Jury rules against Fresno St. in discrimination case, awards Vivas $5.85M

Updated: July 9, 2007, 9:26 PM ET
Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. -- 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 campus.

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 wrong."

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 Center.

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 coaches.

"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."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press