by | Oct 16, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

REMEMBER BACK in high school, when you went out for the school play, and you waited for the cast list to be posted on the bulletin board? Was there ever anyone, upon discovering his or her name was not on the list, who walked away saying, “Well, fair’s fair, I must not be good enough.”

No. What usually happens is a justification. The teacher doesn’t like me. Or They saved all the good parts for upperclassmen. Nobody likes to be cut. It is easier to explain it away, blame someone else’s taste or prejudice. For the most part, this is harmless.

Unless you take your case to court.

Heather Sue Mercer took hers. She is 24 now, a college graduate with a high-paying job in the finance industry. But a few years ago, she was a student at Duke who tried out for placekicker on the football team.

As in the men’s football team.

Duke was not obligated to give her a tryout. Under Title IX, schools can prohibit women from participating in men’s contact sports.

But the rules also state that once a woman is allowed to participate, she must be treated equally.

A Duke coach encouraged Mercer’s tryout. He liked her spirit, even though her initial kicking was not impressive. He kept her around, and at one point, she even kicked a 28-yard field goal to win a scrimmage game. Reportedly, in his enthusiasm, the coach told Mercer she’d “made the team.”

It didn’t work out that way. Mercer never got to play — or even dress for games — and the following season she was cut. The reason given was simple: She wasn’t a good enough kicker.

But Mercer didn’t believe that. She complained and demanded an apology, saying she was dismissed because of her gender. She said her coach once told her she’d “do better in beauty pageants.”

A $2-million penalty

When the Duke administration didn’t respond, Mercer sued. And late last week, a jury of five woman and three men decided in her favor.

And awarded her $2 million.

“I wanted to be told what they did was wrong, and it was,” Mercer said. “I feel great.”

Well. That’s nice for her. Maybe, in her case, it’s even justice. But anyone who thinks this decision will open doors for other female athletes is sadly mistaken.

In fact, it may do exactly the opposite.

Mercer — who says she’ll start a scholarship fund with her award — claims she didn’t sue for the money. But the next person might.

And if getting cut from sports teams becomes another word for “lawsuit,” you can bet universities will do everything possible to avoid confrontation.

Which means more closed doors for women, not open ones. I promise you, the next gridiron coach who is considering a female will get a quick lecture from his university’s attorneys.

“Are you crazy? Don’t you remember the Mercer case? If you let her on, and you ever have to cut her, she’ll sue. We can’t take the chance.”


“Sorry, young lady, but we’re not allowing women to try out for football.”

Gender bias or stupidity?

You want to know what I think happened here — and I base this not on being at Duke, but on 20 years in the sports-covering business?

Mercer had some talent. Not enough to be a Division I starter. But Duke is a progressive school. And the coach — who has daughters on a boys Little League team — thought he’d be a forward-thinking guy and give her a shot.

But after a while, the novelty wore off. Some of the Duke football staff worried about its image. (“We’re the only ACC team with a girl!”) Somebody — maybe more than one person — made some stupid, sexist comments.

When Mercer was cut, like most people, she wanted a reason. She was that kid at the bulletin board. It couldn’t have been her talent. It must have been something else.

Ta da! Gender bias. A jury — probably not used to the macho atmosphere that is commonplace with football teams — heard some of the comments, and, applying real-world standards, said, “Yep, sounds like gender bias to us.”

And the jurors socked it to Duke.

Does this mean Mercer was good enough to be on the team? Not at all. Does it mean Duke was wrong? Quite possible. Does it mean Duke deserves a $2-million whack in the pocketbook? No way.

Be honest. Isn’t $2 million a little ridiculous if no physical harm or serious emotional trauma was done to Mercer? It’s a politically correct decision with a decidedly incorrect payoff.

After the decision was announced, Mercer’s lawyer said, “This will open the eyes of universities to the abilities of women to do things they never imagined could be done.”

Yeah, like suing for $2 million.

No one wants to hear “you’re cut.” Mercer won. But her victory may mean a loss of opportunities for women who would follow in her cleats.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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