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

7/9/2007

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."