By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University
In December of 2016, Richard Corso, the now former head women’s water polo coach at the University of California-Berkeley (UC-Berkeley or Cal), alleged that athletic department officials had acted to wrongfully terminate him and subjected him to age and gender discrimination. In the suit, Corso seeks $1.38 million in lost wages.
At the time of Richard Corso’s resignation at UC-Berkeley, he had worked for the institution as the head women’s water polo coach for 12 seasons between 2006 and 2016 (in 2005, he served as a mentor for the team). According to his bio as published on the Cal Athletics Website, Corso was a person of stature and status within the water polo community. From early beginnings as a water polo player at his undergraduate institution, Southern Connecticut University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1977, his accomplishments and impact increased in the years ahead.
A coach of international reputation, Corso served as the Canadian National Team coach in 1991 before being named as the U.S. National Team coach in 1992. At the 1996 Olympic Games, he nearly guided the U.S. men’s water polo team to the medal round but fell short by one goal, losing to the eventual gold medalist, Spain. Corso was credited with influencing the development of the sport within the U.S. through his innovative approach to coaching where he drew upon the disciplines of sport science and sports psychology as well as introducing the use of computer video tape analysis. At the time of his hire, then Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour described him as a coach with “…a tremendous record of success at the highest levels of the sport” (Cal Athletics, 2013).
In the year prior to his departure, Corso was inducted into the USA Water Polo Hall of Fame. During his tenure at Cal, the teams under his direction registered a record of 227-98 (.698 winning percentage), competed in the NCAA Championships four times in seven years with a national runner up finish in 2011 (Cal Athletics, 2016). All the Cal women’s water polo teams he coached were ranked among the top 10 in the United States by the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA). Corso mentored several Cal athletes who became Olympians, including Roser Tarrago, Dora Antal, and Anna Illes, all of whom competed in the 2016 Olympic Games. The women’s water polo graduation rate during Corso’s time as head coach was 100 percent.
Corso v. University of California-Berkeley et al. (2016)
The lawsuit, which was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California (Alameda County), asserts that the athletic director, Mike Williams, the senior woman administrator (SWA) Jenny Simon-O’Neill, and associate athletic director of compliance Jay Larson engaged in both age and gender discrimination by using an investigation into NCAA rules violations as a pretext to start a “crusade” against Corso for the purpose of forcing him out.
Citing a changeover in athletic department leadership that led to a change in culture and expectations, Corso notes that in May 2016 he was offered a one-year contract rather than the two five-year contracts he had been offered previously. In August of 2016, three months after signing the one-year contract that had been extended to him, Corso claims he opted to resign rather than go along with the athletic department’s attempts to convey a message that he was retiring at the end of the season.
According to Corso, athletic department officials sought to manufacture concerns about overtraining in his program in violation of the NCAA’s 20-hour a week rule that resulted in a year-long investigation into his program. In an interview with Swimming World News, the coach’s attorney Andrea Tytell stated, “The NCAA investigation was contrived and part of the mechanism to attack Coach Corso’s credibility, through humiliation, so that no reasonable person with his credentials could remain” (Randazzo, 2017). He further asserts that Simon-O’Neill, Cal’s SWA, informed Corso at a meeting in 2015 that administrators were interested in hiring a woman to run the team, a wish that Corso claims had also been expressed by former Cal athletic director, Sandy Barbour, prior to her leaving to accept the athletic director’s position at the Pennsylvania State University.
In a statement issued by Cal Athletics regarding the Corso case (Randazzo, 2017), the allegations made in the lawsuit are characterized as being “demonstrably false” and assertions made about the administrators to be “entirely fictitious.” In explaining the investigation which started in May 2015 and ended in March 2016 undertaken to review potential violations, Cal Athletics reports that a self-report to the NCAA was done after discussions occurred with NCAA Enforcement staff as to whether the violations should be classified as Level II or III violations. In the end, they were classified as Level III and the program was penalized with a reduction in practice time amounting to 48 hours.
The University further denies that athletic department personnel told Corso of their desire to hire a female coach and note that Corso, prior to resigning, had filed an internal age and gender discrimination complaint that was found by UC-Berkeley’s Human Resources Department to be without merit.
Cal Athletics. (2016, August 24). Corso stepping down as women’s water polo coach. Calbears.com. Retrieved from http://www.calbears.com/news/2016/8/24/corso-stepping-down-as-womens-water-polo-coach.aspx
Randazzo, M. (2017, March 1). Richard Corso on the record about his case against UC Berkeley. Swimming World News. Retrieved from https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/richard-corso-on-the-record-about-his-case-against-uc-berkeley/
TBD. (2013, April 17). Richard Corso bio — The University of California official athletic site. Calbears.com.Retrieved from http://www.calbears.com/news/2013/4/17/208185232.aspx?path=wwpolo
Yazdanian, H. (2017, February 12). Former Cal women’s water polo head coach Richard Corso files wrongful termination lawsuit. The Daily Californian. Retrieved from http://www.dailycal.org/2017/02/12/former-cal-womens-water-polo-head-coach-richard-corso-files-wrongful-termination-lawsuit/
Yen, R. (2017, February 13). Former Cal women’s water polo head coach Rich Corso sues Cal for wrongful termination. Californiagoldenbearsblog.com. Retrieved from http://www.californiagoldenblogs.com/2017/2/13/14321524/former-cal-womens-water-polo-head-coach-rich-corso-sues-cal-for-wrongful-termination