Game Time for Civil Rights: Gender & Age Discrimination in the Professional Sports Industry is on the Table Again

By Lorna Lunney

Less than a month after a major $3 million dollar gender discrimination suit filed against the NBA, the issue is now at the forefront of the NFL with a case filed against Detroit Lions Inc..  Kimberly Doverspike, 49, filed a complaint on October 31 in the Wayne Circuit Court with claims of age and gender discrimination under Michigan’s Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act. Doverspike claims she was denied a promotion and later terminated based on her age and gender after being employed by the Lions for 20 years. The complaint includes a saga of events pertaining to a change in her treatment at the lions. Doverspike claims she was pushed out while “similarly situated younger males” were promoted.

Michigan’s Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act, similar to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964, prohibits discriminatory practices, policies, and customs in the exercise of those rights based upon religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status. Doverspike claims her civil rights under this act were violated when she was treated differently on the basis of gender and age from other employees and then ultimately let go in July. Detroit Lions Inc. responded, “We are aware of the suit brought forth by Mrs. Doverspike. We believe it to be baseless and will vigorously and appropriately defend our position.”

Gender and age discrimination is no new topic to the NFL and the professional sports industry in general. Brynn Cone’s $3 million dollar suit against the NBA tackled scheduling accommodations for women with children. Previous to this suit, the St. Louis Rams faced back to back cases regarding age and gender related discrimination. 56 year old alumni coordinator Lory Fabian was fired in May 2011 claiming was sexually harassed and replaced with “young inexpensive grinders”.  Fabian stated in her claim that the Rams had been shredding “middle-aged women”; yet just a month before, former St. Louis Rams equipment manager, Todd Hewitt, 54, was fired just 10 months short of his early retirement eligibility. Todd Hewitt’s lawsuit claimed that at least six other Rams employees, ranging from 54-year-old trainer to a 70-year-old head of security were forced into early retirement.

Is this a gender issue or an age issue? Perhaps it is a compilation of the two. The pattern in suits filed suggests there is a trend getting harder to ignore. The professional sports industry is fast paced and extremely schedule-demanding for employees. In turn, mangers appear to be pushing out the old and bringing in the young. And consequently, they are being slammed with suits left and right.

Taking a step back and considering the state of unemployment across the country and nature of the industry, it appears as though we maybe we should have seen this coming. Hundreds of thousands of “millennials” are graduating with more aggressive degrees and ironically willing to work more for less compensation. At the tail end of this stick are the Kimberly Doverspikes, the Lory Fabians and the Todd Hewitts. These are the people that have invested in their careers with time and dedication and now, just short of retirement packages, are faced with unexplained terminations.  Civil Rights laws are at the heart of this issue and thereby have the task of balancing generational frictions, current economic conditions and the protection of employment rights.