This week, Prairie View A&M fired its head women's basketball coach, Dawn Brown, after she suspended two of her players for having a relationship off the court.
The unnamed players had filed a Title IX complaint, claiming that Brown discriminated against them because they were gay, according to a university memo obtained by USA Today Sports. Brown, however, has said that she suspended the players because they broke a team rule that prohibits players, coaches or other team staff from dating one another — regardless of whether it's a male-female relationship or otherwise. Brown supposedly put the rule in place after an assistant coach was caught having a relationship with a player.
But in its own investigation, Prairie View A&M sided with the athletes, finding that suspending the players based on their dating relationship violated both Texas A&M system policy and Title IX because it discriminated based on sexual orientation, according to the memo.
And given that Title IX doesn't yet explicitly protect against that type of discrimination — only discrimination based on sex and gender — that makes Prairie View A&M's decision rather progressive.
It was only three months ago that a judge, apparently for the first time, even acknowledged that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be prohibited under Title IX. In a case in California, two female basketball teammates who were dating at Pepperdine University filed a Title IX complaint in federal district court, saying that, after they came out as a lesbian couple, their coach wanted them off the team because their relationship would cause the team to lose games, according to the lawsuit. The coach allegedly told them that “lesbianism would not be tolerated” and harassed them with constant questions about things like where they slept and how often they saw each other.
When Pepperdine filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that discrimination based on sexual orientation wasn't a valid Title IX claim, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson disagreed. He said, “The line between discrimination based on gender stereotyping and discrimination based on sexual orientation is blurry, at best,” and that any distinction between the two was “illusory and artificial.”
It's unclear whether this recent ruling had anything to do with Prairie View A&M's decision to fire Brown based partly on a Title IX violation — a university spokeswoman said officials wouldn't comment on anything beyond Brown's win-and-loss record. Brown, however, told USA Today Tuesday that her team rule prohibiting player relationships was actually approved by the school's Title IX coordinator.
But Texas A&M professor George Cunningham, who focuses on LGBT issues in sports as director of the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport, said that, either way, the rule struck him as discriminatory in nature.
“I have yet to hear about a coach making stipulations on who heterosexual players can date, so why have a rule about same-sex relationships?” he said. “It suggests such relationships are wrong or in need of oversight — something that promotes antiquated stereotypes. I'm not sure why a coach would want to oversee that part of a player’s life in the first place, as this seems to be overreaching. We certainly don't see this in any other area of higher education.”
Cunningham said that the California ruling is a promising step forward, but that many administrators or coaches like Brown probably just don't know about it.
But considering that Prairie View's own Title IX specialist approved Brown's rule, she said Tuesday that she felt "betrayed."