Editorial: Wicker hiring shows SDSU, Hirshman learned nothing from $3.35 million lawsuit

By downplaying the Burns decision while welcoming Wicker back with open arms, Hirshman has signaled to everyone the danger of making waves — and the rewards for being a team player.


Photo by Andrew Dyer

SDSU Athletics Director John David Wicker.

by Editorial Board

Correction: A previous version of the story implied SDSU lost the suit due to Title IX violation claims made by Beth Burns. Title IX was discussed during the trial for wrongful termination, but Burns did not file a Title IX violation suit against the university. 

The issue: Weeks after a jury awarded Beth Burns $3.35 million for her retaliatory firing, SDSU hired the man whose investigation led to that firing as the new athletic director.

Our take: Athletic Director John David Wicker must change the good ol’ boy culture of SDSU athletics and proactively work towards gender equality as required under federal law.

In late September a San Diego jury awarded former women’s basketball Head Coach Beth Burns a $3.35 million judgment against San Diego State. The jury agreed with Burns’ claim that her 2013 firing, after a 27-win season, was in retaliation for her repeated complaints regarding what she saw as Title IX violations by the SDSU Athletics Department.

Title IX states that no one can be excluded from participation in education programs or activities due to their sex. This is the law that guarantees equal facilities and opportunities for women’s sports in comparison to men’s.

The jury did not buy the university’s claim that Burns was fired for striking an assistant coach.

The message Wicker’s hiring sends to women in the athletic department is clear: not only does SDSU not take Title IX seriously, but whistleblowers can and will be retaliated upon.”

Burns complained about the unequal treatment the women’s basketball team received from the athletics department. In one example brought up in court, when the men’s basketball team received its fifth set of uniforms, the women’s team still had not received sweats months after ordering them.

Burns also stated in her initial complaint that SDSU counted male practice players as women, a practice also found at UCLA by the Center for Investigative Reporting in a July 2016 story. While the practice is allowable by the Department of Education, it is indicative of the lengths institutions will go to appear compliant with Title IX while still not being equal.

SDSU President Elliot Hirshman.
SDSU President Elliot Hirshman.

The jury found that Burns’ firing qualified as wrongful termination, which was the finding that cost the university $3.35 million.

Burns was to receive her annual review on the day she was fired. But, when she walked into the office of then-athletic director Jim Sterk, she was met by three individuals: Sterk, Associate Vice President for Administration Richel Thaler and then-Associate Athletic Director John David Wicker — the same John David Wicker just hired by SDSU as the new athletic director.

Wicker left SDSU in July 2015 for a job at Georgia Tech. Wicker’s investigation of Burns contributed to her being fired, or so the official SDSU story goes.

The message Wicker’s hiring sends to women in the athletic department is clear: not only does SDSU not take Title IX seriously, but whistleblowers can and will be retaliated upon.

And the penance for participation in that retaliation? A prestigious promotion and six-figure salary.

The hiring of Wicker as athletic director was a blow to women’s advocates and a middle finger to the very notion of accountability. Burns’ $3.35 million lesson was apparently lost on President Elliott Hirshman, who gleefully trumpeted Wicker’s “integrity” between hugs and handshakes at a news conference announcing the hire.

Unsaid was what Hirshman’s brazen indifference to the jury’s verdict meant for women’s athletics moving forward and the message to anyone considering speaking up.

The treatment of Burns by SDSU, including Hirshman’s own court testimony, suggests those who complain could be subject to not only termination, but public attacks on their character.

Hirshman compared Burns to disgraced former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight from the witness stand. One juror told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Hirshman’s statement was “shocking” and contributed to the decision against SDSU.

One certainty is that women’s athletics have the right to equality under the law. To whom can women in the department turn if violations continue under Wicker?

It is now on Wicker to atone for the culture of exclusion and retaliation in the athletics department brought to light by Burns. Department staff should not feel intimidated or hesitate to file complaints if warranted, which may be difficult given Hirshman’s refusal to take any responsibility or hold anyone accountable in the wake of the Burns decision.

Wicker has 3.35 million reasons to do the right thing. We will be watching to make sure he does.