No retaliation

March 31, 2005

IN SPEAKING out against the unfair conditions that a girls basketball team in Birmingham, Ala., had to practice and play under compared with the boys team, coach Roderick Jackson took an important stand against sex discrimination. His determination to set things right has resulted in a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that broadens and strengthens Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools and colleges.

The 1972 law has forced schools that receive federal aid to provide equal opportunities for female and male athletes and has greatly advanced women's sports. But amid the advances, there have been lingering problems. Starting in 2000, Mr. Jackson repeatedly complained to his public high school supervisors about unequal funding and unequal access to equipment and facilities. Among other things, his girls team was not allowed to practice in a new gymnasium and did not have access to basic services such as ice for injuries. After his complaints, he received negative evaluations and, within months, was fired as a coach by the school board, although he retained a teaching position. The question was whether he could sue under Title IX, claiming that his firing was an illegal act of retaliation against a whistleblower.

The Supreme Court has now answered: yes. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that Title IX covers lawsuits such as Mr. Jackson's because retaliation against someone who speaks out against sex discrimination is a form of intentional discrimination on the basis of sex that the law is meant to forbid. The majority also recognized that coaches and teachers are in a special position to call attention when their schools fall short of full compliance.

Mr. Jackson, who had already been reinstated as interim coach, is now entitled to another day in court -- and a big pat on the back for standing up against gender bias.

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