A suit by a former University of Arizona runner who alleges he was subjected to anti-gay bullying by his teammates that was then ignored by his coaches was reinstated this week after a panel of federal judges ruled that “Title IX bars sexual harassment on the basis of perceived sexual orientation.”
The appeal in the case against the university and members of the athletic department by Michael Grabowski, a member of the Arizona cross-county and track and field teams in 2017-18, was upheld by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges ruled that Title IX, the 1972 act dealing with sex-based discrimination in education, also covers sexual orientation because of a 2020 Supreme Court decision.
Grabowski alleges he was subjected to regular anti-gay bullying from teammates and that he was dismissed from the team in 2018 after he complained to his coaches. Grabowski “does not allege that he is gay; rather, he alleges that his harassers perceived him to be gay,” the court said in a statement of fact.
“Plaintiff’s [Grabowski] teammates subjected him to “sexual and homophobic bullying” over the course of his first year on the track team.
Beginning in August 2017, at the team’s preseason training camp, his teammates used homophobic slurs“almost daily.” Plaintiff’s father reported the bullying to Defendant Li [James Li, associate head coach of cross-country], who promised to investigate the issue. Li spoke with Plaintiff about the bullying the next week. One month later, in early October 2017, Plaintiff’s mother emailed the team’s sports psychologist to request that she discuss the bullying with Plaintiff.
Plaintiff’s teammates called him “gay” and a “fag,” and on an “almost daily” basis they “made multiple additional references alleging that they perceived him as gay.” His teammates posted an “untrue,” “harassing, homophobic, [and] obscene video” about Plaintiff in the team’s public chat group. When Plaintiff raised his concerns to Defendant Harvey [Frederick Harvey, director of cross-country/track and field] about the “constant” homophobic bullying and the published video, Harvey did not respond.
At one point, in response to Plaintiff’s raising the harassment issue, Defendant Harvey “leapt out of his chair, ran up to within a few inches of Plaintiff’s face, slammed his hands down hard on Plaintiff’s arms . . . and called Plaintiff a . . . ‘white racist.’” Plaintiff was so scared by Harvey’s actions that he had a spontaneous bloody nose and fainted. At the end of the meeting, the coaches dismissed Plaintiff from the team.”
The university, which did not reply to the court decision or announce whether they would appeal, had said that Grabowski was cut from the team because he sexually harassed a female student, made a rape joke and was involved in an “unidentified racial incident,” Courthouse News Service said. Grabowski denies those claims.
“This is an important victory for LGBTQ students affirming their rights under Title IX, especially during a time when anti-LGBTQ discrimination is on the rise and students everywhere need stronger protections,” said Alexandra Brodsky, staff attorney for Public Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that testified on Grabowski’s behalf.
One part of his claim was dismissed, where he alleged that the harassment hindered his education. But Grabowski’s attorney was satisfied with the panel’s overall decision.
“I’m happy, because what it means is he can go ahead with all of his claims about these sexist, just outrageous coaches here on the track and field team,” Bill Walker told Courthouse News Service.
“These are awful people, and he was treated terribly here,” Walker said.
Grabowski is now a member of the Western Colorado University track and field team. He finished eighth in the 3,000 steeplechase at May’s NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field Championships.