Words scarce after lawsuit

In wake of Vivas trial, many stay tight-lipped.

July 15, 2007 

In the aftermath of a discrimination suit that cost Fresno State millions of dollars in damages, the university remains largely silent.

Many involved, directly or indirectly, in the trial of former women's volleyball coach Lindy Vivas either didn't return calls or offered a no comment.

But current women's volleyball coach Ruben Nieves, softball coach Margie Wright and a handful of jurors did speak out.

"It's just been a lot of negative publicity we've been dealing with and that's not fun," said Nieves, referring to the fallout from the 18-day trial that included controversial testimony about the university's attitudes toward women and lesbians.

"We, as an athletic department, keep trying to do a good job but get slammed again and again."

Added Wright: "Clearly, a statement was made in this case that people should be treated fairly and equitably across the nation. And if there's a lesson learned, I think it's that you always want to treat people the way you'd want to be treated."

Vivas was awarded $5.85 million, nearly $2 million more than she sought, because a jury determined Fresno State did not renew her contract in 2004 in retaliation for her advocacy of gender equity and perceived sexual orientation.

Most of the nine women and three men on the jury who were contacted declined to comment. Some cited fear of retaliation from the university.

"Fresno State has enough pull in this town to have me worried," said one juror who wished not to be identified.

Some coaches and school officials expressed concerns about commenting with the university planning to appeal and two similar suits scheduled in the fall -- one filed by former associate athletic director Diane Milutinovich and the other by former women's basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein.

Past and present Fresno State employees are again expected to take the stand, with more dirty laundry and accusations to be heard.

"In light of the pending appeal and two other trials, I think it'd be inappropriate to comment right now," athletic director Thomas Boeh said.

California State Chancellor Charles B. Reed would not publicly comment when asked about the case at a trustees meeting last week, when the trial was discussed in closed session. But he did give strong support to Fresno State president John Welty.

Later last week, a State Senate committee was formed as a result of the verdict to look into gender discrimination issues at California universities.

Caught in the crossfire

So why did Nieves and Wright decide to talk?

Nieves admits his program has been caught in a crossfire over the past three years.

Nieves was the benefactor when Fresno State decided not to renew Vivas' contract. Nieves was the last hire made by former athletic director Scott Johnson, who was portrayed during the trial as the primary adversary to Vivas.

But Nieves also has paid the price for succeeding Vivas and inheriting a team that remained loyal to the previous coaching staff. In 2005, three players who played under Vivas either quit or were kicked off the team.

Now, with the Vivas trial decided, Nieves deals with the lingering effects.

Wearing a polo shirt that reads Fresno State volleyball, Nieves points to the logo while speaking.

"We have honest, good people in the department," Nieves said. "However, when many in the community see this shirt right now, they're asking, 'Is Ruben Nieves an honest, good man?'

"Because of what has happened recently and because of all the negative publicity, people are questioning our integrity. So we have to work harder than ever before to stay the course ... and get this community to understand there are great things happening here."

Nieves is quick to say the trial should not be used as an excuse for another bad season. In his first two seasons, the Bulldogs finished 7-21 and 6-24. By comparison, the team went 263-167 in 14 seasons under Vivas.

"I do think I inherited a group of players that had a major distraction on top of [volleyball]," Nieves said. "There was another area drawing energy and focus from them that a lot of our competitors didn't have to deal with.

"How much of a distraction will [the Vivas verdict] be? It's up to us as coaches, as an athletic department, as players."

Nieves disputes a few claims Vivas made in her trial, particularly the administration's lack of support for volleyball.

"I saw nothing missing that could keep us from being a successful volleyball program," Nieves said. "The volleyball program I walked into was well funded. Now the thing about college athletics is, you can have all those resources and still not succeed."

But Nieves also defends Vivas to a degree.

"Lindy Vivas' situation wasn't created by someone outside," Nieves said. "It was created by Fresno State coaches, administrators and staff. It evolved out of 'us' and that is disappointing.

"I know there are people who have been here a long time who are very disappointed that [the Vivas trial] would evolve out of our own work and dealings with each other."

Wright's advice

While some witnesses required subpoenas to testify, Wright said she had no hesitation to take the stand and side with Vivas rather than the university she has coached at for the past 22 years.

Wright, in fact, filed a retaliation complaint in 2004 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights against the school. The agency has been investigating Fresno State.

Some jurors pointed to Wright's testimony as some of the most credible pieces of evidence, particularly when she described the divisiveness in the athletic department and unpleasant treatment toward female coaches.

"I'm very happy for Lindy because I do think that she was unfairly treated," Wright said. "I'm sure people have their opinions about the trial. If you're not willing to accept the verdict, then I think it could be a problem.

"But I sure hope there aren't repercussions. As an employee of the university, I was asked to testify and I told the truth. My conscience is clear. There was no stress for me because I know I told the truth."

Wright is concerned the university will ignore the lessons.

"Everybody always wants to get rid of the past," Wright said. "Unfortunately, our future is molded by our past. If we forget about the past, how do we ever get better? We don't do that in coaching. We shouldn't do that as a university or as an athletic department.

"We need to fix what caused us to fail. You can't move forward when things are hanging over you."

What's next

Fresno State is expected to file a motion in the upcoming weeks either for a new trial or at the very least, a decrease in the award of $5,852,069.

On top of the award, Vivas' attorney, Dan Siegel, is expected to file a motion for his fees, which could total around $500,000 that the California State University system would have to pay.

If the university were to lose all motions and an appeal, it would have to pay the entire award, attorney's fees, plus 10% interest.

Some local attorneys said it would make sense if Fresno State asked the judge to lower the monetary award and then settle the two pending cases. Thus, the university would avoid having a jury award more money to Milutinovich and Johnson-Klein, and save university officials from further embarrassment. Attorneys for Milutinovich and Johnson-Klein refused to specify how much money they're seeking.

"Right now, Fresno State's only glimmer of hope is the judge lowers the award [from the Vivas trial], and the school settles the other cases," said Andy Jones, a longtime Fresno attorney who specializes in employment law. "But in a case of this magnitude, the defense will argue everything, from juror misconduct to how the judge ruled on evidentiary decisions."

Karen Miller, a juror on the Vivas trial, said she would be "extremely disappointed" if the judge ruled for a new trial.

She said the evidence and testimony heavily favored Vivas, and their award reflected the amount of pain and suffering that Fresno State put her through.

"There was just this really persistent concentrated effort to harass this woman, and they messed with her mind so much, she could be damaged goods forever," Miller said. "They yanked her from a job she loved, and her whole foundation -- her whole world -- crumbled. And it's directly attributed to the poor handling of her mental collapse.

"I truly hope all the things we heard about the Fresno State athletic department are in the past."

The reporter can be reached at banteola@fresnobee.com or (559)441-6362.

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