A former athletic therapist with the Toronto Argonauts who sued the team for wrongful dismissal accuses the club’s general manager Jim Barker of calling all women “bitches” and saying he would not be comfortable working with female head therapists because they would “mother” players.
Erin Brooks, 36, made the startling allegations in a lawsuit filed March, 2011, in Ontario Superior Court.
In the lawsuit, Brooks sued the Argonauts, Barker and team president Bob Nicholson for $975,000. The litigation has since been settled, Brooks’s lawyer said. He declined to elaborate on the terms of the settlement.
“The decision to terminate Brooks’ employment was made by Barker and Nicholson solely on the basis Brooks is a woman,” the lawsuit said.
Brooks’s allegations were not proven and her lawsuit was settled before Barker, Nicholson or the Argonauts filed a statement of defence.
The Argonauts, Barker and Nicholson each declined to comment, said Beth Waldman, a team spokesperson.
Brooks, a York University graduate, started volunteering with the Argos in June 2000 and was hired as their head athletic therapist two years later. Managing a team of three assistants, she was responsible for the health and conditioning of Argos players.
Before she was fired on Dec. 14, 2010, Brooks was the only female head athletic therapist in North American professional sports, her lawsuit said. During her tenure with the team, Brooks designed food menus for players and introduced to the team some non-traditional healing techniques, such as cranialsacral therapy (CST), which focuses on the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
She is now an athletic therapist at George Brown College.
In 2004, former Argos coach Michael Clemons said he called Brooks the Canadian Football League team’s “First Lady” and praised her organizational skills. “You really don’t realize that she’s a female and that’s the best compliment you can make,” Clemons said at the time.
Barker, now 55 and from California, joined the Argos as head coach in February 2010 after leaving the Calgary Stampeders. He allegedly made his feelings known about female trainers during his first training camp. During the 2010 training camp, Barker told at least two other Argos employees that he wasn’t comfortable with a woman as head athletic trainer.
“It was his opinion that (a woman) would be too ‘soft’ with the players and would be inclined to ‘mother’ them,” Brooks’s lawsuit says.
During a game in October 2010, Argos’ star player Chad Owens was slow to get up from the field after a play. Brooks saw that he might be injured and ran onto the field to help him, according to her statement of claim.
As she ran onto the field, Owens stood up and Brooks and her assistant returned to the sideline.
Under CFL rules, players must sit out of the game for three plays if an athletic trainer attends to them on the field.
Barker began discussing with a CFL official whether Owens would be required to leave the game. During that conversation, he told the CFL official that Brooks had run onto the field too quickly because she was a woman, the court filing alleges.
The agent for former Argos running back Michael Jenkins at one point said Jenkins would miss the entire 2004 season with an ankle injury because of bad advice from Brooks.
“I have a problem with female trainers,” Danny Benjamin said in an interview with the National Post, “because they’re female and they don’t understand the male body. Their bodies are different.”
Brooks told the paper she was surprised by the comments.
“I honestly have a little giggle about that because it was just so old school,” she said at the time.
On Dec. 14, 2010, Brooks was fired without any prior warning.
“Brooks’s employment record with the Argonauts was unblemished,” her statement of claim says. “She had never received any discipline, coaching or negative feedback on her job performance. Accordingly, her sudden dismissal came as a complete shock to her.”
After her firing, Brooks contacted Nicholson to seek an explanation. She was told it had been a “football operations decision.”
The day after he fired Brooks, Barker, the CFL coach of the year in 2010, was appointed to the position of head coach and general manager of the Argos. He has since given up the head coach position and the Argos have hired a new male head athletic therapist.
Brooks’ compensation with the Argos was $61,800, plus a playoff bonus, health benefits, four tickets to each Argos game and “a championship ring when applicable.”
Her lawsuit included demands for wrongful dismissal, unpaid overtime, and bad faith, punitive and aggravated damages.
The lawsuit highlights the struggles faced by women to break into the professional sports industry.
On the field and ice, there are more opportunities nowadays for women. There are professional leagues for women’s ice hockey, soccer and basketball. Female tennis stars such as Venus Williams often command more money for appearances than their male rivals.
But the path to success for women in administrative and management roles in pro sports is far more turbulent.
While teams and leagues covet female fans — the Argos have hosted so-called “Football 101” courses to teach women the game — there are few women in high-ranking administrative positions in professional sports.
On National Football League teams, the number of female employees at or above the vice president level increased to 15 in 2011, up from 10 a year earlier, according to a statistics compiled by Richard Lapchick, a professor at the University of Central Florida who has been tracking hiring practices in professional and college sports for years.
The proportion of professional positions in the National Basketball Association that are held by women was 42 per cent during the 2010-2011 season, down 2 per cent from a year earlier. In Major League Baseball’s headquarters, women held 32 per cent of front-office positions in 2010; 18.2 per cent of team vice presidents were women, down 0.4 per cent from a year earlier.
A CFL spokesperson said he didn’t know how many women held senior roles with the league’s eight teams. The CFL’s vice president of marketing, Sara Moore, is one of the few women in Canada’s pro sports landscape to climb near the top.