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Jacksonmockup.doc Going the Distance
How one coach's refusal to give up changed Title IX law for everyone, gaining permanent protection for coaches who speak out against gender equity.

A Q&A with:
Roderick Jackson, Girls' Basketball Coach, Ensley High School in Birmingham, Ala.
and Vicky Barker, Legal Director, California Women's Law Center

When Roderick Jackson was hired in 1999 to coach the girls' basketball team at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Ala., he had no idea he would help establish an important aspect of Title IX law. But when he reported for duty, he found that his team was assigned to practice in a 100-year-old, unheated gym, denied their own gate and concessions receipts, and given no financial support by the district. Meanwhile, the boys' basketball team played in a new facility, kept their earnings, and received district funding.
Jackson complained, hoping for better treatment for his team. What he says he got instead was a series of negative reviews for his performance as a teacher at the school and eventually, a pink slip telling him he was relieved of his coaching duties.
The coach fought back, suing his school for retaliation. The legal system's response shocked him. Two levels of federal courts ruled that, as a whistleblower, Jackson was not protected under Title IX.
Jackson refused to give up, and his case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. In March 2005, Title IX history was made when the high court ruled that Title IX does in fact protect those who speak out on behalf of their teams.
We spoke with Jackson about his Supreme Court experience and his ongoing battle to win equitable treatment for his team. Vicky Barker, Legal Director for the California Women's Law Center, joined us to discuss the sweeping effect of this case on Title IX law.

Coach Jackson, when you first began coaching the Ensley girls' basketball team, you realized the girls' team was not getting nearly the resources the boys' team was. What shortcomings stuck out the most?
Jackson: As soon as I arrived, I noticed some problems. One of the biggest things that really affected us was that we weren't allowed to use the regulation gymnasium during practice. We practiced in a gym built in 1908, with lumpy floors, wooden backboards, bent rims, and no heat in the wintertime.

Another discrepancy that really alarmed me was that the girls' team had no access to the expense account. We were playing games and making money at the door and at concessions, but we were not getting a dime of that, while at the same time we were being charged for officials and buses to away games.

What were the steps you took to try to resolve the issue with your athletic director and the school's administration?
Jackson: I tried just talking with them first. I discussed the problem with the athletic director and the school's principal, and I found out that neither thought anything needed to change. At that point, I decided to put things in writing. I sent written complaints to the athletic director, then to the principal, then to the director of high schools. I didn't get any assistance there, so I went to the deputy superintendent of the district, who is in charge of the day-to-day operations. I put everything in writing to him.

So you carefully went through the chain of command.
Jackson: Right. Being ex-military, I was taught about the chain of command, and having worked in schools for a few years, I learned about proper channels. And I just hoped that someone along that chain of command would have a reasonable disposition.

But that did not happen.
Jackson: No, it certainly did not. Instead, I started receiving negative performance evaluations for my work as a teacher. I went from being a great teacher to basically being a moron, if you compare that year's evaluations to previous years' evaluations. And then I was fired as a basketball coach on May 7, 2001.

Even then, I didn't file a lawsuit. I still wanted to work things out. So I sent a certified letter to the deputy superintendent of instruction, asking for a meeting just to discuss the glaring discrepancies in the treatment of the two teams and my opinion that I was being retaliated against for complaining. She ignored the letter. At that point, I had to consult legal help.

What was your first step in taking legal action?
Jackson: I called some local lawyers, and unfortunately no one was willing to take the case. It involved taking on a large school system, and no one wanted to take on this fight. So I eventually ended up before the 11th Circuit, representing myself in front of a three-judge panel. Now that was a nerve-wracking experience, arguing against trained lawyers. It was extremely stressful. My head hurt and my chest hurt. It was really something.

You must have had to do a tremendous amount of work to educate yourself about the law and how to represent yourself in court.
Jackson: I learned the basics about educational law, including Title IX, as an undergrad, and that helped me. In graduate school, I learned more about Title IX and became fully aware that it's not just something that's suggested, or something nice that people do for female athletes—it's the law. So that helped me.

The argument before the Supreme Court focused on this question: Since you personally were not discriminated against based on your gender, did you have protection under Title IX. Were you surprised to learn that there was some question about whether the law protected you?
Jackson: Yes. I was surprised that you could separate the coach from the players and say that the coach is not also discriminated against when the players are being treated unfairly. A coach's evaluation is directly tied to his team's performance and to the experience his players have. If the girls do well, the coach does well. If my players are practicing in a cold, unheated gym, I'm practicing in a cold, unheated gym. And so I was really surprised that you could separate the two.

The first two courts that heard your case said you were not protected from retaliation because Title IX is silent on the topic. Were you ever tempted to give up?
Jackson: I was overwhelmed. I was amazed at the injustice—that as the law stood then, it was legal for schools to retaliate against coaches who complained. And after the decision came down from the 11th Circuit, in early 2003, I was really down and out. I wasn't sure where to turn next. And that is when I received some very important phone calls from some people who realized how important this ruling was.

The first call came from the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, and they offered their help. The second call came from an attorney at the National Women's Law Center, also offering help. They signed on because they realized how serious the case was. And we began talking about appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

By the start of the 2003-04 season, you were reinstated as “acting coach” as the lawsuit went on. What was the response from your players to the lawsuit? Did they understand what was going on and were they grateful you were putting yourself on the line for them?
Jackson: Some did understand what was going on, and some of their parents understood. But many just thought, “That's the way it is, and that's the way it's always been.” When you grow up not being treated equally, you just think that's the way it is.

Barker: And that's not uncommon. We had a case last year, here in California, where we had the very same reaction. A lot of people say, “It's been that way for 30 years, why should it be any different?”

As in this case, it takes a coach to say, “I'm going to protest this for you even if you don't understand that your rights are being violated.” Coaches are often in the best position to stick up for girls. They are there every day, they are older, and they have some experience behind them. It's unrealistic to expect 14- or 16-year-olds to combat discrimination on their own. We need coaches to be able to step up.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Coach Jackson could not be retaliated against for speaking out—it was a very close decision. How will this decision help other coaches who want to speak out on behalf of their female athletes?
Barker: The implications will be nationwide. It's very difficult to make a complaint, because the reality is that standing up to your employer is a difficult thing and requires a tremendous amount of character. If the Supreme Court had decided the other way, I think we would have been hard pressed to find many coaches willing to stand up and raise Title IX complaints. And that would have left the girls with no advocates.

Coach Jackson, when you think back on it, what was the most difficult part of all of this for you?
Jackson: The most difficult part was going through the two court decisions that went against us at the lower levels. Each time a decision was rendered, I'd know it even before I talked to my attorney, by the demeanor of the athletic director toward me.

What has been the most rewarding part?
Jackson: The decision that came down on March 29, 2005 and the realization that the decision wasn't going to affect just me—it was going to help a lot of other coaches and girls.

Remember, this started with one man's journey. I was just trying to get my team a level playing field, and I had no idea it would affect the rights of coaches and athletes in other districts all over the country.

When a coach sees that his or her girls' team is being treated in an inequitable manner, what is the first step he or she should take?
Barker: The first thing you should do is exactly what Coach Jackson did: Talk to your athletic director, your principal, and your Title IX compliance officer and see if it can be resolved that way. It's also important put into writing the inequities you see and make a log of the conversations you have about it. If you're not able to resolve it at the first meeting, go up the chain of command, continuing to put things in writing.

If you do not get a proper response within the district, you have a couple of options. You can file a complaint with the Federal Office For Civil Rights. You can also contact the National Women's Law Center, or if you're in California, the California Women's Law Center.

Coach Jackson, what advice do you have for another coach taking on gender discrimination? What was the most important thing you learned?
Jackson: When I started out, I didn't know the National Women's Law Center and the California Women's Law Center existed. So I would say, don't settle for “no.” Research and go to the people who are the authorities in Title IX law and see if they can help you.

What is next for you?
Jackson: I want to get my team on track. I want to help them to be the best they can be, not only on the court, but in their everyday lives. I want to continue working until they are treated equally by this school district. And I will also continue to help with national Title IX awareness in any way that I can.

Since the Decision
After the Supreme Court decision, Jackson's retaliation case against Ensley High School was sent back to a lower court for a new ruling, since the Supreme Court does not rule on the facts of individual cases. The case is ongoing. Jackson also continues to lobby his district for more equitable treatment for his team. A new administration and a shift from an appointed to an elected school board paved the way for some improvements—the team is now allowed to practice in the regulation gymnasium and keeps its own gate and concessions receipts. However, according to Jackson, there is still a long way to go to reach full gender equity. His team is assigned later practice times than the boys' team and unlike the boys' team, has no assistant coach. He also is still the acting coach, having never been reinstated as the permanent coach.

Resources
The National Women's Law Center can be found online at: www.nwlc.org.

The California Women's Law Center is online at www.cwlc.org.

Read a Washington Post story reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court decision: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A9404-2005Mar29.html.


To read the Supreme Court's decision, visit: www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/ /argument_transcripts 02-1672.pdf (A Portable Document Format window will open and automatically download), or visit: www.supremecourtus.gov and type 'Roderick Jackson' into the search window.


Interview conducted By Laura Smith, an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management Magazine.


Photo: Jay Reeves/AP









© Copyright 2005 MomentumMedia. All Rights Reserved.



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