Domestic partners sue San Diego Mesa College for gender and sexual orientation discrimination

By Cyd Zeigler jr.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights on Thursday filed a lawsuit in California State Court on behalf of two lesbian coaches, Lorri Sulpizio and Cathy Bass, who were terminated in April 2007 as women’s basketball coaches at San Diego Mesa College. They claim that termination was the result of formal complaints by Sulpizio about gender inequities in the athletic department, and a local newspaper story that identified the two women as domestic partners. The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief and compensatory damages in excess of $25,000 on nine counts, including violation of Title IX, violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the California State Constitution, sexual-orientation discrimination and harassment, gender discrimination and harassment, and wrongful termination.

Coaches Cathy Bass and Lorri Sulpizio

Sulpizio with her Mesa College team

“While at Mesa, we put the welfare of student-athletes first,” said Sulpizio. “We coached outstanding student-athletes to success on the courts and in the classrooms. We should have been able to advocate for equal treatment of women athletes and faculty without retaliation. Instead, Mesa fired us both for raising issues of unequal treatment and Title IX violations.”
San Diego Mesa College Public Information Officer Lina Heil said the school had no comment on the filing of the complaint.
Sulpizio and Bass met when they were both assistant coaches of the team in 1999. In 2001, Sulpizio was promoted to interim head coach; she took the role permanently after an undefeated Pacific Coast Conference record (23-10 overall) and conference championship the following season. The two began dating about six months after they met and registered as domestic partners in 2002.
During their five years as head coach and assistant coach, in addition to their league championship, they placed third in the conference each of their last two years. Sulpizio also recruited more All-CIF (California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body of the state’s high school sports) than any other San Diego women’s basketball program. Always important with community college sports, Sulpizio sent a higher percentage (50%) of her student-athletes to four-year colleges than the Mesa average (34%); NCLR claims that 50% was the highest of any women’s basketball community college programs in San Diego. Sulpizio finished Mesa with a career win-loss record of 81-93.
The plaintiffs allege that both Mesa College and Athletic Director Dave Evans engaged in years of discrimination based on their gender, much of which stood in direct violation of Title IX, which grants women equal access to college athletic resources. Sulpizio and Bass claim their team was not allowed to use the women’s locker room during a long-running invitational tournament at Mesa in November because the school gave the women’s locker room to visiting football teams.
They also claim that the men’s football team intentionally disrupted their team practices in the gymnasium on many occasions. Sulpizio says she addressed this issue with Evans and Assistant Athletic Director Anne Heck, as well as the head football coach, on more than one occasion, and they would not take any action to remedy the situation.
Other Title IX complaints include the weight room and laundry room being inappropriately connected to the men’s locker room and unequal treatment of female faculty in the assigning of classes.
The plaintiffs claim that in 1999 Evans even attempted to “investigate” Sulpizio’s sexual orientation in response to an anonymous report that she was a lesbian. In the fall of 2003, Evans allegedly asked Sulpizio about the sexual orientation of her assistant coaches. The plaintiffs also claim that in 2007, just before their firing, Evans told another faculty member that his problem with Sulpizio and Bass was that someone needed to restore “the image” of the team, and that “lots of people” in the community had been talking about “it.” The unnamed faculty member, according to NCLR, understood Evans to be referring to Sulpizio’s and Bass’ sexual orientation.
Sulpizio said she stayed in her job, despite the alleged transgressions, because she wanted to stay in San Diego, and because she saw the positive effect she was having in the lives of her players.
“Women coaches, and especially lesbian coaches, are taught to not rock the boat,” said NCLR Homophobia in Sports Director Helen Carroll. “But I think we’re seeing a new wave of Title IX retaliation cases because I believe the coaches feel that they have help now with that. Before, coaches would be quiet and leave and just get another job somewhere. Now the courts are saying, ‘We’ve got your back.’”
At the time of their termination, Sulpizio asked for the reasons they were being let go. She said they were given none. Evans replaced Sulpizio with men’s basketball assistant coach Mike Hootner.
Sulpizio has since been hired as the head women’s basketball coach at Cuyamaca College, also in the Pacific Coast Conference. Both of her assistant coaches at Mesa, including Bass, have joined her there.
Simultaneously with the filing of this complaint, there is an ongoing investigation into the complaints of Sulpizio and Bass by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights.
This is the latest addition to a growing list of athletics-based complaints NCLR has brought against colleges, alleging homophobia and Title IX infractions. They have previously scored victories at the University of Florida, Penn State and the University of California at Berkeley. NCLR also recently won the decision from the California State Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage.