Dorrance settles sexual harassment suit
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Anson Dorrance waited almost a decade to be free of a sexual harassment lawsuit that hung over his storied women's soccer program at North Carolina. He wasn't alone.
With Monday's announcement of a settlement, university officials in Chapel Hill and the former player who accused him of creating an uncomfortable environment by asking players about their sexual activity can finally move on.
"I think for everyone concerned, it's a good thing," Dorrance said. "I really feel like both parties felt it had gone long enough."
Former player Melissa Jennings will receive $385,000, mostly for attorney's fees. The cost will be covered by the athletic department's 2007-08 budget and no tuition or state funds will be used, the school said. The settlement also requires the university to review its sexual harassment policies and procedures, including bringing in a law professor from Florida as a consultant.
Jennings and Debbie Keller, a former national player of the year for the Tar Heels, filed the lawsuit in August 1998 and were seeking financial damages of $12 million. It jarred the successful program and Dorrance, the nation's most decorated women's soccer coach, who has led the Tar Heels to 19 national championships since 1979.
Dorrance denied harassing his players, but in an apology letter sent almost 10 years ago he acknowledged participating in banter of a "jesting or teasing nature" with groups of players. The settlement required Dorrance to write a similar letter to Jennings acknowledging he was part of group discussions with players about their sexual relationships.
The school said the settlement isn't an admission of guilt beyond that apology.
Dick Baddour, the school's athletic director, said Dorrance's job was never in jeopardy and that he was proud of the university for "standing up for Anson." And Dorrance was quick to credit the university for backing him.
"When you deal with something for that long, it's not like it's on your mind all the time," Baddour said. "But it's there, so the idea that this thing has gone away from Anson, the program, the university, I am relieved."
Daniel Konicek, an Illinois attorney who represented Jennings, said the financial settlement was significant considering there was no allegations of physical contact and Dorrance was not fired. He also said the lawsuit raised national awareness of sexual-harassment issues involving college athletes.
"Melissa's life has changed," Konicek said. "She wants to get on with her life. Litigation is a tough deal. She's been fighting for almost 10 years. She put up a good fight. In the long run she finished the race."
Dorrance maintained the loyalty and support of the majority of his players, many of whom attended a news conference when the lawsuit was first filed as a show of support. At the time, former player Staci Wilson went as far as to call it "insulting to the program."
On Monday, former players Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak and Robin Confer sounded as firm in their support of Dorrance.
"I don't think at any point it affected the Carolina program because everyone that was there ... knew there was no merit to it," said Confer, an assistant coach at Georgia. "It wasn't 'Oh my gosh, the program's going to be destroyed by this.' It hasn't."
Jennings, a walk-on reserve goalkeeper for two seasons, had claimed that during a one-on-one meeting to discuss her academic and athletic progress, Dorrance bluntly asked about her sex life. She was eventually cut from the team.
Jennings said Dorrance created an environment that violated the federal Title IX law by denying her the benefits of collegiate sports. Keller settled with the university in 2004.
A federal judge dismissed the Jennings case in 2004, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals revived it last year and sent the case back to the court for a jury trial.
Dorrance was the coach of the women's national team from 1986-94, leading it to a gold medal in 1991 at the inaugural women's World Cup tournament.
Dorrance and star forward Mia Hamm won NCAA championships each year she was at North Carolina from '89 to '93. Other star players he has coached include April Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck, Lindsay Tarpley and Cat Reddick.
"I'm proud to be a part of that program and I've always said that," said Roberts Sahaydak, now the co-head coach at Virginia Commonwealth. "Nothing has ever changed. Ever."