The University has agreed to pay former UNC soccer player Melissa Jennings ’00 $385,000 in a settlement stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit that has put head coach Anson Dorrance ’74 in the national spotlight for something other than his teams’ 19 national titles in 26 years.
The settlement, approved last week by members of the UNC System Board of Governors, also obligates Dorrance to submit an apology to all of his players for any inappropriate conversations he generated about sex. As an institution, the University has agreed to review and revise its sexual harassment policies and procedures by July 15. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer-turned-assistant law professor who specializes in women’s equity in sport at Florida Coastal School of Law, will conduct the review.
The suit was filed in August 1998 by Jennings and a second player, Debbie Keller ’98, who at the time sought $12 million in damages against UNC and several University officials, including Dorrance. Keller settled out-of-court for $70,000 in 2004, and Dorrance attended sensitivity training sessions for eight years.
According to his letter of apology, between August 1996 and June 1998, Dorrance talked in group settings with his players about their sexual activities and relationships with men.
“I understand that my participation in those discussions was inappropriate and unacceptable,” his letter said. “I apologize to Ms. Jennings and her family, as well as all other members of the soccer team.”
The athletics department will pay the settlement from its 2007-08 operating budget, bypassing the use of state funds and tuition dollars.
In the suit’s early stages, Dorrance and the University argued that the sexual discussions noted by Jennings and Keller were innocent side products of “locker room banter.” As the suit matured, it was fought by UNC through the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the suit, and Judge M. Blane Michael wrote in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals majority opinion that Dorrance’s conduct “went far beyond simple teasing and qualified as sexual harassment.”
A trial had been set for April in federal court.
While Jennings qualified in the agreement that Dorrance never acted upon any of his comments, the language he used made her feel “extremely uncomfortable,” a letter stated.
Jennings, a goalie recruit, was cut from the team in 1998. Keller was the 1996 national college player of the year who scored the game-winning goal in the 1996 NCAA championship game. Her No. 8 jersey is retired.
In a statement from the athletics department, Athletics Director Dick Baddour ’66 said: “Anson apologized to Ms. Jennings in 1998 for making comments in jest that the University thought, and in hindsight he agreed, were inappropriate. That’s what Anson apologized for in 1998 and it’s the exact same apology he is giving in 2008. The only difference is that the University is paying the plaintiff $385,000, which is intended to reimburse her for most of the attorneys’ fees she accumulated over the nine-year history of this case.”
Baddour said Jennings’ and Keller’s charges were an anomaly in Dorrance’s career, pointing out that many of his former players were eager to testify that they believed the case had no merit.
“The allegations that were made in 1998 were unprecedented. There were no allegations against him in the 20 years before the plaintiffs made their claims and there have been no allegations of a similar nature in the 10 years since. Anson apologized for some comments he made in jest, and was reprimanded by the University back in 1998, but there was nothing he did that warranted this type of legal action. Anson has been a tremendous representative of The University of North Carolina for more than 30 years.”