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More Legal Issues of Basketball

The Court of Justice

 by Edward N Matisik, Esq.

edmatisik@yahoo.com

January 21, 2005
 

MEN’S BASKETBALL COACH SEXUALLY HARASSED WOMEN’S BASKETBALL COACH

SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY FORCED TO PAY OVER $275,000 IN DAMAGES

 

One of the more frequent causes of lawsuits in the American workplace is sexual harassment.  And colleges are, by no means, exempt.  Sexual harassment cases against colleges and universities are filed every day, some of these cases do not have any merit, but many do.  Students often sue professors for quid pro quo sexual harassment (Latin for “one thing for another”; i.e., “you do this for me and I’ll do that for you”) which, at the university level, often involves an offer to change a grade for some sort of sexual favor.  Professors sue administrators over tenure denials after a quid pro quo offer is refused, and administrators often sue each other over “hostile work environment” sexual harassment; that is, one person, usually in authority over others, makes remarks and takes actions of a sexual nature that the day-to-day work environment becomes hostile to the employees who work there.  Unfortunately, college athletic departments are, by no means, exempt from such boorish and illegal behavior. 

 

Jean Brooks was hired by Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) in 1992 to serve full-time as head coach of its women’s basketball team and as a part-time instructor in the University’s Health and Physical Education Department.  Brooks immediate supervisor was Earl Hill, who was both SUNO’s athletic director and head coach of its men’s basketball team.  Brooks and Hill had been acquainted with each other in high school, many years before.

 

Brooks’ working relationship with Hill was “good” and professional when she first started, but things began to change rapidly.  Hill began to ask Brooks out on dates frequently, but she always refused, telling him that she “was not interested.”  But Hill would not take “no” for an answer.  He continued to ask her out, bragging to her that he was “big and handsome” and that he did not smoke, drink, use drugs, or beat women and that he took care of his children.  Hill also made frequent comments on Brooks’ appearance, urging her to wear shorter dresses, telling her that he could see her nipples through her t-shirts, and repeatedly telling her that she “turned him on.” 

 

Brooks rebuffed Hill, usually reminding him that he already had a girlfriend or that she thought of him “as family.”  Brooks never encouraged Hill, but she found that she had to avoid him, her own boss, in order to get her work done.  Over the course of the next three years, virtually every conversation between Brooks and Hill included him asking her out and promising to be “nice” to her if she were “nicer” to him.  Brooks stated that she eventually came to “dread” going to see Hill for any reason related to her job and that she avoided him as much as possible.

 

After three years of being politely rebuffed by Brooks, Hill stepped up the pressure on her and even began to interfere with her coaching of the SUNO women’s basketball team.  In late 1995 or early 1996, Hill cut the women’s basketball team’s daily practice time from three hours to two hours, issued an order requiring Brooks, specifically, to wear a basketball uniform shirt to practices, cut her regular assistant’s position and replaced that job with a student assistant, delayed the approval of materials that Brooks needed to coach her team, and required that she communicate with him only in writing.  Hill even went so far as to alter travel plans for the women’s basketball team so that they would arrive late for important games.  Hill took none of these actions against other coaches, female or male, of any other SUNO athletic team.  Hill apparently took these actions in order to sabotage Brooks’ coaching record.

 

In late 1996, Brooks attempted to resolve the matter privately.  She sent a letter to Hill, photocopied to her attorney and the minister of her church, stating that she wanted to meet with him in order to “recreate their once wholesome relationship” and to discuss the requirements of her job.  Hill did not make any allegations of sexual harassment in the letter.  However, Hill replied that he would not meet with her because she photocopied the letter to the attorney and minister.  Hill also stated to her that he did not believe she was following the mandatory study hall requirements for her team.

 

Brooks then approached Robert Gex, Chancellor of SUNO.  Gex urged Brooks to communicate with Hill only in writing.  Brooks sent a second letter to Gex asking to meet with her and Hill so that she could express her concerns about the women’s basketball program.  Hill informed Brooks and Gex that he would not meet with them and told Brooks that he did not want any more correspondence on the matter.

 

Brooks sent a third letter to Gex shortly after the second letter.  In it, she stated that she still wanted to meet with Gex to discuss Brooks’ continued refusal to allow her team to practice three-hours per day.  Gex never responded to the third letter, but Hill, upon learning of the letter, sent a recommendation to Gex that Brooks be suspended for one game without pay for “insubordination.”  Gex granted Hill’s request.

 

During the course of the next six months, Brooks heard rumors that Hill had recommended to Gex that she be fired.  Brooks filed a formal complaint of sexual harassment with SUNO.  The University immediately contacted Brooks’ attorney and negotiated a settlement agreement whereby Brooks was guaranteed employment through the 1997-1998 season, the practice time for her team would be restored to three hours per day, she would no longer be required to wear a uniform shirt to basketball practice, and, for purposes of her annual employment evaluation, she would be considered to be “successful” in her job if her team attained a winning record during the previous season.  Brooks refused to sign the agreement because she would still be reporting to Hill.  Brooks fired her attorney, hired a new one, and re-filed her sexual harassment complaint.

 

Shortly after she re-filed the complaint, Gerald Kimble, a retired SUNO coach, contacted Brooks on behalf of the University.  He told her he had been sent by Hill and the new SUNO Chancellor, Gerald Peoples—a friend of Hill—to offer her a deal:  the University would guarantee her three seasons of employment as women’s basketball coach at SU and would not interfere with her coaching of the team if she withdrew the complaint.  Kimble stated that the University would not put the agreement in writing because “…all untenured instructors…were required to have year-to-year contracts.”  Brooks agreed to the offer and withdrew her complaint.

 

However, Hill, once again, started interfering with her coaching of the women’s team.  Hill barred Brooks’ teenage niece from riding on the team bus—something she had done for several years without Hill objecting—deliberately caused her team to be late for games through bizarre scheduling of team travel and meals, and permitting only ten minutes of pre-game warm-up prior to home games.  Despite Hill’s interference, the SUNO women’s basketball achieved its first winning season in several years during the 1997-1998 season.

 

Despite this fact, Peoples sent a notice to Brooks shortly after the season ended that she would be terminated from her position as a part-time instructor of health and physical education at the end of the spring 1998 semester.  At the end of May 1998, Peoples informed Brooks that her employment as SUNO’s women’s basketball coach would end on June 30, 1998. 

 

Brooks renewed her complaint of sexual harassment and added a charge of retaliation.  The complaint was heard, according to SUNO procedure, by a grievance committee chaired by Peoples.  The committee found no evidence of harassment or retaliation.

 

Brooks sued SUNO for permitting Hill to sexually harass her and retaliate against her.  At trial, in addition to the evidence presented above, Brooks was able to show that other former female employees of the SUNO athletic department had been sexually harassed by Hill and that the University failed to take any action to stop him despite being aware of Hill’s actions.  After listening to dozens of witnesses, the federal court in Louisiana found that Brooks was truthful in making her allegations and that Hill had, in fact, sexually harassed Brooks and retaliated against her to the point of affecting the performance of SUNO’s women’s basketball team.  The court entered judgment in favor of Brooks and awarded her $283,200 in damages.

 

The case is Brooks v. Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 877 So.2d 1194 (La. App. 2004).

To contact Ed Matisik, or to read his bio, please click here.

 

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