By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Senior Contributor & Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University, email@example.com
In October of 2019, a former female college soccer player filed a civil lawsuit against the University of California – Berkeley (Cal), the athletic director, and her former head coach alleging that her dismissal from the team constituted gender discrimination under Title IX and other laws (Renee Thomas v. The Regents of the University of California et al. 2019).
As a high school female soccer player, Renee Thomas had drawn the attention of some college recruiters. Her soccer pedigree included playing for the Laguna Beach Breakers, a team that advanced to the quarter finals of Southern Section CIF D-5 in 2014-2015 for only the second time in the 34-year history of the program (Aronoff, 2015). Her club team, the Los Angeles Futbol Club (LAFC) Slammers, won the US Soccer 2018 Development Academy U18/19 National Championship (Rodriguez, 2018).
According to the complaint, as Thomas sorted through her college soccer options, she declined a scholarship offer from the University of Colorado, choosing instead to go to Cal “…based upon assurances that she would continue as a member of that team as long as she met the team’s reasonable performance expectations” (Thomas v. University of California, 2019, p. 1).
As a non-scholarship player on the Cal team, Thomas seems to have acquitted herself well in her rookie season. During the fall of 2018, she played in 12 games against PAC-12 conference opponents, registering as few as six to a high of 56 minutes of playing time, totaling 304 minutes of playing time for the season. Training not just with the team but in individual sessions with Coach McGuire, she claimed that the coach encouraged her to believe that “…she was promising enough to rival the best-performing forward on the team” (Thomas v. University of California, 2019, p. 4). She earned her first and only collegiate start in the regular season finale against Stanford (Athletic Communications Staff, 2018). “Of the 31 players on the team, Ms. Thomas ranked 20th in playing time and tied for eighth in points for goals and assists” (Thomas v. University of California, 2019, p. 4).
At the end of season women’s soccer banquet, Thomas was honored with the most improved player award. On April 29, 2019, on the heels of that recognition which she believed further reinforced what she understood her status to be on the team, Thomas was abruptly released along with four other teammates “without warning or explanation” (Thomas v. University of California, 2019, p. 4).
Five Claims for Relief & Damages
Thomas puts forward five claims for relief. First she argues that she along with four other players released from the team at the same time, did not receive the benefit of equal treatment under Title IX based on the fact that the men’s team released only one player who demonstrably had much less playing time than the rest of his team. Second, the difference in the number of players cut from the men’s and women’s teams constitute disparate treatment under Section 66271.8 of the California Education Code, which “…provides that no female athlete in a postsecondary education institution shall be denied equal treatment and benefits as compared to male athletes in that institution” (Thomas v. University of California, 2019, p. 6). Third, Thomas alleges that the key consideration in the unequal treatment of Thomas and her teammates was gender, thus a violation of the Unruh Act. Fourth, by failing to protect Thomas from discrimination on the basis of her gender, Coach McGuire and Athletic Director Knowlton were negligent in their duty of care. And fifth, the breach of their duty of care caused negligent infliction of emotional distress.
As a result of the gender discrimination and the negligence of Cal’s staff, Thomas claims that she has been personally embarrassed, suffered harm to her reputation as a college soccer player, and been emotionally distressed by the situation. She further argues that the opportunity she would have had to play on another college team was taken from her when she relied on promises made by the coach.
In assessing the damages she has suffered, Thomas argues she has incurred significant financial burdens that she would not have assumed if she had known she would be dismissed from the team without justification, specifically the cost associated with attending the University of California-Berkeley compounded by the additional loss of the scholarship she would have received had she attended the University of Colorado.
Thomas is also seeking punitive damages that generally comport to the emotional distress, reputational harm, and embarrassment she has endured as a result of her treatment as well as specific damages for economic losses. She further seeks injunctive relief that would require Cal to allow her to return to the women’s soccer team.
Selected Questions to Consider As This Case Moves Forward
This case raises some familiar issues in terms of how and under what circumstances coaches cut athletes from their teams. Was there a different standard in place to dismiss female athletes from Cal teams that resulted in disparate treatment based on their gender? While this lawsuit narrowly argues that the dismissal of one male soccer player compared to the dismissal of five female soccer players following one season points to gender discrimination, there might be other reasons that account for decisions relating to the dismissal of players.
For example, looking at the historical roster sizes for the men’s and women’s soccer programs at the University of California-Berkeley from 2003 through 2017 (the most recent reporting year for data provided in compliance with the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act), the women’s program has averaged 30 players on the roster compared to 28 players on the men’s rosters. There has only been one year when the women’s teams carried fewer players than the men’s and the additional players on the women’s teams ranged from one to nine in any given year. Is it possible that the men’s team releases fewer players because they carry fewer players? More detail regarding player dismissals would help illuminate this.
What does it mean if a coach recruits an athlete who is a “preferred walk-on”, an athlete who knows that there will be no offer of an athletic scholarship (Allen, 2018; Barnett, 2014; No Author, n.d.; Parker, 2016; Winters, 2018)? While a coach may guarantee to reserve a spot on the roster for a preferred walk-on, does that guarantee extend to all remaining years of eligibility?
And what of the economic harm in this case? Under NCAA regulations, the sport of women’s soccer is categorized as an “equivalency” sport in terms of the allocation of athletic scholarships. In an equivalency sport, a team is allocated a certain amount of athletic scholarship dollars that equate to a certain number of full athletic scholarships. Women’s soccer receives athletic scholarship dollars that equate to 14 full athletic scholarships. That allocation, however, can be parsed out among athletes in the form of full scholarships or partial awards (NCAA Academic & Membership Staff, 2019). Thus, did Thomas decline a full or partial athletic scholarship from the University of Colorado and how did that impact the overall financial burden she encumbered?
Allen, R. (2018, February 21). NCAA preferred walk-on: Do you know what this means? Informedathlete.com. Retrieved from https://informedathlete.com/ncaa-preferred-walk-on/
Aronoff, F. (2016, February 26). Breakers continue record run. Laguna Beach Independent. Retrieved from https://www.lagunabeachindy.com/breakers-continue-on-record-run/
Athletic Communications Staff. (2018). Renee Thomas bio. Calbears.com. Retrieved from https://calbears.com/sports/womens-soccer/roster/renee-thomas/13357
Barnett, Z. (2014, February 4). What does it mean to be a preferred walk-on? Coaches explain. Footballscoop.com. Retrieved from https://footballscoop.com/archive-news/what-does-it-mean-to-be-a-preferred-walk-on/
NCAA Academic & Membership Staff. (2019). 2019-2020 NCAA Division I manual. Indianapolis, IN: National Collegiate Athletic Association. Retrieved from http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D120.pdf
No author. (n.d.). How do I commit to playing soccer for a college? Perfectsoccer.com. Retrieved from http://perfectsoccerrecruit.com/how-do-i-commit-to-playing-soccer-for-a-college/
Parker, B. (2016, February 2). While top recruits celebrate on National Signing Day, preferred walk-ons gamble on their football futures. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/highschools/while-top-recruits-celebrate-on-national-signing-day-preferred-walk-ons-gamble-on-their-football-futures/2016/02/02/211661da-c9b3-11e5-a7b2-5a2f824b02c9_story.html
Renee Thomas v. The University of California; Jim Knowlton; and Neil McGuire (2019). Case 3:19-cv-06463-SI.
Rodriguez, A. (2018, June 29). LAFC Slammers win U18/19 US SDA national title. SBNation.com. Retrieved from https://www.angelsonparade.com/2018/6/29/17519892/lafc-slammers-win-u18-19-ussda-national-title-2017-18
Winters, K. (2018, December 19). NCSA: What is a preferred walk-on? USATodayhss.com. Retrieved from https://usatodayhss.com/2018/ncsa-what-is-a-preferred-walk-on