Female coaches leaving collegiate ranks
FRESNO, Calif. --In 2002, Lindy Vivas coached the Fresno State women's volleyball team to the most successful season in its history. Two years later, she was fired.
University officials say Vivas failed to meet performance goals or attract enough fans to matches. But her lawyer says she was replaced by a man because she raised her voice to support women athletes in the macho world of Division I college sports and was mocked for it by male colleagues at office parties, staff meetings and on the court.
"When I got there, the department seemed really good and seemed to support all the women's sports," Vivas said during a break from her discrimination trial at Fresno County Superior Court. "But the message that was sent to me later was either sit down and shut up, or something will to happen to you."
Advocates for women in sports say Vivas, whose $4.1 million lawsuit could go to a jury as soon as this week, is emblematic of a system that has helped female athletes but failed female coaches.
University officials say it's less complicated than that.
"We had established expectations on performance," Fresno State President John Welty said. "Those expectations were not met."
Thirty-five years after Congress passed Title IX, the landmark federal law requiring gender equity in scholastic athletics, the percentage of women's teams coached by women is at its lowest point ever.
More men also are coaching women's teams than at any other time in history, 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.
"Title IX opened so many more opportunities for women athletes, but it also made positions coaching women's teams much more attractive to men," said Deborah Rhode, a Stanford University law professor. "Often women are facing barriers to getting those jobs that weren't there when they were competing with other women and running those programs."
Vivas said the more loudly she spoke out on behalf of her athletes, the more hostile the climate became, culminating in "Ugly Women Athlete's Day."
That afternoon in April 2000, she walked into the athletics department's business office and found three male administrators sharing drinks and snacks under a banner featuring crude cutouts of womanly figures with male heads, Vivas said.
University officials, though, said Vivas was fired because she failed to schedule enough matches with top-25 opponents, won too few postseason matches and had a program that often played in empty arenas.
By the time Vivas was fired, the dispute over women's sports had been simmering for years. In 1994, the government found Fresno State was violating Title IX by skimping on opportunities for female athletes. After the school made major changes, the U.S. Department of Education declared it was in compliance in 2001.
Since then, Fresno State has shown its commitment to women's athletics by doubling the number of female athletes and increasing the budget for women's sports fivefold from 1995 to 2006, said spokeswoman Shirley Armbruster.
The federal government's order forcing Fresno State to implement a gender equity plan set off an on-campus "civil war" between the sexes in the mid-1990s, former staffers said.
Now, more than a decade after the school began making changes, problems are still surfacing. In recent years, two other female ex-employees of the athletics department also sued the school, raising claims similar to those of Vivas. Those cases are still pending.
And in 2004, Fresno State softball coach Margie Wright, a member of the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, filed a complaint, accusing the school of retaliating against her for speaking up for female players, with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, charged with monitoring whether schools are obeying the law.
Title IX bans sexual discrimination by any school that receives federal money. Schools show compliance in many ways: by ensuring the number of athletes matches the gender ratio of the student population, by increasing opportunities for athletes of both genders and by fully accommodating all students' interests.
The law expressly covers students, however, and one of its most troubling side-effects might be the way in which women are quietly slipping from the collegiate coaching ranks.
Under Title IX, the total number of women's intercollegiate teams has ballooned over the past two decades -- from 3,495 in 1977 to 8,702 last year.
But the percentage of those teams with female coaches dropped from 90 percent in 1972, the year the statute was passed, to 42 percent in 2006, the lowest year on record, according to a study by two retired Brooklyn College professors.
Experts attribute this trend in part to heightened interest in the positions from talented male coaches, but they also say family unfriendly policies and a "good ol' boys" network can shut out top-notch female leaders.
Rhode's forthcoming national survey of 462 coaches of women's collegiate teams found that only about half thought Title IX had had a "positive effect" on female coaches.
"What we need to realize is if we have teachers and coaches who are discriminated against, that hurts our students, too," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Purdue University women's basketball coach Sharon Versyp argues schools need to make developing women coaches a priority by giving them the necessary resources.
"You've got to have the money to recruit great players," Versyp said. "We get to charter flights like men's basketball, we get buses, we stay in nice hotels, we get gear and uniforms and shoes and lots of things."
But at Fresno State, the fight over money was just one of the problems.
In March 2005, the Bulldogs' entire athletic department went into turmoil when athletic director Scott Johnson resigned. Soon thereafter, women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein was fired for violating NCAA rules by scoring Vicodin from her players.
Things have stabilized since then. The women's volleyball team now plays all its matches in the air-conditioned $103 million Save Mart Center, a beacon for this sports-crazy town of 450,000 in California's Central Valley, and the women's softball team has finished in the Top 25 for three years straight.
Still, unlike Vivas, many female coaches find it too costly -- psychologically and financially -- to file discrimination complaints.
"They'd rather have a career than a lawsuit," Rhode said.