Federal Court Declines to Intercede on Behalf of Fired Coach

Oct 8, 2004

A federal judge has delivered a mixed ruling to a teakwood coach, who asked the court to intercede in his behalf when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and United States Teakwood Union (USTU) removed him as coach of the 2004 United States Olympic Teakwood Team.
Plaintiff Dee Sung Lee claimed specifically that the defendants discriminated against him on the basis of his Korean ancestry in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and breached his contract for employment as coach of the team.
As part of his discrimination claim, Lee had sought an injunction. But the court found that the defendants “have demonstrated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for their actions,” and that the plaintiff “failed to demonstrate that those reasons are really a pretext for racial or national origin discrimination.” The court did, however, decide against dismissing the 42 U.S.C. § 1981 in its entirety, leaving the door open for Lee to some day secure monetary damages.
Meanwhile, the court granted, in its entirety, the defendants’ motion to dismiss the breach of contract claim, which revolved, at least indirectly, around the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. §§ 220501-220529 (2001) (Amateur Sports Act).
Originally enacted in 1950 and amended in 1978 and 1998, the Amateur Sports Act gave the USOC “to exercise exclusive jurisdiction . . . over . . . all matters pertaining to United States participation in the Olympic Games.” 36 U.S.C. § 220503(3)(A) (2001) (formerly 36 U.S.C. § 374(3) (1988)); Slaney v. Int’l Amateur Athletic Fed’n, 244 F.3d 580, 594 (7th Cir. 2001) (interpreting § 220503(3)). The Amateur Sports Act also created and required the USOC “to provide swift resolution of conflicts and disputes involving amateur athletics, national governing bodies, and amateur sports organizations, and protect the opportunity of any amateur athlete, coach, trainer, manager, administrator, or official to participate in amateur athletic competition.” 36 U.S.C. § 220503(8) (2001) (formerly 36 U.S.C. § 374(8) (1988)) (emphasis added); 36 U.S.C. § 220509(a) (2001) (formerly 36 U.S.C. § 382b (1988)); Slaney, 244 F.2d at 594 (interpreting § 220503(8)); Oldfield v. Athletic Congress, 779 F.2d 505, 506-507 (9th Cir. 1985) (interpreting § 374(8)).
While the Act “requires national governing bodies to provide equal opportunities to athletes and coaches to participate in amateur athletic competitions without discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. See 36 U.S.C. § 220522(a)(8) (2001) (formerly 36 U.S.C. § 391(b)(6) (1988)),” the courts have held that it contains no express private right of action. Oldfield, 779 F.2d at 507.
The court wrote that, in 1998, the Act “was amended to expressly indicate that, although the USOC can sue and be sued in federal court, neither the provision allowing it to be sued, ‘nor any other provision of this chapter [36 U.S.C.A. § 220501 et seq.] shall create a private right of action under this chapter.’ See 36 U.S.C. § 220505(b)(9) (2001) and notes on 1998 Amendments thereto.
“Thus, the USOC may be sued only with respect to matters not arising under the Amateur Sports Act, such as, for example, with respect to a dispute over a lease that the USOC may have signed with the landlord of its offices. Given this express statutory statement that Congress did not intend to create a private right of action under the Amateur Sports Act, Lee has no private right of action under that Act.”
Lee was careful not to expressly assert a claim under the Act. Instead, pointed out the court, “he asserts several claims that purport to be based on state law. His state law claims, however, clearly challenge the eligibility requirements for the coach of the 2004 United States Olympic Taekwondo Team. As eligibility to be a coach falls within the exclusive purview of the Amateur Sports Act, those state law claims are preempted by the Act.”
While the Act grants the USOC exclusive jurisdiction over “all matters pertaining to United States participation in the Olympic Games,” the Act does not expressly supersede other federal statutes.
In fact, the court identified case law that confers an individual’s right to file suit against such a sports governing body, where a federal discrimination law is at issue.
“In Sternberg v. U.S.A. National Karate-Do Federation, Inc., 123 F. Supp. 2d 659 (E.D.N.Y. 2000), the plaintiff, a member of the 1998 Women’s Kumite (karate sparring) Team, alleged discrimination based on sex in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972,” wrote the court. “The claim arose out of the decision by the national governing body for karate to withdraw the women’s team from the world championship competition. Id. at 661. The plaintiff claimed that the coach of the women’s team withdrew it because he was afraid that the women might be injured. Id. The district court held that the plaintiff could proceed with her Title IX claims in court.”
“The court in Sternberg held that the plaintiff had an implied private cause of action for sex discrimination under the Amateur Sports Act because one of the Act’s purposes is to encourage and provide assistance to women in amateur athletics. Id. at 664. On this point, Sternberg directly conflicts with § 220505(b)(9) and with the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Oldfield, 779 F.2d at 507, which controls the present case. That does not mean, however, that the result in Sternberg is wrong.
“While this court does not adopt the conclusion in Sternberg that the Amateur Sports Act provides a private right of action for discrimination, the court rules that Sternberg was correct in allowing the plaintiff to proceed with her Title IX claims because the Amateur Sports Act does not preclude such claims. This court similarly concludes that the Amateur Sports Act does not preclude a § 1981 claim.” Lee v. United States Taeknowdo Union et al.; D.HI; CIVIL NO. 04-00461 SOM-LEK; 8/13/04
Attorneys of Record: (For Plaintiff): Ward D. Jones (argued), Bervar & Jones, Honolulu, HI. (For United States Olympic Committee and United States Taekwondo Union, Defendants): Arthur Roeca (argued), April Luria (argued), Roeca Louie & Hiraoka, Honolulu, HI. Mark S. Levinstein (argued via teleconference), Williams & Connolly, Washington, DC. (For United States Olympic Committee, Defendant): Jeffrey Benz (argued via teleconference), Colorado Springs, Colorado.


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