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Title IX Claims by Student-Athletes and Coaches

Most Title IX claims involve university-sponsored sports, including intramural sports. Claims of gender discrimination may be filed by student-athletes, coaches, and other staff members involved in the issue at hand. For instance, a female student tries out for the football team and happens to be the best punter during tryouts, but is cut without explanation. Assuming there is no women's football team, she may be able to file a claim. Similarly, a female soccer coach at a university is paid half of what her male counterpart (the men's soccer coach) earns. She also may file a claim.

The following information focuses on Title IX claims by student-athletes and coaches. See the Sexual Harassment section of FindLaw's Education Center to learn more about Title IX and related matters.

Student-Athletes' Title IX Claims

A court's analysis will also depend on whether the plaintiff is a disgruntled student-athlete or a disgruntled employee. For disgruntled student-athletes, Title IX does not compel federally funded educational institutions to sponsor one program for each gender in every sport the institution sponsors. However, if a school sponsors only one program for a sport, then that school must allow members of both sexes to try out for the team, unless the sport is a contact sport, in which case the school may limit participation to one gender. Conversely, if a school sponsors only one program for a contact sport and then allows members of both sexes to compete for the team, the school may not exclude an athlete from the team on account of his or her gender. "Contact" sports include boxing, wrestling, rugby, ice hockey, football, and basketball. 45 C.F.R. § 86.41.

Disgruntled students may also allege that they have been victims of sexual harassment in violation of Title IX. Sexual harassment typically consists of receiving unwanted sexually oriented comments, receiving unwanted sexually oriented physical contact, or working in a sexually charged environment. The threshold of liability is higher for sexual harassment than it is for sex discrimination. To prevail on a Title IX sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must show that the institution was aware of the harassment, exercised control over both the harassed and the environment in which the harassment occurred, and that harassment was serious enough to have the systemic effect of denying the victim equal access to participate in an athletic program. Mere name-calling or teasing will not give rise to a Title IX harassment claim, even when the offensive comments single out differences in gender.

Courts are more inclined to find that offensive comments give rise to Title IX liability when they are made by a coach or a person acting in an official capacity for the academic institution. Plaintiffs are less likely to prevail when the offensive behavior takes the form of student-on-student or athlete-on-athlete harassment. In such instances, the plaintiff must not only prove that the academic institution was aware of the harassment and had authority to stop the harassment, but also that the harassment was "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" that it amounted to "deliberate indifference" by the institution in failing to stop it. Davis, as next friend of LaShonda D. v. Monroe County Board of Education (U.S. 1999). Thus, sexual harassment by fans, athletes, or coaches from opposing schools might not be actionable.*

Coaches' Title IX Claims

The statutory proscription against sex discrimination in education programs and activities encompasses employment discrimination, which means that any person working for an athletic program at a federally funded academic institution is entitled to protection from Title IX. The law protects employees in all aspects of their employment, ranging from hiring and compensation to promotion, demotion, suspension, and termination, regardless of the position held by the employee and regardless of whether the federally funded academic institution is a tiny elementary school or an enormous Division I university.

A large number of Title IX employment discrimination complaints have been filed by college coaches. Frequently, these claims allege that the head coach of a women's college team is being discriminated against because she is being paid less than the head coach of the men's team for the same sport and from the same school. Courts will consider several factors in evaluating these claims, including the following: (1) the differing rates of compensation; (2) the duration of the contracts; (3) provisions relating to contract renewal; (4) the relative training and experience of the two coaches; (5) the nature of the coaching duties performed by each; (6) working conditions; (7) professional standing; (8) other terms and conditions of employment; and (9) other professional qualifications.

*Important Notice and Disclaimer: Because cases and laws are constantly subject to change and be amended over time, it is wise to check with a local attorney in your area who can advise you about the status of education laws in your state and local district.

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