| Bonus Editorial |
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
and Vicky Barker, Legal Director, California
Women's Law Center
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
You must have had to do a tremendous amount of
work to educate yourself about the law and how to represent yourself in
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 athletesit'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 injusticethat
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.
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.
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 outit was a
very close decision. How will this decision help other coaches who want
to speak out on behalf of their female athletes?
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
Jackson: The decision that came down on March
29, 2005 and the realization that the decision wasn't going to affect
just meit 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
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
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
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
improvementsthe 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
The National Women's Law Center
can be found online at: www.nwlc.org.
The California Women's Law Center is online
Read a Washington Post story reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court
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
Interview conducted By Laura Smith, an Assistant Editor at
Athletic Management Magazine.
Photo: Jay Reeves/AP
© Copyright 2005 MomentumMedia. All Rights
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