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UC Davis Settles Lawsuit by Former Wrestling Coach

January 19, 2007

The University of California Board of Regents today announced its approval of a legal settlement that concludes a longstanding lawsuit brought against UC Davis and its athletics administrators by the campus's former head wrestling coach.

Michael Burch had claimed the campus did not renew his coaching contract in 2001 in retaliation for his support of UC Davis women wrestlers and their gender discrimination complaint -- a complaint ultimately dismissed by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

In settling the case, the university maintains that it acted appropriately in all matters related to Burch's departure and to the participation of women in the campus's varsity wrestling program. The university's $725,000 settlement was reached after extensive negotiations moderated by U.S. District Judge William Shubb. The amount is based primarily on the potential exposure to the campus, due to costly litigation of more than three years that included significant claims by Burch's attorneys for expenses and fees well above the settlement amount.

"The decisions made by our Intercollegiate Athletics leadership in all matters related to former coach Burch and the wrestling program were principled and responsible," said Janet Gong, interim vice chancellor for Student Affairs. "While a settlement is prudent, we firmly believe that Mr. Burch's charges of retaliation are simply not true."

The charges of alleged discrimination made by three women wrestlers and by Burch were contested in a 2001 published letter signed by eight UC Davis head coaches, an athletics compliance officer, the director of athletic advising and an academic adviser -- nine of whom were women, and all of whom asserted the campus athletics program "creates legitimate athletic opportunities for women at a level that is unmatched by any other university in the nation."

Women's athletics are a high priority at UC Davis, which has received national honors for the strength and variety of its women's sports, including twice being named the best Division II school for women athletes by Sports Illustrated for Women. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has named three UC Davis students Woman of the Year, more than any other NCAA campus in the country. UC Davis currently sponsors 14 women's varsity sports, significantly more than the national average of 8.4, and 12 men's varsity sports.

"The UC Davis campus administration and athletics department continue to maintain a commitment to its female athletes. We have a demonstrated history of expanding opportunities for women to participate in competitive sports," said Associate Vice Chancellor Dennis Shimek, the campus Title IX officer. "We are proud of our reputation for excellence in women's athletics, and of the achievements of our many female student athletes as well as those who coach them."

Burch had alleged under Title IX -- the first comprehensive federal law to prohibit sex discrimination against students and employees of educational institutions -- that the university did not renew his coaching contract for the 2001-2002 season to retaliate against him for advocating for the interests of women wrestlers. His second claim, which was brought against the individual defendants, had alleged they retaliated against him for engaging in free or protected speech relating to women's wrestling. The university and the individuals who were sued denied any such motivation or wrongdoing. There is no admission of liability in the settlement.

Prior to and during the years that Burch was the head wrestling coach, women's wrestling had an unofficial status on campus. During Burch's term, female student-athletes were not required to compete for a spot on the varsity roster. The few women who participated in wrestling under Burch's leadership never participated in a dual meet or competed for UC Davis. As part of the campus roster management program, the size of the wrestling team was limited to 34 spots for the 2000-2001 season. Burch did not allot any of those spots to women.

Six months later, three of the female wrestlers filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights, alleging discrimination and demanding, among other things, that a women's varsity wrestling team be established. The campus has a well-established proposal process for new varsity sports, including viability, sufficient student interest and available competition. The female wrestlers never participated in this process or submitted a varsity proposal, and declined to establish themselves at the club level common to many sports for both genders at UC Davis.

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. Fewer than 10 women ever expressed an interest in wrestling during the years that Burch was head coach.

The Office for Civil Rights, which has oversight of Title IX issues, investigated both the complaint filed by the female wrestlers and a retaliation complaint filed by Burch after he was notified that his contract would not be renewed. The agency concluded that neither complaint had merit.

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