history. University officials said Vivas was let
go because she did not meet performance goals and ran a program that often
played in empty arenas.

Vivas sued in civil court, saying her contract was not
renewed because she raised her voice to advocate for equal treatment of women
athletes and access to facilities at Fresno
State, a Division I school with a
sprawling central California

The jury award, which took into account Vivas’ back wages,
future lost pay and emotional distress, is likely the largest ever granted to a
coach suing for retaliation under Title IX, a landmark federal law requiring
gender equity in scholastic athletics, said the coach’s lawyer, Dan Siegel.

“Fresno State
wants to be a big-time athletic power, but it has to start acting like one.
That means treating men and women the same,” Siegel said. “This is a
complete vindication of her and who Lindy is as a person, as a coach, and what
she had to live with as a result of their actions.”

University officials said Monday they feared publicity had
influenced the outcome of the trial and that the school planned to appeal the
case “on a variety of grounds.”

“We’re extremely disappointed that the jury did not see
that the university’s actions in this matter were based solely on Ms. Vivas’
job performance and her unwillingness to improve the volleyball program,”
said a statement issued by Fresno State’s
communications office. “The university believes this decision is

Others celebrated the ruling with cheers and hollers Monday,
calling the decision a victory for all female coaches and their players.

“The jury saw exactly what was happening,” Vivas
said. “They were targeting me, but what keeps getting lost in all this was
there were 14 student athletes who were caught in the crossfire.”

Thirty-five years after Congress passed Title IX, the
percentage of women’s teams coached by women is at its lowest point ever, and
the average salaries for coaches of women’s teams still trail those of coaches
for men’s teams, according to an Associated Press review of statistics provided
by the NCAA and other groups.

“Everyone has been watching for this verdict because it
explains to everyone that we weren’t crazy, that it was real,” said Fresno
State softball coach Margie Wright.
“It’s awesome.”

Wright, a member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of
Fame, has filed a complaint accusing the school of retaliating against her for
supporting gender equity with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil
Rights, charged with monitoring whether schools are obeying the law.

Two other female ex-employees of the athletics department
have also sued the school, raising claims similar to Vivas’. Those cases are
still pending in Fresno County Superior Court.

The fact that those kinds of concerns are still surfacing
years after the federal government forced the university to implement a gender
equity plan for its sports program is troubling, said Neena Chaudry, an
attorney with the Washington-based National Women’s Law

By 2001, when the U.S. Department of Education declared the
university had complied with the law, athletics department staff meetings would
frequently turn into vicious, all-out battles between the sexes, former
employees testified.

Vivas said the more she told her male supervisors that her
team needed adequate equipment and practice space, the more they turned against
her, culminating in the celebration of “Ugly Women Athlete’s Day.”

That afternoon in April 2000, she walked into a department office
to find three male administrators sipping drinks under a banner featuring crude
cutouts of womanly figures with male heads, Vivas said.

University officials agreed that the atmosphere inside the
department was tense during those years, but said Vivas lost her job because
she couldn’t attract enough fans to games, failed to schedule enough matches
with top-25 opponents and won too few postseason matches.

Advocates for women in sports said Vivas’ case was
emblematic of a system that has helped female athletes but failed female
“Ultimately, though, it’s not a good thing for
teams to lose their coaches,” Chaudry said. “The hope is this
empowers other coaches to speak out for gender equity and civil rights.”

– Associated Press

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