NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – A former women’s basketball coach at Rutgers University and several student-athletes have hit the school with a class action, saying two members of the school’s athletic department in Newark made discriminatory comments about women, gays and blacks.
Filed on May 4 in Essex County Superior Court, the class action says Kevin Morris was fired as basketball coach after complaining about racist and homophobic comments by university Athletic Director Mark Griffin.
Rutgers denied the allegations, saying it fired Morris because he did not return to work after his 10-month medical leave. The school says an internal investigation found no violations of its policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
As laid out in the 25-page complaint, however, Griffin and the university “engaged in a pattern and practice of harassment, disparate treatment, discrimination, and retaliation.”
The complaint accuses Griffin of calling a black female coach a “double quota,” telling the woman she was lucky to work with “so many white guys.” Griffin also told his staff they could say whatever they wanted to student-athletes, according to the complaint.
Seven student-athletes join Morris in the complaint, accusing the school’s Newark campus of fostering a discriminatory atmosphere in its women’s basketball program.
Rutgers has faced other allegations of discrimination in recent years, most notably involving former men’s basketball coach Mike Rice, who was caught on camera in 2013 throwing basketballs at players and using an anti-gay slur.
The school fired athletic director Julie Hermann and football coach Kyle Flood in 2015 after other allegations, including that Flood allowed players who failed drug tests to play.
And this past December, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced it was investigating the allegations that Rutgers operated a faulty drug-testing program that allowed players who tested positive for banned substances to compete.
A decade before these incidents, Rutgers men’s basketball coach Kevin Bannon was fired after it was revealed he forced players who missed free throws during practice to run sprints naked.
Morris claims when news of Rice scandal broke, Griffin joked about the fallout in a meeting with staff, claiming he could not coach students without saying the word “fuck.”
Saying the athletic director routinely made homophobic and racist comments during staff meetings, the complaint says Griffin offered a bizarre assurance to employees about the new Rutgers mascot. “Don’t worry, it won’t be gay,” Griffin is alleged to have said.
Morris claims to have reported Griffin’s comments to Gerald Massenburg, the university’s assistant chancellor of student life, but that nothing was done.
After Griffin threatened Morris and his staff, according to the complaint, Morris filed a formal complaint with human resources and went on medical leave in July 2014.
Morris claims he kept inquiring into Rutgers’ internal investigation into Griffin and the athletic program, eventually receiving a letter in May 2015 that directed him to return to work by a specific date. One week later, he was fired, the complaint states.
Morris first brought the allegations to light in 2014, according to an article in the Rutgers Observer that quotes Griffin as having denied making discriminatory remarks during coaches’ meetings.
“I got nothing to hide,” Griffin said in the article. “My goal and the university’s goal is what’s in the best interest of the student athletes and our institution as a whole.”
The internal investigation into Griffin was never made public, but the new class action contends that the probe was “incomplete, flawed and biased,” and that Rutgers had an “indifference to the widespread discrimination.”
Morris, who was hired in 2001, received a number of state athletic awards during his more than 15 years as the university’s women’s basketball coach.
No stranger to bias litigation, Morris sued Fordham University in 2003 while coaching the Bronx school’s women’s basketball team, claiming he was paid less than the men’s basketball coach and that the women’s program received inferior resources.
Morris says Rutgers found someone more in line with Griffin’s approach to take over coaching the women’s basketball team in his absence. The complaint quotes coach William Zasowski as calling one female referee a “cunt” in front of players and calling his female players “motherfuckers” when they made mistakes.
Zasowski allegedly referred to two of his senior players — Sharee Gordon and Jade Howard, both of whom are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit — as “dykes,” and said black players looked like they “combed their hair with firecrackers” and had a “nappy look.”
Gordon claims Zasowski refused to start her in another game after she complained and ordered her off a team bus. But the complaint says the other women on the team backed up Gordon, threatening to leave the bus as well if she was forced off.
Gordon says Griffin told her in response to the complaints that Zasowski “could do whatever he wanted to do as head coach.”
During a February 2016 meeting with Gordon and her mother, according to the complaint, Griffin dismissed the complaints and the bus incident, warning that pressing the issue would “affect her enrollment at Rutgers.”
The complaint also says the women’s basketball team was treated worse than the men’s team at Rutgers, receiving less equipment and having to pay more for travel to away games.
Rutgers lists its current women’s basketball coach as Ashley Cieplicki. The school noted in its statement that Zasowski is no longer affiliated with the university, but had been hired “to fill in owing to Morris’ 10-month absence.”
Morris and the student-athletes seek punitive damages, alleging retaliation, hostile work environment and disparate treatment on the basis of gender. They are represented by Kevin Barber with Niedweske Barber Hager in Morristown, New Jersey.