Texas Tech, former women's basketball coach settle lawsuit after USA TODAY investigation

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Texas Tech and Marlene Stollings, fired as the head women’s basketball coach in August 2020 after a USA TODAY Sports investigation into the program, have settled a lawsuit in which Stollings accused the school and athletics director Kirby Hocutt of discrimination and retaliation.

Texas Tech fired Stollings the day after an investigation by USA TODAY Sports and The Intercollegiate, a college sports investigative media outlet, was published. Players alleged there was a culture of abuse under Stollings and described a toxic culture that generated "fear, anxiety and depression."

Stollings argued in her lawsuit that two internal reviews conducted by the school before the investigation was published cleared her of the allegations.

Stollings sued Texas Tech in October 2020 and the case was scheduled to go to trial in February 2023. The two sides on Wednesday filed a joint motion to settle, and a judge on Thursday dismissed the case.

Terms of the settlement were not immediately available. The school cannot comment on the settlement, according to Robert Giovannetti, Texas Tech’s Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Operations & Strategic Communications.

Stollings was under contract through March 2024 at the time of her dismissal. She was due to be paid $720,000 in basic annual compensation from the school for the 2019-20 season and was due $740,000 for 2020-21, according to copies of the agreement obtained by USA TODAY Sports and the Intercollegiate. Termination without cause would entitle Stollings to 75% of her remaining basic annual compensation, a total surpassing $2 million.

In August 2021, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas dismissed three parts of Stollings' lawsuit – including claims of breach of contract, fraud and fraud in the inducement.

The claims were not dismissed on merit, but rather because the court held that Texas Tech, as a public university, enjoys the benefit of sovereign immunity.

INVESTIGATION:  Texas Tech women's basketball players describe toxic culture

TERMINATION:  Texas Tech fires women's basketball coach Marlene Stollings amid abuse claims

LITIGATION:  Marlene Stollings disputes firing in lawsuit

Attorney Peter Ginsberg, who represented Stollings in the case, said her interest in coaching again led to her decision to settle rather than wait for the lawsuit to go to trial.

“Given the nature of university athletics, most if not all colleges were reticent to engage Marlene while her litigation was continuing against Texas Tech,'' Ginsberg told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. "Now that the litigation is over, the landscape is expected to change significantly.’’

“Today, equality wins!’’ Stollings wrote on her Twitter account Wednesday. “Settled! Brought this case to clear my name, set the record straight & contribute to principles of equality & fair treatment. Thrilled! Worth the fight! Grateful to so many including SA's (student athletes), parents & TTU (Texas Tech University) fans. Eager to return to my life’s work!’’

Two former Lady Raiders players under Stollings expressed their concerns about the settlement.

“It makes me sick to think there is even a chance she could step back into the basketball world because I would never want anyone to walk through what our team walked through,” one former player, who competed for another Big 12 program after leaving Texas Tech, told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday night. The person spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The varying degrees and types of abuse have caused lasting damage to my emotional and physical health, most of which I am still working through years later.

“Case settled or not, Marlene Stollings should not be given access to any coaching roles. Her actions and words display that she has no regard for her players’ emotional, physical or mental wellbeing.”

Mia Castaneda, who transferred to Washburn University in Kansas after Texas Tech, said she wasn’t “upset” by the decision but hopes that Stollings and any staff members who receive another opportunity reflected that coaching is “not to be taken advantage of.” She pointed to teammates’ subsequent successes as indications they were stronger than the Tech staff indicated.

“The point was never that we were weak or not strong enough to put up with it,” Castaneda told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday night. “The point of speaking was to shine light on the fact that even though we choose to be athletes, we are human first. And our mental and physical health matters.

“I hope the settlement doesn’t turn other athletes away from speaking out if they are experiencing any kind of abuse. I wish her and her staff the best of luck in their future.”

Coaches across the industry, including a former Stollings assistant and the reigning NCAA champions’ head coach, also weighed in.

Nikita Lowry Dawkins, who was an associate coach at Texas Tech under Stollings and was fired by the school a day after Stollings' dismissal, tweeted, "Congrats Marlene! God is a just God No weapons formed against you shall EVER prosper Way to fight the good fight of faith."

In response to Stollings' tweet, Dawn Staley, head coach of the reigning NCAA champion women's basketball team at South Carolina and Naismith Coach of the Year, tweeted, "Congrats Marlene! Way to battle, fight and come out on top!!''

Marlene Stollings talks to Mia Castaneda during a game played in 2018.
Marlene Stollings talks to Mia Castaneda during a game played in 2018.

The court did agree that Stollings could include in an amended complaint a Title VII discrimination claim and a Title IX retaliation claim.

According to Stollings’ complaint:

►Texas Tech and Hocutt “created an environment in which male and heterosexual coaches were treated better than female and gay and lesbian coaches, and men’s athletic programs were treated better than female athletic programs.’’

►“Texas Tech, and Mr. Hocutt in particular, fostered an environment which saw women and gays and lesbians as inferior, and penalized female and gay and lesbian coaches who refused to conform.’’

►Hocutt remarked how he had found it “painful” to watch women’s basketball, and that he only attended Lady Raiders games because he was required to do so.

►Hocutt stated on multiple occasions that women and women’s athletics programs are problematic because they “have drama,” while men and men’s athletics programs do not.

►These attitudes demonstrated that Texas Tech, and Hocutt in particular, believed that women were overly emotional and untrustworthy, in contrast to men. “Moreover, Texas Tech administrators, and Hocutt in particular, would act dismissively or patronizingly towards Coach Stollings.’’

►Texas Tech deprived Stollings and the Lady Raiders of resources and benefits sufficient to operate the women’s basketball team in a manner equivalent to men’s sports teams, including the men’s basketball team.

►In 2019, expenses for the men’s basketball team were more than $3.7 million compared to about $1.2 million for the women’s team, based on annual reports filed by the school as required by the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act.

Stollings said retaliation took place after she was informed on March 25, 2020, of sexual harassment allegations involving a member of the coaching staff, strength and conditioning coach Ralph Petrella, according to the complaint. The complaint stated that Stollings, as required, subsequently reported the matter to the athletics department, which triggered a Title IX investigation.

Her reporting the matter and the subsequent investigation threatened to embarrass the athletics department and Hocutt, according to the complaint.

Petrella resigned that month after the season ended and before a university review could take place, according to a statement Hocutt provided to USA TODAY Sports in 2020.

In August 2020, the negative publicity generated by the USA TODAY Sports investigation led Hocutt to protect himself by firing Stollings, according to the complaint.

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz, Jori Epstein

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas Tech, ex-women's hoops coach settle lawsuit after investigation