The University of California has agreed to pay $725,000 to its former wrestling coach at the Davis campus to settle a lawsuit alleging retaliation against the coach for championing the rights of female wrestlers.
Michael Burch, who was head wrestling coach at UC Davis from 1995 to 2001, claims his contract was not renewed for the 2001-02 school year because he had advocated the position of female wrestlers who filed a gender discrimination complaint when the women’s wrestling program was cut.
The university and its athletic administrators who were sued by Burch denied any such motivation or wrongdoing.
There was no admission of liability in the settlement.
The amount of the settlement reflects the potential for the university paying Burch’s attorneys if he had prevailed at trial, and the fact that awards in such cases are often multiplied, according to a prepared statement released by the university.
“Both sides entered into the resolution at the urging of the court, taking into consideration the uncertain nature of trial by jury,” the statement said.
“Do you pay nearly three quarters of a million dollars if you’re right?” Burch asked rhetorically in a telephone interview Friday. “I don’t think so.”
On the eve of trial last year, the parties commenced settlement negotiations under the supervision of U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb.
Burch, who is now assistant wrestling coach at Brown University in Providence, R.I., sued under the retaliation provisions of Title IX of the U.S. Code, the landmark gender equity law that touched off a revolution in women’s sports.
The settlement does not cover a companion discrimination suit filed against the university by four women; three wrestled at Davis during Burch’s tenure, and one attended UC Davis expecting to be able to wrestle. That suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
Both Burch and the female wrestlers have received financial support from the American Association of University Women Legal Advocacy Fund.
“Mike should be applauded for his courage in standing firm to the very end of this difficult saga,” said Lisa Maatz, interim director of the fund. “Since 2001, no women have participated in varsity wrestling at UC Davis, despite the fact that two former UC Davis female wrestlers won world championship medals,” according to a prepared statement from the fund.
The university’s statement puts a different spin on women’s wrestling at the campus, saying it had “unofficial status” during the years Burch was coach.
“Fewer than 10 women ever expressed an interest in wrestling during the years that Burch was coach,” the statement said. “Those who did participate never wrestled for UC Davis in a dual meet, and they wrestled unattached when they participated in the Aggie Open tournament.
“Women’s wrestling is not a sport sanctioned by the NCAA, nor does the NCAA consider it an emerging sport. It is not sponsored by the Pac-10 or Big West Conference, to which UC Davis belongs.”
In contrast, the Legal Advocacy Fund’s statement said, “Over the years, interest in women’s wrestling has grown tremendously, debuting as an Olympic sport in 2004.”
The university’s statement said the decision not to renew Burch’s contract “was based on his performance” and had nothing to do with the controversy over women’s wrestling.
But in rejecting the university’s bid last year to have the case thrown out, Shubb cited a May 25, 2001, exchange between Burch and Robert Franks, assistant chancellor for the student affairs department at Davis, in which Burch asked why his contract had been held up.
“Mr. Franks told (Burch) that his public support for the women wrestlers was ‘making it very difficult for us to love you,’ ” Shubb wrote in his opinion.
Burch’s record seems at odds with being fired for poor performance.
He was twice named UC Davis coach of the year — in 1997 and 2001 — and led his team to more dual-meet victories than any previous wrestling coach at the school. He recorded the first winning season in at least 25 years and qualified numerous wrestlers to NCAA championships.
Throughout his six years at Davis — and for at least two years before that — UCD accepted male and female wrestlers on its varsity team, according to Burch.
During his final year, he claimed, Athletic Director Greg Warzecka and Associate Athletic Director Pam Gill-Fisher told him the women’s program was being cut.
Burch “complained that the no-female directive was unfair and constituted sex discrimination against the female wrestlers, and asked that it be rescinded,” his suit says. “Defendants refused.”
In April 2001, female wrestlers filed a gender discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint prompted media attention, an assemblywoman’s threat to withhold state-controlled funds from the school, and a federal investigation.
The Office of Civil Rights concluded that neither the wrestlers nor Burch had meritorious complaints, according to the university’s statement Friday.