07/15/2008 04:25 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Women Coaches Sue

Stacy Johnson-Klein won't have to worry about money for awhile.

In a mediated settlement on June 17th, California State University, Fresno, agreed to pay its former women's basketball coach $9 million, more than half of it immediately and the rest parceled out over 23 years. Why? Because the school fired her after she complained about sexual inequity under Title IX -- leading her to sue for retaliation, unlawful termination and sexual harassment to boot.

Nine million is a huge price to pay for sex discrimination, but it's actually a bargain for Fresno State, which was originally on the hook for $19.1 million after Johnson-Klein won her suit in a Fresno courtroom last fall. All that money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy back Johnson-Klein's career.

In 2005, the thirtysomething coach -- who cuts a noticeably glamorous figure at over 6 feet tall, with long blonde hair and camera-ready makeup -- seemed to be at the height of her game. The team had a winning record, and there had been a tenfold boost in attendance at games since her arrival three years earlier. But she, like other women in the Fresno State athletic department, had begun to notice that women athletes and coaches didn't get the same perks as men. She also was made uncomfortable by the associate athletic director's comments on her clothing -- her blouse was cut too low, her pants were too tight.

In the school's explanation of her firing, it accused the former Oklahoma basketball star of financial improprieties, of antagonizing certain players and of asking a player for a half-bottle of painkillers. "Of course no one complained of those alleged improprieties at the time they occurred," said one of her attorneys, Oakland-based civil-rights litigator Dan Siegel. The jury also didn't buy them as reasons for her termination.

By the time Siegel had taken on Johnson-Klein's case, along with Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, he already knew plenty about the women's athletic department at Fresno State -- a dominant institution in the California Central Valley town of 500,000 that's a gateway to Sierra mountain resorts such as Yosemite. He also represented two other women in the athletic department who had complained of discrimination under Title IX, the 1972 legislation that requires equal treatment for women in schools with federal funding.

Associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich, a stickler for gender equity, had been forced out of the department after 24 years in 2002. And in 2004, longtime successful women's volleyball coach Lindy Vivas was not rehired after she filed a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

Despite being in existence for 35 years, Title IX is still constantly being tested by schools. Can we get away with paying our women coaches less? Can we provide lesser facilities for women athletes? Can we provide fewer sports opportunities for women? Well, no -- not if you don't want to be investigated by the Office of Civil Rights, which first investigated Fresno State in 1993, finding the athletic department out of compliance in 11 of 13 areas. Most of the violations were corrected over the next seven years, but not without a lot of grumbling by men in the athletic department.

"I remember meetings where men would be screaming, bashing Title IX, bashing women in athletics," says Lindy Vivas. "And no one stopped them." One day in 2000, male administrators in the department even celebrated a lunchtime "Ugly Women Athletes' Day" as a lame joke. None of the young women athletes found it funny.

Last year, the university decided to settle with Milutinovich for $3.5 without going to court. Vivas, though, was awarded $5.85 in a jury trial that preceded Johnson-Klein's. Her case, though, continues to be appealed by the university.

"I was glad to hear that Stacy's case was settled, and I look forward to [Fresno State] demonstrating its respect for the jury verdict in my case," says Vivas, a former collegiate volleyball star herself, who hasn't returned to coaching. "I also hope that [Fresno State] will discontinue its practice of abusing the power of the State of California to retaliate against her own citizens, and start acting as the ethical and professional entity that we all expect. Neither Stacy nor I deserved to have our coaching careers ruined by Fresno State officials."

Fresno State is riding high these days -- its baseball team won its first national championship in June. That was just the second national title ever for the school: its first came in 1998, as the women's softball team triumphed under the guidance of legendary coach Margie Wright. But Wright, too, has made equity complaints against the athletic department, and still awaits mediation herself.

Meanwhile, the university has admitted no wrongdoing in any of the cases, which pisses off California state senator Dean Florez. He's set forth a bill that would create an independent office of gender equity under the state attorney general, and state universities would have to report to the office.

If Fresno State still doesn't get that it's just plain right to treat women equally -- let alone illegal not to -- at least California taxpayers should, because we're the ones ultimately paying the price for the school's sexism. Even in the conservative Central Valley, the juries for Johnson-Klein and Vivas, "got it" -- as did their attorney Warren Paboojian. "Handling this case opened my eyes," said the self-confessed former male chauvinist. "Women should have the same opportunity to compete in sports and get that enjoyment and benefit that men get--and they often don't."

This story is adapted from a longer piece that appeared in Ms.