By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Senior Writer and Ed.D., Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University, email@example.com.
Like so many small college football teams, the Occidental Tigers have a storied past that dates back more than a century. The sport took root at the campus just north of Los Angeles in 1895 at a time when neighboring schools played one another. In that year, the team went undefeated with a 5-0 record and a win over the University of Southern California. As the sport evolved, and Occidental found its place within the growing constellation of college and university programs, it would eventually settle into the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) competing against NCAA Division III schools such as Cal Lutheran, Chapman, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, LaVerne, Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands, and Whittier. Notable graduates of the team include Jack Kemp (former NFL quarterback and U.S. congressman), Jim Mora (former NFL coach, broadcaster and father of current UCLA coach Jim Mora), and Vance Mueller (former Los Angeles Raiders player). Since 1942, the team has won 16 league championships, the most recent one in 2008 (Wharton, 2017). In the fall of 2017, the team is poised to again be a party to history but this time under the watchful eye of a federal agency after an anonymous party filed a Title IX lawsuit alleging male bias in the athletic department affecting the football team.
During the course of the first month of the 2017 season, the number of players ready to compete on the Oxy football roster dropped from 57 to 35 (2017 Occidental Football Roster; Patterson, 2017). During the first four weeks of the season, the team suffered losses by margins of 37, 55, and 59 points. In total, the Tigers were outscored 170-19 in the games they played. Because of injuries, the second game of their season was cancelled.
On Oct. 13, Occidental president Jonathan Veitch sent a general email to the campus announcing his decision to cancel the homecoming game due to the depletion of the team roster. The president reported in the announcement that the decision was made after consultation with coaches, sports medicine personnel, athletics administrators, and campus leaders. At the time the homecoming game was called off, President Veitch noted that he had met with a newly-formed alumni football subcommittee to explore steps to be taken to sustain a competitive football team and his intention to create a task force to include multiple constituencies in discussions about the future of the program.
By Oct. 17, the decision to cancel the remainder of the season was shared with the campus community. Mindful of the need to consider preserving player eligibility for future seasons, the college was confronted with the question of whether to continue down the path of what was shaping up to be a bruising season with significant losses or to spend time rebuilding. The institution opted to rebuild.
Behind the scenes, a Title IX complaint was filed anonymously on Oct. 4 with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Occidental Title IX coordinator alleging anti-male bias within the athletic department that undermined the state of the football program and its prospects for the future. According to Dunatov (2017), the complaint focuses on two points: “…a pattern of mismanagement of and a lack of material support for the football team, as well as a history of unpleasant interactions between [Jaime] Hoffman [the athletic director] and the football team.”
While the complaint itself was anonymously submitted, several players were interviewed for a story that appeared in the school paper (Dunatov, 2017). About the veracity of the information contained in the filing, one player said, “The information and details inside of the Title IX report were from the perspective of us as players and what we’ve heard and seen and have been through because the lawyers consulted us. They talked to us. So it wasn’t like they’re not a part of the program and they’re just, you know, typing away not knowing anything” (Dunatov, 2017). Another player claimed that he along with other members of the team found the helmets given them by the program to be old and unsafe. As a result, he said that some portion of the team purchased their own helmets. He also commented that the safety pads issued to the players were old and insufficient for the level of play. The poor condition of the equipment was allegedly communicated to the athletic director at the start of training camp.
General sources of alleged tensions between the team and athletic director include underfunding of the football program and a perception that she had a laissez faire attitude when it came to the management of the team. More specific concerns have been expressed by the players publicly about a meeting that is reported to have taken place on Sept. 14 when Hoffman met with team members to inform them that their second game of the season had been cancelled. Although a full airing of what occurred at that meeting remains to be disclosed and is now a matter of dispute, the head football coach Ron Cushman is believed to have sent an email to the team following the meeting, chastising them for behavior characterized as “reactionary,” “abusive,” and “disrespectful” (Dunatov, 2017). Allegedly, in the midst of the meeting, some of the players yelled expletives at Hoffman. In turn, some of the players have suggested that the characterization of their conduct in the meeting as disrespectful was a strategy on the part of Hoffman to stir up anti-football sentiment among the community.
Occidental Football: Some General Facts
A full investigation will produce information needed to assess the substance of the complaint and its merits. Publicly available documents submitted in conformance with the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) (an act that requires colleges and universities receiving federal financial support to annually report athletic participation rates and budget allocations) offer some information to consider in thinking about this complaint.
As evidenced below, the Occidental football team has had roster sizes that were at or near the average for its conference five of the 13 years as noted in Table 1. During the past five years (2011-2015), there is an increasing gap between the size of the team and the average squad size for the conference as well as an overall decline in the number of players on the team.
Table 1. SCIAC Football Team Roster Sizes Between 2003-2015
Recent history may shed some light on the five-year snapshot of what has been happening with the team. The team experienced a leadership shakeup in the summer of 2017 when head football coach Doug Semones, who had accepted the position at Occidental in 2013 after serving as an assistant at Yale University, retired just prior to the start of the season. At the time that Semones was hired, the team was coming off of NCAA probation after the previous head coach reached out to more than 1,600 athletes (467 enrolled at other four-year institutions) by email urging them to consider transferring to Occidental in violation of NCAA recruiting contact rules (NCAA Staff, 2013). Occidental imposed a restriction on the coach at that time barring him from off-campus recruiting from August through November 2012. As part of a larger set of sanctions encumbered by the institution for violations that also occurred in the women’s volleyball program, the institution was placed on NCAA probation for two years, starting in February 2013 and ending in February 2015. As part of that probation, recruited football and women volleyball players were required to be told that Occidental was on probation.
Given the instability of the coaching staff and the impact of NCAA sanctions, the question is whether this is a football program that is being mistreated because of the sex of the players or a team that was hurt by non-gender specific mismanagement (lack of rules compliance) that is continuing to find its center in the aftermath of NCAA penalties. And is this happening at a time when conference schools are slowly increasing the number of players on their teams, contributing to the gaps that the Occidental team is experiencing?
The overall performance of the team pre-and post-NCAA sanctions and the hiring of Semones offers possible evidence to support a response that the accumulated effects of NCAA probation came to fruition during that two-year probation period, reverberating in 2016 and 2017. In 2012, the team had a 2-7 record. During the first three seasons under Semones (2013-2015), the team had a record of 5-4 in each of those years. In 2016, however, its record was 1-8. Do the sanctions account for some or part of the poor 2016 record or are the challenges encountered by the football team a product of sex discrimination?
Athletic Director Hoffman’s Tenure at Occidental
In a profile piece by a student at Occidental in May 2017, five months before the Title IX complaint was filed, Hoffman’s path to the athletic directorship is revealed. As an undergraduate she played basketball at Catholic University. After coaching women’s basketball at Montclair State and Regis University, she was hired in that role at Occidental. In the three years prior to her being offered the position of athletic director, Hoffman’s teams registered three winning seasons with progressively better performances each year, with records of 13-12, 16-9, and 21-6. She is credited with taking on major projects to improve the department, including upgrades to existing athletic facilities, a sponsorship with Adidas, and fundraising for a new pool and tennis courts. One coach describes the culture within the department as one of “we” rather than “they” designed to bring coaches together to build a collective vision for the department (Goodman, 2017).
The narrative in this profile might help to counter the claims that the athletic director has a bias against male athletes. Given the specificity of the claims, however, the evidence may lie in a full exposition of budgetary allocations and the explanations for those allocations. According to the EADA report filed by Occidental for the 2015-2016 academic year (the most recent available reporting year), the football team received the largest allocation of resources by a wide margin compared to any other team with $410,870. If that amount is not sufficient to run the sport safely, however, then is the quality of the experience the athletes are receiving comparable to that of other athletes (particularly female athletes) within the program?
And finally, two other questions to ponder in this case. Do the facts as alleged and narratives as told raise the specter of gender bias in how the female athletic director is viewed by some in the football community? And could the players have risked a Title IX complaint themselves if the expletives they allegedly yelled at the athletic director were gender-based?
Occidental and Other Title IX Allegations
Each Title IX complaint warrants its own investigation and consideration of the individual issues and facts. At the same time, Occidental has been the site of lively discussion and debate regarding administrative handling of student concerns about sexual assault under Title IX. In June 2016, the College entered into a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights after an investigation into allegations filed in 2013. The OCR found insufficient evidence to conclude that the College had violated Title IX with the exception with respect to the issue of promptness in their response and resolution of cases during the 2012-2013 academic year. And the College did not get through the investigation unscathed with concerns about whether the staff understood what constituted retaliation and other issues.
Among the incidents reported in the 2013 complaint was the handling of cases involving female and male athletes who alleged that an athletic trainer subjected them to sexual harassment. The College was initially made aware of athlete concerns in 2009 and handled the situation by requiring the athletic trainer to receive sexual harassment training. Athletic department personnel (coaches, athletic administrators) claimed in 2013, when even more concerning reports emerged, that they had no knowledge that the athletic trainer had not adjusted his behavior and continued to engage in sexual assault, harassment, and battery (Ogilvie, 2014; Suess, 2014).
This case presents novel questions that have significant implications. Have Tiger football players been put at risk in an underfunded program as a result of sex discrimination or are the challenges associated with the program a production of an accumulated set of circumstances? Have football players at Occidental been denied equitable access to athletic opportunities due to a level of treatment that their female counterparts are not subjected to? Were football players provided athletic equipment that endangered their health and well-being and if so, was their treatment different than that experienced by female athletes? And how will football players who have lost their season as a result of sex discrimination be compensated for that loss? Findings from the OCR and on-campus investigation will inspire considerable interest in coming months.
Dunatov, G. (2017, October 18). Title IX complaint filed on behalf of football team, alleging anti-male bias in athletics department. The Occidental Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.theoccidentalweekly.com/news/2017/10/17/title-ix-complaint-filed-behalf-football-team-alleging-anti-male-bias-athletics-department/2889541
Erskine, C. (2015, August 19). Dog-loving coach nurtures a new breed of athlete at Oxy. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-erskine-20150820-column.html
Goodman, S. (2017, May 2). Jaime Hoffman, athletic director. The Occidental Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.theoccidentalweekly.com/sports/2017/05/02/jaime-hoffman-occidental-athletic-director/2888085
NCAA Committee on Infractions. (2013, February 7). Occidental College public infractions report. Indianapolis, IN: National Collegiate Athletic Association. Retrieved from https://web3.ncaa.org/lsdbi/search/miCaseView/report?id=102388
Occidental Football Archives. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.oxyathletics.com/sports/fball/archives/2010-19
Oglivie, J. (2014, April 2). Occidental controversy intensifies with allegations against longtime athletic trainer. LA Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.laweekly.com/news/occidental-controversy-intensifies-with-allegations-against-longtime-athletic-trainer-4557789
Patterson, C. (2017, October 18). D-III school forfeits game, cancels season because of a shortage of players. CBSSports.com. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/d-iii-school-forfeits-game-cancels-season-because-of-a-shortage-of-players/
Staff. (2017, July 21). Occidental coach steps down right before camp. D3football.com. Retrieved from http://www.d3football.com/notables/2017/07/occidental-coach-steps-down-right-before-camp
Staff. (2017, August 1). Rob Cushman named Occidental head football coach. Retrieved from http://www.oxyathletics.com/sports/fball/2017-18/releases/20170804hrbm6s
Staff. (2017, October 13). Occidental cancels homecoming football game. Retrieved from http://www.oxyathletics.com/sports/fball/2017-18/releases/20171013lt7lju
Staff. (2017, October 17). Occidental cancels remainder of 2017 football season. Retrieved from http://www.oxyathletics.com/sports/fball/2017-18/releases/20171017y361np
Suess, J. (2014, April 8). College settles Sweet case. The Occidental Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.theoccidentalweekly.com/news/2014/04/08/college-settles-sweet-case/2869993
United States Department of Education. (2017). Equity in Athletics Act (EADA) report: Occidental College. Retrieved from https://ope.ed.gov/athletics/#/institution/details
Wharton, D. (2017, October 18). Division III Occidental College cancels the last four games of its football season. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/sports/sportsnow/la-sp-occidental-football-canceled-20171018-story.html