| GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A jury awarded a female place-kicker $2
million in punitive damages Thursday, ruling Duke University cut
her from the team solely because of her gender.
Jurors deliberated just over two hours before deciding the
school discriminated against Heather Mercer, who graduated in 1998.
They met briefly after arguments on damages to rule Duke must pay a
$1 compensatory penalty and the larger amount as punishment.
"I feel great. ... I consider it a complete victory. Any
monetary award is completely icing on the cake," Mercer said. "I
wanted to be told what they did was wrong, and it was."
Lawyer Burton Craige said Mercer, who now works for Charles
Schwab & Co. in New York, will use the award to finance a
scholarship for female place-kickers. Her own football career is
over, he said, but she will continue with fencing.
The university claimed Mercer, now 24, wasn't talented enough to
play for a Division I football team. The jurors ruled sex was the
motivating factor in the way she was treated and that Duke
officials, informed of her complaints, failed to act.
"We are obviously disappointed in the jury's finding and are
confident the judgment will be rectified on appeal," said John F.
Burness, the university's senior vice president for public and
government affairs, in a statement released by the university.
|Heather Sue Mercer, center, leaves the courthouse Thursday with family members and her attorneys after closing arguments in her suit against Duke University.|
During deliberations, jurors asked to see videotapes of Mercer
and other kickers practicing. They also reviewed the transcript of
a conversation between Mercer and assistant football coach Fred
Chatham that Mercer taped secretly.
They also sought from Judge James Beaty a definition of the
phrase "deliberate indifference," meaning whether Duke officials
knew Mercer was having problems and did nothing to correct them.
To award compensatory damages, jurors had to find Mercer
suffered actual financial losses because of Duke's actions. For
punitive damages, they had to find Duke acted with malice and
In closing arguments Thursday, Mercer's lawyers said she wanted
to be treated like any other member of the football team. That's
exactly what happened, the attorney for Duke said.
"(Coach) Fred Goldsmith chose not to see Heather Sue Mercer as
a football player," said Melinda Lawrence, an attorney for Mercer.
"He chose not to see her skills. He chose only to see her as a
Duke lawyer John Simpson said the case was not about
discrimination but about a young woman naive to the cold reality of
Division I football, and penalized Goldsmith for being a nice guy
and trying to help Mercer.
He pointed out that male kickers who were not members of a scout
team -- which played against the first-string team in practice --
also were cut, and reminded jurors that six other kickers on the
team at the time testified Mercer lacked the necessary skills.
"We're disappointed by it. Like they say in football, I left
everything on the field," Simpson said.
Mercer testified Wednesday she was able to kick 48-yard field
goals, although she was more comfortable from 43 yards.
Her former coach and most of her fellow kickers disagreed,
saying she just wasn't good enough to kick against teams like
Florida State and Clemson.
Mercer never suited up for a Duke game. In September 1999,
Colorado walk-on kicker Katie Hnida became the first woman to dress
for a Division I-A football game, but didn't play in the game
Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports
Foundation, said the ruling will make schools take female athletes
seriously when they try out for male teams, "and that's only
"This court decision is consistent with federal court decisions
in that girls need to be allowed to play on boys teams, especially
when there is not a team for the girls," she said.
Case not closed
Two million dollars is a tremendous amount of money and by no means is Duke University expected to accept this as a "case closed." Mercer was awarded $1 in compensatory damages because she did not actually suffer any financial loss, but the $2 million in punitive damages is obviously the statement the jury wanted to make.
Punitive damages are usually awarded if the defendant, in this case Duke, acted with intent or malice, according to Mark Conrad, professor of sports law at Fordham University and editor of Sportslawnews.com. "It"s a pretty high punitive damage and it is certainly very generous, but if the jury honestly felt that the defendant acted with intent and malice then the jury might be justified."
But Conrad said Thursday that he expects the lawyer for Duke University to argue that the punishment was "excessive beyond the weight of evidence" or to "appeal the entire thing" as early as Friday.
If the award stands, the statement the jury made will certainly catch the attention of colleges and college football coaches, and Conrad said the large prize might even bring more discrimination cases out into the open in the coming months and "provide incentive for other lawyers to sue on behalf of female athletes in this position."
"Two million is a lot of money, especially since she's finished her education and she's now working on Wall Street," said Conrad. "But at least she's not pocketing it."
-- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com
Ex-Duke kicker says woman wasn't good enough to make team