Fighting Salary Inequities

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.11, November 2004,

Schools crunch all sorts of numbers to evaluate their Title IX compliance—participation numbers, budget numbers, numbers of contests and practices. However, one number that’s often overlooked is the one on coaches’ pay stubs. When a school fails to compensate coaches of male and female teams equitably, what can coaches do?

Sean O’Flannery faced that question when he signed on as Head Volleyball Coach at Northeast High School in Pinellas County, Fla., in 1999. Volleyball coaches at Northeast and 15 other Pinellas County high schools were paid $860 a year, while boys’ wrestling coaches earned $1,600 a year. O’Flannery challenged the inequity, and four years later, volleyball coaches finally began taking home the same size paychecks as their wrestling counterparts.

Along the way, O’Flannery learned some lessons about what works and what doesn’t work when tackling a Title IX issue. "The first step was to do my homework," he says. He began by systematically evaluating the situation to determine if a Title IX violation existed, using materials he obtained from the nearest regional office of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which for him was in Atlanta.

Reading through the OCR materials, O’Flannery realized he needed to determine which boys’ sport offered the best comparison to volleyball. He decided that wrestling was the best match based on the length of season, the number of athletes, the number and length of practices, and the number of contests. He obtained an official copy of the pay scales for volleyball and wrestling coaches from the district and confirmed the length of each season with the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The next step was moving his complaint carefully along the proper chain of command. For O’Flannery, that meant stating his grievance, in succession, to the district’s athletic director, personnel office, two assistant superintendents, teachers’ union, and finally, the State of Florida. Prior to each meeting or phone call, he sent a copy of his complaint in writing, along with the OCR gender equity evaluation he had completed. He kept copies of each memo to document his efforts, and was careful to keep his demeanor professional.

"I was courteous and diplomatic," he says. "My approach at each meeting was, ‘I believe there is an inequity here and I’m looking for your help.’" Each time a meeting with school administrators failed to produce results, O’Flannery politely informed them that he was unsatisfied with their answer and that he would take his complaint further.

Some officials were more sympathetic than others, but ultimately none was willing to take up his cause. "The athletic director just said, ‘That’s the pay scale and that’s final,’" O’Flannery says. "The assistant superintendents were not familiar with how Title IX relates to athletics, so I didn’t get anywhere with them either. And the State of Florida agreed that the school was probably in violation of the state’s Equal Pay Act, but said they had no funding to investigate."

Still, none of the work O’Flannery did at the local level was wasted, since it paid off when he submitted a formal complaint to the OCR. "The first thing the OCR asks you is, ‘What have you done to resolve the problem?’" he explains. "Before they get involved, they want to see that you have exhausted your other options. I was able to give them a stack of paperwork documenting what I had done."

Satisfied that O’Flannery had done his homework, the OCR contacted the Pinellas County School District and prepared to investigate. After stalling briefly, the school agreed to equalize volleyball coaching salaries with wrestling, avoiding a full investigation.

However, the story didn’t end there. Four months later, the district instituted pay raises for all coaches—except volleyball. Once again, volleyball coaches’ salaries fell below wrestling coaches’ pay, this time by $300.

"I complained again, and the athletic director said, ‘Volleyball coaches just got pay raises,’" says O’Flannery. "I explained that those were not raises—they were needed simply to reach equity." After another threat of an OCR investigation, the district raised the salaries of eight varsity volleyball coaches to $1,900, equal with wrestling. Eight junior varsity volleyball coaches also received increases.

"It was a long road, but it was worth it," O’Flannery says. "Unless someone speaks up, Title IX violations don’t go away."