Friday, October 3, 2008
Players allege SMU coach had double standard for gay liaisons
Five current and former Lady Mustangs allege that women's basketball coach Rhonda Rompola had “long-term relations” with a specific female assistant coach while denouncing player relationships.
SMU women’s basketball head coach Rhonda Rompola was outspoken in her disapproval of lesbian relationships between players, according to a lawsuit filed last month by former player Jennifer Colli.
But Rompola’s philosophy allegedly didn’t apply to the head coach herself or her staff. In signed statements released by Colli’s attorney, four other current and former Lady Mustangs alleged that Rompola had “long-term relations” with a specific female assistant coach.
Rompola married former SMU men’s basketball head coach Mike Dement last year. Dement is now head coach at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Rompola and SMU officials have issued statements denying the allegations set forth in Colli’s lawsuit.
“It is regrettable that the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are attempting to try their case in the public arena through the media,” Rompola said. “I will not respond to their unfounded allegations and look forward to presenting the facts through the proper venue in court. As has been stated, investigations by two university offices found no evidence to support the student’s complaints.”
Kent Best, executive director of news and communications for SMU, said neither Rompola nor school officials had any comment beyond the statements.
“SMU takes seriously any concerns expressed by students regarding their educational environment,” the school’s statement read. “In the case in question, two university offices investigated the student’s allegations — the Office of the Director of Athletics and the SMU Office of Institutional Access and Equity. The results of the investigations did not support the student’s claims. SMU stands by its findings and will address these issues in court.”
In her lawsuit, Colli alleges that her scholarship was revoked and that she was blackballed from the sport after complaining to SMU athletic director Mike Orsini about issues including Rompola’s treatment of lesbian relationships between players. The lawsuit seeks a minimum of $2 million in damages and $450,000 in attorney’s fees.
Colli, now 21, graduated from Flower Mound Marcus High School in 2005.
A standout basketball player, she chose to continue her career at SMU, where she had an older sister on the team.
According to the lawsuit, Colli was “dumbfounded” when at the Lady Mustangs’ first official team meeting in November 2005, Rompola didn’t talk about basketball “but about the gay relationships on the team and how Rompola did not approve of them.”
The lawsuit goes on to allege that Rompola’s coaching staff “constantly questioned the team about the existing relationships between certain team members.” The coaches brought up the topic during numerous games and would talk about how players weren’t performing well because they hadn’t “gotten any” the night before, the lawsuit states.
After the 2005-06 season, during an individual meeting with Rompola, Colli alleges that the head coach asked “about her relationship with another player and what their plans for the year to come were.”
In June 2006, Colli decided to meet with Orsini to bring the issue to his attention. According to the lawsuit, Colli felt she was standing up for the team because other players were experiencing the same problem.
A month later, Orsini contacted Colli’s parents and told them there was no evidence to support her allegations. Orsini said Colli’s scholarship was being revoked due to “serious misconduct.”
Colli appealed the decision but lost. She later transferred to Odessa College, where she played basketball in 2007-08, according to news reports. Colli had recruiting visits to two Division 1 schools earlier this summer, but she claimed coaches there lost interest after contacting Rompola.
Colli is now living in Southern California and pursuing a career as a model.
One of her attorneys, Michael Kelly, said he would arrange an interview with Colli but was unable to do so by press time.
It’s not the first time a women’s college basketball player has filed a lawsuit alleging that a coach has dealt inappropriately with the issue of sexual orientation.
In 2006, former player Jennifer Harris filed a federal lawsuit against Penn State accusing head coach Rene Portland of removing her from the team due to her perceived sexual orientation. After an internal investigation concluded that Portland had violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy, she was fined $10,000 and required to attend diversity training. The lawsuit was settled under confidential terms.
SMU has a schoolwide policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, Colli’s lawsuit doesn’t mention the nondiscrimination policy. Instead, the lawsuit focuses on SMU’s alleged failure to adhere to established disciplinary procedures in Colli’s case.
Advocates for LGBT equality in collegiate athletics say it’s not uncommon for coaches to try to prohibit lesbian relationships between players. But they said lesbian relationships should be treated the same as heterosexual relationships between student-athletes, with coaches laying out clear ground rules for conduct.
“This is no different than having two people in a workplace involved in a heterosexual relationship,” said Pat Griffin, director of It Takes A Team, a national campaign for LGBT issues in sports. “There have to be guidelines about what constitutes professional behavior.”
Griffin, a professor emeritus in the social justice education program at the University of Massachusetts, cited inadequate policies and training on sexual orientation within school athletic departments, as well as at the conference and NCAA level.
Grffin also said the homophobic climate of college sports makes it difficult for LGBT athletes and coaches to come out.
“It’s still unfortunately not safe at many schools for coaches or athletes to be open about their sexuality, either out of fear of discrimination from their athletic director and other coaches, or because they’re afraid that they’ll lose recruits because of the homophobia of parents and high school students,” Griffin said. “It’s still a potential career-killer to be publicly out.”
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