Years after it was filed, a sexual harassment lawsuit against the University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach has regained momentum as a former player challenges how harassment and the culture of college athletics could violate Title IX.
In that lawsuit, Melissa Jennings accuses Anson Dorrance, the nation’s most decorated women’s soccer coach, of maintaining a hostile environment filled with sexual harassment. The former backup goalkeeper says the abuse violated Title IX by denying her the benefits of collegiate sports.
A ruling Monday from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has resurrected the allegations that a District Court judge first dismissed three years ago. Federal judges overwhelmingly determined that the facts seemed to support Jennings’ harassment accusations and sent the case back to District Court for a jury trial.
“This case is going to be the leading case when it comes to the relationship between the coach and a student athletes,” said Jennings’ attorney, Daniel Konicek of Geneva, Ill. “No student-athlete should have to go through that daily torment.”
Barring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case could reshape the influence of Title IX, the landmark federal law passed 35 years ago that mandates equal academic and sports opportunities for women.
Title IX was passed as a way to eliminate sex discrimination. Most people know it for how it has forced the expansion of women’s athletic programs in both high school and college. But the lawsuit says the statute also applies to any circumstance, such as harassment, that would hinder a student’s ability to benefit from athletics.
Jennings, who was cut from the team in 1998, claims that during a one-on-one meeting to discuss her academic and athletic progress, Dorrance bluntly asked about her sex life. Attorneys say that question followed months of discussions with other players in which Dorrance asked about sex lives and made remarks about players’ bodies.
Dorrance denied making the remark to Jennings but acknowledged in an apology letter that he participated in sexual banter of a “jesting or teasing nature” with groups of players.
Fatima Goss Graves, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, said the case will focus on the limits of sexual banter and how Title IX applies.
“The courts are still working out the boundaries,” Graves said. “What series of conduct (is) going to rise to the level of hostile environment?”
Since filing the lawsuit in 1998, Jennings has graduated, married and started working as an elementary school teacher and youth soccer coach in Geneva, Ill.
Meanwhile, Dorrance has won four more national championships with the Tar Heels, raising his total to 19 national championships in 27 seasons. Dorrance remains one of the most desired coaches in the nation, and he continues to feed star players to national teams and the Olympics.
A second player, Debbie Keller, also sued Dorrance but settled her portion of the case in March 2004.
The University of North Carolina, which is also implicated in the lawsuit for sustaining the environment, pledged it would continue to fight the case but declined further comment.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an assistant law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law who specializes in Title IX issues, said the case should force universities to address the sex-charged culture of collegiate athletics.
“Athletic departments breed unique opportunities for sexual harassment,” said Hogshead-Makar, who was a collegiate athlete at Duke University before going on to win three gold medals as an Olympic swimmer. She noted that coaches, often male, have power over female athletes by controlling scholarships, punishments and playing time.
“This case sends out a strong message that being an elite athlete does not mean having to put up with a coach and his sexual remarks,” Hogshead-Makar said.