<
>

Coach puts Title IX on 'radar screen'

Ten days removed from winning the game of his life, and coach Roderick Jackson is exhausted. Out of steam. Spent.

It's been nearly six years since Jackson sued the Birmingham, Ala., board of education when he was fired after complaining that his girls high school basketball team did not receive the same support as the boys team. His case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, gaining national attention when the court ruled last year that Title IX protects people such as Jackson who seek action against gender discrimination.

That ruling helped spark a Nov. 30 settlement between Jackson and the Birmingham school board, which is to establish an equitable condition policy for female athletes in all of its programs. The board also will pay Jackson $50,000, and $340,000 to his attorneys.

"A battle was fought, and a victory was won," Jackson said. "It's a good feeling for me. All these people came together for a common good, and we now have a [system] in place we can watch develop and grow."

The settlement of Jackson's case has implications beyond Birmingham, and it comes at a time when Title IX supporters say decisions by the Bush Administration have weakened federal antidiscrimination laws. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education changed the rules for Title IX compliance, allowing schools to use Web-based surveys to determine interest in participating, and thus justify support for their athletic programs. In Jackson's case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title IX protects whistle-blowers in addition to victims of discrimination. Lower courts had rejected that idea.

Doug Jones, one of Jackson's attorneys in Birmingham, says the settlement "puts Title IX cases back on the radar screen at a time when people are trying to question whether Title IX is appropriate."

At the center of what some are calling a landmark case is Jackson, 41, who has spent much of his life tackling challenges and overcoming obstacles. His father died when he was 2, leaving his mother, Fannie Mae Jackson, to raise three children on a modest income.

"She was a strong presence," Roderick Jackson said. "She kept pushing me toward education. That was the key."

After high school came a six-year Army stint followed by degrees from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Alabama State University. While Jackson was at UAB, Ralph Patton, the athletic director at Avondale Elementary School, hired him to coach basketball. Patton became Jackson's mentor. Patton recalls observing a strong maternal influence and an astute, eager student.

In 1997, Jackson was named boys basketball coach at Bush Middle School in Birmingham. He took a 2-12 team and finished 9-5 his first season. The next year, he went 13-2. Officials at Ensley High School, next door to Bush, recruited him to coach their girls team in 1999. Jackson went 11-11 his first season, including a second-place finish in Ensley's region.

But at Ensley, Jackson noted discrepancies between the girls and boys programs. The girls had old, frayed uniforms and no budget for shoes. The boys team kept its gate and concession revenue, the girls team could not. The buses were off limits, so Jackson had to organize car pools to the games.

Convenient court time in the main gym, where the boys played, was never available to the girls, Jackson said. Instead, the girls went to a 98-year-old unheated auxiliary gym on the school's second floor, where the rims were bent, the backboards wooden and the court dimensions off kilter. Dead spots dotted the antiquated floor.

Jackson kept quiet.

"It was a new job. You want to blend in," he said. "I was hoping the next year it was going to be corrected."

In his second season, Jackson spent $700 for shoes. Three of his players paid him back. He asked to see the athletic department's books, but was told they were none of his business. He complained to athletic director Mitzi Jackson about the conditions for his girls team.

"He made it clear to me in no uncertain terms, this is the way it is," Jackson recalled. He complained to the principal, Evelyn Baugh. She ignored him.

In midseason, the girls junior varsity basketball program was cut. Jackson grew more vocal. His players did, too.

Stephanie Nelson, a member of Jackson's 2001 team, which sent six players to college on scholarship, said she and her teammates never told Jackson this, but they met with Baugh to complain about the car pooling and the old gym.

"She said she was going to [change] it, but she never did," said Nelson, who called Jackson "a good coach."

Jackson filed a grievance with the school system. He was fired from his $6,900-a-year coaching job in May 2001. One month later, his mother died. Because he was tenured, Jackson, married with two children, retained his teaching position, which paid $35,000, but he became an unpopular man on campus.

"You go from being a pretty good teacher and a pretty good coach to being a moron," he said. "It was like turning off a light switch."

Jackson filed suit. He lost. He appealed. Inspired by Birmingham's civil rights history and a feeling coaches often get when the game appears lost, Jackson argued his own case before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"I felt like I could make an impression on the judge," he said, "that I wasn't just someone blowing smoke, that this was serious."

He lost again.

"I had to go back to school the next day," Jackson said. "I had to look at that boys coach. His chest was sticking out. They had won."

Officials at the National Women's Law Center in Washington were tracking the case. At issue was whether coaches and teachers like Jackson had the right to challenge their school systems on Title IX concerns. The Law Center tried unsuccessfully to get the 11th Circuit Court to rehear the case, so it petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in the spring of 2003. A year later, the court agreed to hear the case. By then, the Department of Justice joined Jackson's side, and the Law Center had secured a formidable coalition that included union and coaching groups and even the National Bar Association.

At the Supreme Court hearing, in the fall of 2004, Jackson's attorneys argued that coaches and teachers are in the best position to know whether students have been subject to discrimination and that no one who complains about Title IX issues should be subject to retaliation, said Jocelyn Samuels, who oversees education and employment at the Law Center.

In March 2005, the Court ruled 5-4 in Jackson's favor, with former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing the majority opinion. It took the Birmingham school board nine additional months to decide what Samuels said was inevitable, costing the board untold thousands in additional legal fees.

"The board could have restored [Jackson's] rights at any point in time and addressed that glaring inequity," she said.

After a change in principals at Ensley, Jackson was rehired as coach in 2003. The girls received new uniforms but little else changed, according to Jackson, his players and his assistant coaches.

Lashundra Carter, who played on last season's team, said the girls were still denied access to buses and the old gym in winter was intolerable.

With the settlement in place, the system in Birmingham is about to change. The court ordered the school board to have a Title IX checks and balances policy in place in 60 days and to appoint Title IX coordinators in every school and on the board. The court approved the appointment of Kenneth Simon, a former judge, as the program's monitor, who will report any infractions to the court.

As for the school board, members aren't talking.

"These people are elected officials. It's something they want to put behind them," said the board's attorney, Kenneth Thomas of Birmingham.

In the settlement, the board did not admit wrongdoing. In Thomas' view, the publicity Jackson received after the Supreme Court ruling would have made it difficult for the board to win at trial. Financially, a loss was not a viable option.

"Even if they would have awarded [Jackson] one dollar, the board would have been responsible for [nearly $2 million] in attorney's fees," Thomas said.

Thomas said Jackson's campaign was based on fabrication. Thomas said officials at Ensley, where Jackson also taught driver's education, testified in depositions that the coach was inflexible in scheduling practice times in the main gym. Thomas also said there was no evidence that Ensley's girls programs received less funding than the boys.

Jackson denied Thomas' allegations.

"I wouldn't take five years out of my life making up something," Jackson said. "There are better things I could do."

For many, Jackson has become a hero of sorts for his relentless pursuit and surprising victory. After the Supreme Court decision, Democrats asked Jackson to speak at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts last year. Jackson accepted, he said, not because he was for or against Roberts, but because he had a message.

"A shift of even one vote would have left me without any remedy," he told the panel. "That's why today's hearing and the Supreme Court confirmation process are so important to regular people like me."

Also last year, Jackson was honored at the Law Center's annual dinner in Washington. Joining him were his wife, Joni, a revenue examiner for the state, their daughter, LaBritney, 17, and son, Nicholas, 15. Jackson said he tried to insulate his family from the fray, but in the end, his crusade became their crusade.

These days, Jackson is in demand as an interview subject and public speaker. He's a reluctant celebrity.

"I tell my kids I'm a regular fellow; celebrities have money," he said.

Things are different at work, too. The school board closed Ensley in May because the school was old. Jackson now teaches health at Jackson-Olin High School, where most of Ensley's students now go. He said some of his colleagues still snub him, reminding him how bitter the fight was. On occasion, his children bring home congratulatory notes from other teachers, lifting his spirit.

Jackson isn't coaching this season, serving instead as a volunteer assistant.

"I don't want to be a distraction to [the team]," he said.

There's another reason.

"I'm emotionally drained."

Still, Jackson is a leader. He's used to pacing the sideline. He enjoys teaching and guiding his players.

Will he coach again?

"Oh, yes," he said. "Very soon."

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.