Posted September 29th, 2016.
BY TOD PALMER
New Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk’s April 2013 firing of former San Diego State women’s basketball coach Beth Burns cost his former employer $3,356,250.
That was the judgment handed down Wednesday by a Southern California jury in a wrongful-termination civil lawsuit Burns brought against San Diego State.
“You feel relief,” Burns said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “You feel a sense of vindication.”
Sterk, who was the Aztecs’ athletic director for 6 1/2 years beginning in February 2010 before he came to Mizzou in August, testified for more than five hours across two days earlier this month in San Diego Superior Court about the circumstances of Burns’ dismissal.
Burns, 57, and her attorneys claimed Sterk grew tired of her complaints about inequitable treatment of the men’s and women’s basketball programs in violation of federal and state law, including the landmark 1972 Title IX legislation.
San Diego State countered that Burns, who had just finished the first year of a five-year contract worth $220,000 annually plus benefits and possible bonuses, was fired for striking a former assistant coach twice during a 2013 game against Colorado State.
According to the school, an investigation launched by Sterk after the video surfaced also uncovered a pattern of alleged abusive behavior toward subordinates.
“If it was a movie, I’d walk out,” Burns said during testimony shortly after the trial began Aug. 29. “It’s hard to believe that it’s your own life.”
Sterk, who was not available for comment Thursday despite repeated inquiries from The Star, has steadfastly defended his decision.
When The Star asked Sterk during a meeting with reporters last week about the Burns lawsuit, he said, “I’d do it again. I felt like I had to protect the employees within the department. I had to make a decision that was a hard decision, because it was a successful coach who’d been to a Sweet 16. But it was a situation that escalated to the point where we had to do something.
“Would I do it again? Yeah, I would. I had coaches afterward, head coaches, tell me that they respected me for that decision. That I didn’t let the wins and losses get in the way of making the right decision. That’s how I feel about it.”
After a month-long trial, the jury viewed it differently and sided with Burns — who is the school’s career leader in women’s basketball victories, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2010, and now serves as an assistant at the University of Southern California after being out of the profession for a year.
“We are delighted the jury did the right thing,” Burns’ attorney, Ed Chapin, said in a statement. “We never doubted that the jury would see in one month of testimony what the world saw three years ago: Coach Burns brought her concerns of gender inequity to SDSU, and, as a result, SDSU manufactured a reason to terminate her.”
San Diego State released a statement after the judgment was awarded, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, that said it respects “the deliberative process and findings of the jury,” but that it was reviewing the verdict to determine its “next steps as it relates to this case.”
Among the key pieces of evidence for Burns was a May 2012 email Sterk sent to other athletic department staff in which he says he’s open to a contract extension “if we have ways to separate if she has issues rising to that level (like driving us crazy w complaining). One moment she is fine the next everything is terrible and we do not care about her or the WBB program even after we have invested significant resources the last couple years.”
Burns’ attorneys questioned Sterk for destroying notes he kept of meetings with then-San Diego State vice president Sally Roush, who was his immediate supervisor, when she retired in June 2013 despite knowing there was a high likelihood of a lawsuit.
Burns was fired a month after her 2012-13 Aztecs won a school-record 27 games and nine months after signing a contract extension through the 2016-17 season.
Sterk had given her positive performance reviews after the two previous seasons, lauding the “excellent job” she did as a veteran coach running “a program effectively.”
During his Sept. 13 testimony, Sterk said his opinion changed after seeing the video of her slapping former Aztecs assistant Adam Barrett with a clipboard and elbowing him in the shoulder on the bench on video.
“I saw a vicious hit to an assistant coach that I thought was totally inappropriate. … To have a supervisor hit an employee like that, wherever it was, was disturbing, to have someone subject to that.”
Obviously, the jury viewed the incident, which Burns said was incidental contract during the heat of a game, through a different lens and exonerated her.
“For me, I had no choice,” Burns told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “No one wants to do this. But I didn’t think I had a choice because they were saying that I hit somebody, that I was a bad person, and I just couldn’t live with at least not trying to clear my name.”
Burns’ victory marks the fifth time since 1994 a member of the Aztecs’ athletics staff has won a civil judgment against the university, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.