Fighting the good fight
High school coach tests borders of Title IX protections
Posted: Friday October 29, 2004 2:11PM; Updated: Friday October 29, 2004 2:11PM
When the young coach at Ensley High in Birmingham (Ala.) took over the girls basketball program four years ago, he didn't walk into a rosy situation. Politely, but with conviction, he told his bosses about the shoddy treatment he believed his team was receiving. He let them know his girls didn't have access to the main gym like the boys did. He also told them that the boys' team consumed all of the revenue from admissions and concessions, as well as the $2,000 allocation from the school board. And he suggested that it didn't seem right to eliminate the girls' junior varsity team while the boys played on.
Nothing scandalous. Just a coach fighting for the best treatment he could garner for his team. After all, Roderick Jackson was an old high school jock himself. He'd coached boys' teams, and as the father of a son and daughter, was only doing what he thought fair.
But when the issues he raised were never addressed to his satisfaction, Jackson rightly wouldn't let it go. Soon thereafter, Jackson alleges, school officials retaliated by giving him negative evaluations and eventually stripping him of his coaching duties.
Now, he's taking his argument all the way to Washington, and the school known for having produced NFL great Cornelius Bennett is about to make news in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court.
Next month, the Supreme Court, at the urging of the Bush administration and others, will dip their toes into the sports field when they hear Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, No. 02-1672, in which the Jackson -- who was reinstated last year as "acting coach" -- claims he was fired after complaining to the district's director of high schools about the second-class treatment afforded his female athletes.
"[The school administrator] told me, 'Play ball. You're making problems for yourself. Be a team player,'" Jackson recalled. "I didn't know what that meant, but I found out in May 2001 what it meant: Shut your mouth or you'll be fired.
I learned when you go against the grain it is pretty tough. People don't want to know the facts of what is going on. When they say you'll make problems for yourself, they aren't joking."
Should the Supreme Court rule in his favor, Jackson would be able to go forward with his lawsuit and the school board left to defend itself against his claims. "Whatever was done was done on an equal basis," said board attorney Kenneth Thomas of the alleged treatment. "My people on all of the things made it very clear to me that the girls were treated the same, if not better."
That hasn't been an issue yet because the school board immediately moved to dismiss the case on the basis that Title IX provides no protection against retaliation or individual lawsuits to remedy it, and thus Jackson is not covered because he was not a victim of direct sex discrimination. End of case, the board argues.
So who's right? The Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled against the coach, upholding a district court ruling that Title IX indeed does not provide for any protection for retaliatory measure. Prompted by the Bush administration, though, the Supreme Court will decide Jackson's fate this fall.
No matter the outcome, Title IX is here to stay. But one wonders if coaches, teachers and the like will dare utter a peep about alleged violations if the law fails to afford some protection against retaliation.
"It is so central to these anti-discrimination laws to make sure those that complain about discrimination are protected," offered Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center and co-counsel for Jackson in the case. "If we can't protect the people -- like Roderick Jackson -- who complain, it is not only an injustice to them, it undermines the very substance of these discrimination laws to make sure those who see that something wrong are protected when they bring it to attention with authority to fix it."
And anyone who covers college sports knows that Title IX remains a divisive issue on few campuses, with folks rightly or wrongly linking cuts in men's sports to the ladies. Yet only a Neanderthal from the leather helmet days could still argue that women's sports don't deserve fair treatment. And, for the most part, the issue is ceasing to be an issue on a lot of college campuses.
But below the radar, in high schools, where equal treatment often isn't the norm, where the coach Jacksons of the world walk the sidelines, the fight for gender equity continues. I saw it personally a few years ago when I did a lengthy investigation of high school programs in Georgia, where million-dollar field houses for football teams stood in stark contrast to barren patches of land for the girls to play their games.
This picture surely doesn't hold true in every city and school across the country. But heaven forbid it exist at your local school; you'd like to think folks wouldn't face retaliation for bringing it to light.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.