(This story was published in 2004).

2005 update: Florida softball coach fired

In a settlement that was termed groundbreaking, the University of Florida has agreed to provide diversity training dealing with homophobia to all its coaches, athletic directors and staff.

The settlement was reached in the case of Andrea Zimbardi, a softball player who says she was kicked off the team last spring because she was a lesbian. The story was first reported on Outsports in May. Zimbardi was represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which provides legal assistance to athletes who face discrimination because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

The university held a two-hour session Monday on homophobia attended by coaches and administrators from various sports, including men’s basketball, along with Athletic Director Jeremy Foley. The session was led by Helen Carroll, coordinator of the Homophobia in Sports program for NCLR, and a former coach and athletic director; Don McPherson, former college and pro football player and executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University, and Pat Griffin, a University of Massachusetts professor of Social Justice Education and national expert in the field of homophobia in sport.

“It was groundbreaking,” Carroll told Outsports about the settlement, “because this was the first time a Top 10 [collegiate] institution has gone out of its way to do such training for coaches and administrators.”

Zimbardi (left) had alleged that head coach Karen Johns created an atmosphere of alienation for anyone not sharing her Christian beliefs, outed other coaches and players as lesbians, and reneged on an agreement not to retaliate against Zimbardi when she took her concerns to the university’s athletic administration.

She further alleged that assistant coach Heather Compton-Butler made inappropriate and leading comments to her about lesbianism and lesbian relationships. Zimbardi says she was not informed about team practices, and gradually saw her playing time shrink until she was finally released on March 6, 2003. Johns said the release occurred because Zimbardi had spread lies and misconceptions about Compton-Butler and the program.

The university does not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement and Zimbardi has agreed to not pursue legal action. The popular former player, an SEC honor roll student now in graduate school, has maintained that she pursued the case to “prevent other athletes from going through this.”

“I am thrilled that we have reached an agreement that will enable us to put this all behind us,” Zimbardi, 23, said in a statement. “My goal from the very beginning has been to help ensure that other gay and lesbian athletes at UF feel welcome, accepted and judged solely on their talent. I love UF and am more proud than ever to be a Gator.”

Carroll described the agreement as “win-win,” saying she believed Foley was very sincere and that the university totally embraced doing everything it can to help remain an elite program, including examining diversity.

In a statement, Lynda Tealer associate athletics Director and senior woman administrator, said: “The University of Florida is committed to creating a positive atmosphere for all student-athletes. We feel that the terms of this agreement support our commitment and facilitate the provision of additional tools and training to our coaches, student-athletes and staff. At UF, we are always open to ways to get better and this was an opportunity for us to improve.

“Our coaches are the best in the country. We continue to have confidence in their abilities as educators and coaches. Providing information and education that will enhance the experience of our student-athletes is appropriate and welcomed by all.”

In addition to training, Florida will include a sexual orientation component in its annual non-discrimination staff training; amend its non-discrimination materials to include sexual orientation; create and publish an alternative reporting mechanism through which student athletes may report alleged violations of University non-discrimination rules; develop and provide to coaches and athletic personnel guidelines regarding prayer during practices, competitions or other athletic events.

In describing Monday’s diversity session, Carroll praised McPherson’s ability to reach men in the athletic program. “Don brought a message in a way we couldn’t,” Carroll said of the former star Syracuse quarterback who had a brief stint in the NFL. McPherson, who is not gay, runs the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphia and deals regularly with social issues in sports, including violence, diversity and the treatment of women.

Griffin also had a positive impression about Monday’s session, saying, “I was impressed by how willing the coaches were to engage and really talk about these difficult issue–this was clearly a group of coaches who cared about their athletes and were interested in making athletics accessible for everyone.” On Tuesday, Carroll met with players and coaches from the softball program and praised “a really great group [which gets] credit for taking a look at the issue in-house.”

While the training sessions on homophobia was the most notable aspect of the settlement, other issues were also resolved:

  • Zimbardi will be reimbursed $4,561.15 for her tuition for summer and fall terms in the Masters program of Engineering Management. She will also be reimbursed up to $1,800 for textbooks and school supplies
  • Zimbardi will receive two free tickets to all future Florida regular season varsity athletic games until completion of Zimbardi’s masters’ degree or until June 2004, whichever comes first.
    and two free tickets to the Gators’ 2004 home football games.
  • She will receive a pair of athletic shoes during each semester of her enrollment in masters’ studies at the university or until June 2004 (whichever comes first); get back her catcher’s mitt, a 2004 softball team media guide and will be invited to the softball team’s annual alumni event.
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