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Giuliana Mendiola’s Discrimination Complaint Demonstrates College Athletics’ Askew Priorities

ucr fireApril 27, 2020
Derek Helling

Giuliana Mendiola alleges she and members of the women’s basketball team at the University of California-Riverside endured abuse and misogyny for years at the hand of the man entrusted to instead create an atmosphere where they all could develop their skills relevant to the sport. If her allegations – corroborated by accounts of the women who worked alongside Mendiola as athletes on the team – are true, then an equally horrible fact is that the University refused to take appropriate action until those athletes and Mendiola forced their hand.

Mendiola filed a complaint in the US District Court for Central Calif. on April 18. In her filings, she states five claims for relief. They all focus on the creation of a hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation based on federal legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Mendiola lists the former head coach she worked under as an assistant for the Highlanders women’s basketball team John Margaritis, UCR athletic director Tamica Smith Jones and the Regents of UCR as the defendants. In her prayer for relief, she seeks:

  • Reinstatement of her position as an assistant coach
  • Lost wages both retroactively and for the damage done to her future earning potential with interest
  • Exemplary and punitive damages from the defendants
  • Attorney fees and court costs

Mendiola’s account is horrific. It reveals a pattern of homophobia, mental abuse, misogyny and racism by Margaritis. Furthermore, it paints a picture of betrayal and deceit by Smith Jones. Ultimately, it shows the utter failure of the UCR Regents in their charge.

Mendiola worked as an assistant coach for the UCR women’s basketball team for seven years after one year in the same role at Montana State University. That followed up a successful career as an athlete. She ended her collegiate career as the only player (male or female) in then Pac-10 history to accumulate over 600 assists, 1,500 points and 700 rebounds. She played professionally all over the world for seven years, during which time she became the first and only woman to play, score and start in the ABA.

Despite her tremendous accomplishments, she alleges that Margaritis routinely belittled her, held her to standards that he did not hold her male counterparts to and made unwanted advances toward her. This included forcing her to share a desk with a male assistant caught using the athletic department computer and Internet access to view pornography, asking her to sign an agreement that she would not get pregnant again after the birth of her second child, demanding that she give him hugs and following her out to her car and yelling while insulting her in the presence of the team.

In addition, Mendiola states that Margaritis refused to give her the title of associate head coach, “because he didn’t believe in the position” then gave that exact title to another member of the staff in what Mendiola believes was a retaliatory message after she raised concerns about how Margaritis treated athletes on the team with Smith Jones.

Mendiola alleges that she informed Smith Jones of Margaritis’ behavior toward her and members of the team on multiple occasions. Her reports included Margaritis making derogatory remarks to athletes about their physical appearances, race and sexual orientations. Allegations by athletes themselves included Margaritis constantly threatening to revoke their scholarships, insisting they hide injuries from medical staff and outing them to their parents over the phone.

Smith Jones’ response to Mendiola and others who reported Margaritis’ behavior was to feign action while in reality attempting to sweep it under the rug. Mendiola says that Smith Jones, after meeting with Mendiola and several athletes multiple times, told them that she would remove Margaritis regardless of the results of an internal investigation. After concluding the investigation, she merely suspended Margaritis for 20 days. Mendiola says that Smith Jones told her several times that she would take over for Margaritis, even going as far as to plan a budget with her for when she took over as head coach. Instead, the University opted not to renew her contract.

A former employee with knowledge of the team dynamic said, “I know things have been brought to Tamica’s attention and the fact they’ve kind of been swept under the rug is detrimental to personal growth and the growth of the university and athletics program.”

When UCR declined to renew Mendiola’s contract, after having done so six times, current and former members of the UCR women’s basketball team went to the press with their allegations against Margaritis and Smith Jones, including a public petition for Mendiola’s reinstatement. That’s when Margaritis resigned. Mendiola filed a discrimination complaint then an EEO complaint. Both the Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave Mendiola clearance to file a civil suit based on her allegations.

Since Smith Jones informed Mendiola her contract would not be renewed in July of 2019, there has been no news of a settlement. Mendiola has not begun work as an assistant coach in any other women’s basketball programs since then either. Whether settlement negotiations are ongoing or whether Mendiola has other employment prospects on the horizon aren’t matters of public record.

If everything Mendiola alleges is true it’s another damnation for college athletics. Once again, the health and safety of athlete-employees of an NCAA-member institution have taken a backseat to the desire to protect the image of that institution. Yet again, the reputation of a man making his salary off the backs of athletes was a higher priority for an athletic department than the backs of those athletes.

Such askew priorities fit nicely into a culture that works to deprive athletes of their civil rights and dignity economically. If you can deny workers the right to collectively bargain for an equitable share of the revenue they produce, pressuring them to play with concussions and insulting their hairstyles relevant to their ethnicities isn’t much farther down the same road. If not for the brave actions of Mendiola and those who worked alongside her, Margaritis would still be collecting a salary to wreak destruction in the lives of those around him today.

If the complaint actually goes to trial, a jury will decide whether the allegations of Mendiola and others substantiate the relief she seeks. In the court of public opinion, however, the evidence acts to further reinforce the narrative that has unfortunately become too well-known. Corruption and exploitation in college athletics expand far beyond economic injustice.

Freelance journalist

Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.

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