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Sept. 29 — The winningest women’s basketball coach in San Diego State University history was awarded $3.4 million after convincing a jury she was fired in retaliation for whistle-blowing rather than for allegedly hitting a male assistant during a game ( Burns v. San Diego State Univ., Cal. Super. Ct., No. 37-2014-003408, jury verdict 9/28/16 ).
Beth Burns Sept. 28 was granted the award for economic damages, emotional distress and loss of reputation by a jury composed of five women and seven men, her attorney, Allison Goddard of the Patterson Law Group in San Diego, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 29.
The university said it fired Burns for the incident with the assistant coach. Burns sued in a California trial court alleging she was actually fired in 2013 for complaining repeatedly about alleged gender inequity in the Division I school’s sports program. California’s whistle-blower law prohibits punishment of employees who report possible violations of law, including of such federal laws as Title IX, which mandates equal treatment of women in institutions that receive federal money.
The central issue was that Burns “was fired for speaking out for female athletes, concerning issues both big and small,” Goddard said. “This is a great victory for Ms. Burns and it’s a victory that will resonate throughout the athletic community. Coaches should know that they’ll be protected if and when they speak out for female athletes.”
Representatives of the university didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment Sept. 29.
“I learned about this case with a feeling of deja vu,” Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University who specializes in the business of college sports and gender equity, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 29. Staurowsky said that Fresno State was successfully sued by three female coaches and administrators in recent years.
“Those cases were also about advocating for gender equity and retaliation, with the results being multimillion-dollar verdicts,” the professor said. “So the fact that it’s happening at another” California State University “institution is at least interesting to note.”
Burns was fired in April 2013, after 16 years on the job. Her team had just finished a season in which it set a school record with 27 wins and won its second straight Mountain West Conference regular-season title before losing in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. She had four years left on a five-year contract at the time, according to Sanford Heisler LLP, which also represented the coach.
San Diego State said the firing was because of some improper physical contact with a male assistant coach during a heated game. A video of the incident circulated, and it appears to show Burns hitting the coach’s clipboard on one occasion, then later striking him on the arm.
The coach alleged in her complaint that she was actually fired “for her unwavering demands that SDSU put women’s basketball and men’s athletics on an equal footing.”
More than 40 percent of female college coaches feel discriminated against based on their gender, compared with 29 percent of their male counterparts, according to a 2016 report by the Women’s Sports Foundation. The report also found that most female coaches said they feared unfair treatment, retaliation and job loss if they expressed Title IX concerns to department leaders and university administrators.
Staurowsky said that Burns’ case is reflective of those “ongoing challenges” female coaches face working in a college sports environment.
“One of the things that comes up over and over again is a palpable sense among many female coaches that they’re very limited in their ability to actually do their job,” Staurowsky said.
“If you think about what a head coach does, there is an expectation that coaches will advocate in the best interests of their teams. At the same time, the dynamic is such that female coaches often work in situations that are inequitable and when they speak up, they suffer the consequence, sometimes to the point of losing their jobs,” Staurowsky said. “So it really is a double bind for female coaches who are trying to navigate those waters, and sadly we see female coaches who are dismissed, in effect, for doing their jobs.”
Some of Burns’ complaints concerned publicity and promotion of respective sports, Goddard said. “Getting the media relations department to simply provide a media guide for women’s basketball was a chronic issue—she would have to show up usually and demand that it be done,” Goddard said.
Burns also complained that female athletes were treated differently with regard to game-day preparation and the setup of facilities. Additionally, athletic directors “focused their time, efforts, and priorities on football and men’s basketball, to the detriment of women’s athletics,” she said in her complaint.
David Noonan and Christopher Wright in San Diego represented SDSU.
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