Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Wrestling Coach's Retaliation Claim Survives Summary Judgment

Joseph Sabol, former wrestling coach at Montclair State University, won a legal victory earlier this month when a federal district judge in New Jersey denied MSU's motion for summary judgment on Sabol's retaliation lawsuit. Sabol sued the school after he was passed over for the full time head wrestling coach position, despite serving as the part time head coach for one year, because he complained about inferior equipment and the security of the locker room and because he had argued to the AD on behalf of his assistant coach who was facing discipline that was allegedly harsher than what female coaches had received in comparable circumstances.

Despite the efforts of MSU, the district court did not dismiss Sabol's Title VII, Title IX, and state antidiscrimination law claims, holding that Sabol had presented sufficient evidence to raise the possibility that a jury could find in his favor.

Sabol's case presents a claim of gender discrimination that is the reverse of many of the high profile Title IX retaliation cases we've blogged so much about, like Fresno State and FGCU. Here we have a male coach terminated by a (female*) AD in alleged retaliation for his efforts to ensure equal treatment for his men's team. But it's not surprising that of all the men's athletics programs, it would be a wrestling coach litigating a case that is, but for the plaintiff's gender, very similar to the spate of female coaches' retaliation claims we've recently seen. Wrestling is, for whatever reason**, treated like the ugly stepson of men's athletics, a marginalized position not unlike that which is occupied by women's sports -- the difference is that no women's sports are favored to same the degree as football, so women sports can often better avail themselves of Title IX protections.

In other words, while wrestlers and wrestling coaches may experience discrimination, it is hard to characterize this as sex discrimination in light of the fact that men's sports are more privileged on the whole. This case is no different. The thrust of Sabol's case is that he was passed over because he advocated better treatment for the wrestling program and its coaches, but the only direct gender comparison in Sabol's complaint is his allegation that the AD disciplined his assistant coach more harshly than female coaches. I agree with the district court that it's possible he could convince a jury that he was retaliated against for objecting to this particular inequity, but it will certainly be difficult to prove that this single incident was the reason he wasn't hired. His claim that he was retaliated for being a staunch supporter of wrestling has more support, but this, unfortunately for Sabol, is not sex discrimination.

Decision is: Sabol v. Montclair State University, 2008 WL 2354553 (D.N.J. June 3, 2008).

* To make my point of comparison, I am focusing on the gender of the plaintiff and his student-athletes and not the gender of the AD, which is of little significance in my opinion. Wrestling gets the shaft in athletic departments run by men as well. Moreover, a number of the current retaliation cases brought by female coaches implicate a female president (Feather River College), a female AD (University of Nevada, Reno), or the Senior Woman Administrator (FGCU, Tennessee-Martin).

**My theory is that wrestling is marginalized because it strikes people as a little bit queer, what with the men in tight outfits grappling other men on mats. If this is right, maybe wrestler discrimination could constitute sex discrimination on a theory of gender nonconformity?