In 2005, the United States Supreme Court decided a case where an Alabama high school girls basketball coach complained about unequal treatment of his team to the school board and was subsequently fired because of it. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the coach saying that Title IX prohibits retaliation. This was a big win for Title IX and for female athletes and coaches everywhere.
Roderick Jackson was hired at Ensley high school, in Birmingham, in 1999 and in 2000, he started to notice the discrepancies between the girls and boys teams in terms of equipment, gym space, and access to athletic training staff. He went to the school board to complain and was subsequently removed as basketball coach in May of 2001. He filed a lawsuit against the Birmingham Board of Education stating that his firing was in retaliation to his complaints about gender discrimination and therefore was a in violation of the a part of the 1972 Educational Acts: Title IX. The district court dismissed the case saying that Title IX does not prohibit retaliation and the appeals court affirmed the district court’s decision. It then went to the Supreme Court where they decided 5-4 in favor of Jackson.
Title IX states that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The issue in this case is whether or not Title IX applies to retaliation.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion. The concurring Justices were: Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. The Justices of the majority opinion held that retaliation was prohibited by Title IX.
O’Connor wrote: “Retaliation against a person because that person has complained of sex discrimination is another form of intentional sex discrimination encompassed by Title IX’s private cause of action. Retaliation is, by definition, an intentional act. It is a form of “discrimination” because the complainant is being subjected to differential treatment.”
They also held that: “Retaliation is discrimination “on the basis of sex” because it is an intentional response to the nature of the complaint: an allegation of sex discrimination. We conclude that when a funding recipient retaliates against a person because he complains of sex discrimination, this constitutes intentional “discrimination” “on the basis of sex,” in violation of Title IX.”
This means, in terms of Jackson, that the school board retaliated against him when they fired him.
O’Connor stated: “Retaliation for Jackson’s advocacy of the rights of the girls’ basketball team in this case is “discrimination” “on the basis of sex” and that “Congress enacted Title IX not only to prevent the use of federal dollars to support discriminatory practices, but also “to provide individual citizens effective protection against those practices.””
O’Connor and the concurring Justices felt that: “Reporting incidents of discrimination is integral to Title IX enforcement and would be discouraged if retaliation against those who report went unpunished. Indeed, if retaliation were not prohibited, Title IX’s enforcement scheme would unravel.”
For these reasons, they decided in favor of Jackson and held that Title IX prohibits retaliation.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the dissent and was joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy and Chief Justice Rehnquist. They felt like retaliation wasn’t covered under Title IX because:
“A claim of retaliation is not a claim of discrimination on the basis of sex”.
For Jackson, that meant that his claim was not covered under Title IX, according to the dissenting Justices because he was not actually discriminated against based on his sex.
Thomas wrote: “Because Jackson’s claim for retaliation is not a claim that his sex played a role in his adverse treatment, the statute’s plain terms do not encompass it” and “Retaliation cannot be said to be discrimination on the basis of anyone’s sex, because a retaliation claim may succeed where no sex discrimination ever took place”.
Thomas concluded his dissent by stating: “The question before us is only whether Title IX prohibits retaliation, not whether prohibiting it is good policy…I would hold that it does not encompass private actions for retaliation. I respectfully dissent.”
This case was clearly tough to make a decision on with a 5-4 vote. Retaliation is not specifically addressed in Title IX so that made it hard for the Justices to come to a unanimous decision. The 5 majority opinion Justices felt like retaliation was implied and that it fell under the category of discrimination on the basis of sex. The 4 dissenting Justices didn’t feel that way. They felt like Title IX was not enacted with retaliation in mind and that it didn’t fall under discrimination on the basis of sex.
This case is somewhat personal for me. As a former collegiate female athlete that comes from generations of female athletes, Title IX has always been an area of interest to me. I’ve always felt so thankful for the opportunities that myself and other female athletes have been given thanks to Title IX. Unlike the girls in Birmingham on Coach Jackson’s team, I have never personally felt second class to male athletes when I played. My high school, college, and AAU program were extremely committed to making sure that girls and boys were treated equally. I recognize that this isn’t the case everywhere so I am happy and proud that Coach Jackson stood up for his female athletes and fought for them.
When I read this case, I was shocked to see that this happened in the early 2000s. I had expected this to be from the 1980s or maybe the early 1990s when Title IX (enacted in 1972) was still somewhat recent. It is sad to me that female athletes in my generation faced that kind of discrimination, not that I am saying it is perfect now because it is still far from it, but at least it’s better. I am happy that the Supreme Court decided in favor of Coach Jackson and in support of female athletes everywhere.