Title IX suit based on football coach questioning the manhood of the players!

You may want to keep tender eyeballs away from what follows.  Today we tell the tale of a high school football coach who used crude, vulgar and offensive language to motivate his players.   This produced a Title IX suit against the coach, the A.D., the superintendent and the school board. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals summed up the case succinctly:

Plaintiffs’ Title IX theory is somewhat unusual.  It hinges entirely on Frye’s use of the term “pussy.”  [Frye is the coach].                            

That theory may be unusual, but the coach’s vocabulary is not. 

Let’s back up for a moment.  The story begins after the 2013 football season.  For the second straight year, the St. Mary’s football team was 0-10. Those 20 games were not close.  St. Mary’s was outscored by a 3 to 1 margin.  By the way, St. Mary’s is not a Catholic school. That’s the name of the town in northern Ohio where all this transpired. It’s a public school. 

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there are few things more desperate than two straight seasons of humiliation on the gridiron.  So St. Mary’s took a chance on a coach with a long and checkered history. 

It went all the way back to 1995 when Coach Frye was reprimanded for his “unacceptable obscene language” and for “becoming physical with one of the players.”  Did I mention this is in Ohio?  I’m willing to bet this guy has a poster of Woody Hayes in his office.

In 1998 some members of the coaching staff broke the code of silence to complain about Coach Frye.  The complaints focused on how he subjected players to degrading language and pushed them to play through injuries.  

In 2012 some students filed a criminal complaint against Coach Frye.  There was also a complaint filed with the Ohio Department of Education which culminated in a consent agreement.  The agreement allowed for Frye to keep his license to teach and coach, but required his employer to submit quarterly reports on his behavior.   After the 2013 season in that district, Coach Frye voluntarily resigned.

That’s when St. Mary’s came calling, fully aware of his history. In fact, he had coached previously in St. Mary’s. They knew what they were getting in Coach Frye.  They knew about the complaints but they also knew that he was a winner.  Moreover, administrators in the schools where he coached recommended him. He had been Coach of the Year for Ohio District III in 2001.

The lawsuit was filed by two players who alleged that they were harassed by Coach Frye to the point that it amounted to sex discrimination and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

As the court noted, this is an unusual Title IX case.  There are no allegations of physical or sexual misconduct by the coach.  Nor is there any allegation of differential treatment of boys vs girls—there were no girls on the team.  This is entirely about a man allegedly verbally abusing two boys.  And in particular it’s about the “P-word.” 

The 6th Circuit held that the facts alleged did not amount to discrimination based on sex.  Case dismissed.  In the process, the court made some interesting observations:

While beneath the dignity of a teacher and youth mentor, Frye’s use of an offensive, gendered insult to motivate his players does not put this case across the Title IX goal line.

Conduct considered blasé on the gridiron might very well shock the conscience of the chess club or debate team.

That is not to say we condone Frye’s comments.  They are offensive and inappropriate at best. But they are also not unheard of on the gridiron, where the foul-mouthed coach is something of an unfortunate cultural cliché.  All things considered, Frye’s statements were not “utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

All three of the judges agreed that Coach Frye had not violated Title IX standards. One of the judges would have allowed the case to proceed further to explore liability under Ohio state law.  Another judge wrote a short concurring opinion that includes a nice reminder for educators and school board members about how to deal with verbal abuse aimed at students. We leave you with this:

The way to root out such bad practices, however, is to rely on school boards, administrators, school councils, PTAs, and parents.  It is not to create a federal court action to curb such practices. 

That’s the case of Chisholm v. St. Mary’s City School District Board of Education, decided by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on January 7, 2020.  We found it at 2020 WL 104598. 


Tomorrow: Toolbox Tuesday!!