‘Ostracized, ignored, belittled, and isolated’: Alicia Berber’s fight for equality — Rebecca Lobo, LaChina Robinson talk WNBA season — Must-click women’s basketball links
The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 4, 2022
In a just world, Alicia Berber would be treated as a hero by Riverside City College.
Berber first attended RCC as a student, graduating as the all-time leader in scoring in women’s basketball history. She went on to play for Washington State in what was then the Pac-10, earned a tryout with the Los Angeles Sparks, before eventually returning to RCC. For the past two decades, she’s been the women’s basketball head coach, a professor of Kinesiology. She has a masters degree from Cal State-San Bernardino. Her teams win, her players graduate. She is an RCC success story by any measure.
This is not the way she has been treated by RCC, to put it mildly.
“I’m surprised that Alicia has stayed at that institution,” Dr. Cynthia Azari told The IX in a phone interview. Azari is a former president of RCC, along with several other colleges and universities in her distinguished career. She is no stranger to the difficulties women’s sports programs face in fighting for equal treatment — she said in her career she’d only seen one example of an athletic department with anything approaching equality, and it came thanks for a woman, Susan Yates, put in charge of athletics at Fresno City College.
And yet, when asked if RCC was worse than even the lowly standards at most institutions regarding Title IX equality, Azari replied, “Absolutely. Absolutely it was.”
There is no greater example of this than in the disparate treatments of Berber and disgraced former athletic director Barry Meier. The tenure of Meier ended in 2012 when it was discovered he had hardcore pornography on his work computer.
“I remember talking to him saying, ‘you can’t do that’,” Azari said. “‘Yeah, well, I’ve done it before’ [he replied]. Well, I realize that but I’m telling you now you cannot have that on your computer. And it’s got to be removed… I would have these conversations with him. That you can’t do that. And it was almost like: I’m gonna wait for you to leave and I’m gonna do whatever I want.”
Notably, Meier’s tenure did not end after years of shortchanging the women’s basketball program. It did not end after years of verbal taunts detailed by Berber, it didn’t end when Meier physically threatened Berber’s assistant coach, John Garcia, in January 2011, nor when Meier loudly, and in front of many people assembled for an end-of-year athletic banquet, compared the brownies at the event to Berber’s nipples. Not after Meier was allowed to continue in his job during an initial investigation into these actions, spoke to other athletic department staff members, per Berber, to get their stories straight, then used his initial clearance as a blank check to harass and retaliate further against her, before a second investigation, instigated by Azari, brought his many bad acts to light.
He was put on paid administrative leave and ultimately retired in 2012, shortly before Berber’s lawsuit against RCC and Meier was settled for $250,000, though he was barred from returning to campus after the pornography was discovered. Fighting the lawsuit cost Berber her house. And Meier has been back on campus many times since, according to multiple witnesses. He still has his own parking spot for life, given to him when he retired, that he uses frequently. His former player, Steve Sigloch, is the head of her Kinesiology Department, and predictably, has a pattern of behavior detailed in the lawsuit that reflects longtime discrimination. The people involved change, the treatment never does.
So at some level, it should not have been surprising to Berber and her good friend, Riverside native and basketball legend Cheryl Miller, when Meier was invited to and attended a golf outing to benefit the athletics department a few weeks ago. But for Berber, whose advocacy for women’s equality drew new and positive attention to her RCC women’s basketball program this season, it was a slap in the face she wouldn’t accept.
“And she wouldn’t tell me which one was Meier, because she knew I’d go right to where he was,” Miller said with a laugh.
The IX reached out to Riverside City College Chancellor Wolde-Ab Isaac, RCC president Gregory Anderson and RCC Athletic Director Peyton Williams to ask why Meier was invited to this event. None of the three provided a response.
Berber asked, in writing, the same question, raising her concerns. She has not received a reply, either, though Williams has reached out several times to demand her payment for attending the event, including by phone after work hours this week.
Meier’s treatment of Berber is sadly of a piece with so many of her colleagues and supervisors through the years, details Berber in her second lawsuit, filed in July 2021. It is within this context that she heard from her team about their unfair treatment as it related to the college’s weight room.
The women’s basketball team was given one hour per week to use the weight room themselves. Other teams, such as the football team, had virtually unlimited use of the facility. And still: the women would be frequently harassed during their lone hour, at times blockaded from entering, and otherwise further discriminated against during a policy that on its face meant unequal treatment for the team.
“We found it odd,” Elizabeth Lau, a guard on the team, at RCC to study graphic design, told The IX in a phone interview. “Why are you coming in during our time to use the equipment, you know, everyone has their set time to use the equipment.”
As Lau and her teammates discussed the problem, the lens quickly shifted from frustration over being denied their tiny slice of the pie to a broader discussion of why the pie should be divided unequally at all.
It is a battle Berber had been fighting, with multiple athletic directors, going back years. The result, from this and so many other efforts to defend herself, are as Berber said in her 2021 lawsuit:
“At faculty meetings, Ms. Berber is routinely ostracized, ignored, belittled, and isolated. Male and female colleagues in the Athletic Department have engaged in regular mistreatment against Ms. Berber, including not greeting her, not responding to her, refusing to speak to her, ignoring her, refuse to engage with her, ostracizing her, refusing to look at her, speaking rudely to her, refusing to help her when requested, speaking coarsely and rudely to her, insulting her, yelling at her, giving her silent treatment, refusing to speak to her in person but emailing her instead, refusing to welcome her or acknowledge her in public, refusing to sit next to her, refusing to acknowledge her thoughts or voice at department meetings, and many other similar behaviors, as described and chronicled herein.”
Nor is this simply a matter of treatment: Berber is paid, after two decades of success at RCC, $45,000 a year to be the head coach of the women’s basketball team. An assistant football coach makes $54,000 and can make more through stipends, Berber points out in her lawsuit, while the baseball coach makes $94,000.
You might be asking what I did so many times in the course of reporting this story: why does Alicia Berber stay?
“I don’t think you can get her to leave on anything other than her own terms,” Miller said.
So Berber was there to cheer on her team as they decided, according to point guard Alyssa Serna, to make a concerted effort to change the status quo of the weight room. Berber and the team printed up shirts which read “#Equality in Women’s Sports” on the front and “We Deserve to Be Here” on the back. She was told by multiple colleagues that it would be a waste of time, a reasonable argument after she’d raised this again at a Board of Trustees meeting in March 2021, been promised a meeting by current Riverside president Gregory Anderson, then never received one.
“We just kind of started with making a Twitter,” Serna recalled from the bus ride to go play Santa Ana on February 8. “And then we’re like hey, let’s make a video and then let’s make a statement… No one seemed to not like the idea. Everyone had an input on it.”
Other teams took up Riverside’s cause. Ultimately, Berber’s team distributed more than 400 shirts, got some media attention, forced Anderson to say the right things publicly. Both Serna and Lau said they now are largely unimpeded during their scheduled workout times, and even get two a week sometimes.
I asked Serna how that compares to the amount of weight room time the football team receives.
“I know it’s not equal with the football team,” Serna said with a chuckle. “Because they’re there all the time.”
Serna and Lau are proud, rightly so, for their public push improving their conditions. Yet there is an understanding of the insanity of a months-long fight required simply to improve conditions to a point that still isn’t close to equal.
“See, this is where it gets confusing,” Lau said. “I think for younger athletes it’s always hard work going into something that should be a basic necessity, right? It’s hard work, and it makes us feel like we’re going above and beyond and doing extra, which creates a negative connotation about what we’re doing… people are going to think we’re just non-stop pushing this.”
Their coach is present as a constant reminder of what can happen when advocating for equality. Lau sees the pain it has caused her. But she also believes she understands why Berber keeps on fighting.
“I think it’s her love and passion for trying to make things better for the next group of girls… You know, for her, it’s like, if she can help change the life of one student… that’s worth it. That’s worth it for her. And you know, a lot of people need more than that. A lot of people need money, fame, things like that. But she’s really just here to try to be an advocate.”
Azari described the progress Berber was able to make on equality over these 20 years, into the teeth of a community that blocks and derides her at every turn, on a scale of 1-to-10, as “probably a three or a four. But that’s better than a zero.”
I emailed Isaac, Anderson and Williams the following about Berber: “What is your level of concern about the way Alicia Berber has been treated by this athletics department over the past two decades, and what do you intend to do about it, if anything?”
None of these men responded to me.
“This is Riverside’s shame,” Miller said of Berber’s treatment.
Meanwhile, Berber fights on. And there are some who see her as a necessary corrective, even as Azari worries changes will only last until the next administrator comes along to undo them, that the culture of Riverside is too curdled to ever change. In late April, Berber was nominated to be Faculty Chair of the Student Equity Committee by some of her fellow professors. These battles have taken both a psychological and physical toll. On this day, after visiting “the smiling faces of my team today”, Berber felt ready for another march into the breach.
“I will keep pushing forward,” Berber told me in a text that day. “Someone once shared with me: the tallest trees get the most wind.”
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This week in women’s basketball
Diane Richardson has this exactly right.
My piece at SI looks at the overseas landscape and what it means for the WNBA.
PJ Brown on Sam Thomas.
Really liked this zoom-out from Natalie Weiner on WNBA scheduling and marketing. The two are linked in some fundamental ways!
Cate Reese opens up about her injury to PJ Brown.
Charlotte Carroll breaks down UConn’s newest transfer.
Important rev sharing details from Jacob Mox here.And Part II.
Mark Schindler is doing great work at WNBA.com.
Jon Wertheim caught up with Sue Bird.
The great Joyce Bassett on Layshia Clarendon’s importance.
Important changes in how the U.S. is fighting to bring Brittney Griner home.
Love this from Alexa Philippou on Rhyne Howard.
And Gabe and Christy are always worth your time.
Five at The IX: Rebecca Lobo and LaChina Robinson
On the state of women’s basketball and the WNBA entering its 26th season…
Robinson: There’s an increased appetite for the WNBA. It’s in a good place when you look at the growth in metrics, whether it’s viewership, social media numbers, sponsorships, media coverage, apparel. The play on the court is fantastic so I immediately start with the business side. The brand of the League has never been stronger when it comes to the voices of the players and how they have come together to create a unified face of the WNBA. There are definitely still challenges as it pertains to the overseas commitments. Yes, we all want players to make more money, but, overall, there’s more money coming into the league, and more eyes on the product and that’s always a really good thing.
I would also add that the media coverage has grown tremendously – the number of media entities digital and otherwise that are committing personnel, time, content to the WNBA is greater than we’ve ever seen. That’s important obviously in spreading the word about the League, marketing the League, and increasing storytelling.
Lobo: We’ve been talking about this for the last couple of years – people involved in the WNBA. It feels like it’s on the verge of exploding, in terms of mainstream popularity. The product on the court is incredible. If you want to understand how good the players are in the WNBA, look at the waiver wire. Some of the players who are getting cut today, it’s incredible the level of talent that’s not on teams, and that’s a reflection of what we’ll see on the floor.
We’re seeing an increase in ratings in women’s basketball across the board, whether it’s college or WNBA. There’s an increase in attendance. Interest in everything off-the-court is reflecting what we’re seeing on the court, and that’s just a great product that feels like it’s really on the verge of finding a strong mainstream base of fan support.
On notable offseason moves that have caught your attention…
Robinson: What we’ve seen under the new CBA is that free agency is running the storylines of the League in the last few years, and for me it starts with three of the teams that were in the semifinals making big moves that could propel them to the championship. Starting with Chicago adding Emma Meesseman to their roster, they now have three Finals MVPs that they could put on the floor in a starting lineup. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen that in the League before. Then you go to Phoenix adding the league-leading scorer in Tina Charles, who is in search of a championship alongside a very hungry and disappointed Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins Smith. But adding Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields has to be one of the headliners. Then, Connecticut, a team that has kind of been in the hunt for a championship, but they have fallen short, whether it’s injury, needing more experience, there’s always kind of been something but adding Courtney Williams back into the fold, I think makes Curt Miller’s team stronger than we’ve seen it, and it feels like it’s Connecticut’s time. So, I would say that those three teams in particular, with offseason moves and being championship contenders, are where I’m really focused in to start.
Lobo: It’s interesting to see how different free agency is since the new CBA. Just a few years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement. There couldn’t be. Star players didn’t really have an opportunity because of the coring system and the number times you could be cored. To kind of test the free agency waters or move around like they have been since the new CBA – the last two years, free agency has been a blast to follow and it’s had a huge impact. You know we’ll look at Candace Parker going to Chicago last year, and you see similar things with free agency this past year. So that’s an area where the things have really changed in the WNBA, and because of that, and because of the salary structure too, now it’s a lot harder for a rookie to make a team or for a drafted player to make a team. We’re seeing players drafted in the first round getting cut. We hadn’t seen that to this degree prior to the CBA so it’s kind of an interesting way that the League has changed and given us more excitement in the offseason than we had before the CBA.
LaChina mentioned the three main impactful moves that happened in the offseason, but we’re kind of intrigued also with LA because they have some incredibly talented pieces there. In particular Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter, and Jordin Canada, but what are they going to look like? They’ve never played together before. I don’t think we’re necessarily considering LA as a championship contender to the level of those other three because they weren’t in the playoffs last year, but it could be the most intriguing team to watch to see how their pieces come together.
Robinson: And I would just add to that, Elena Della Donne and Breanna Stewart returning from injury for being very important for those two organizations. Adding Gabby Williams could be another move that ends up being huge for Seattle and their championship aspirations. Anytime Elena Delle Donne’s in the league, it’s great for the WNBA because she’s just a tremendous player. She’s my favorite player to watch.
On players they are most excited to watch this season…
Lobo: It’s hard because one of the things that made Kahleah Copper’s season so exciting was that it was not something we were really expecting to see. I’m interested to see Jonquel Jones. How does she follow up her MVP campaign from last year? I’m interested in Tina Charles – how she was a leading scorer last year and now she’s with a new team and a new coach and a new environment. It seems like she’s kind of on her quest to find her first championship. What will that look like for her? Breanna Stewart coming back from injury. We’ve seen her do it one other time, and it looked like she didn’t lose a bit to her game. So I’m eager to see what that looks like. And I’m also kind of interested to see Sabrina (Ioenscu) in New York. She’s talked about how last year she was still struggling with her ankle injury and now she feels like she’s closer to 100 percent. What will that look like, because there was so much intrigue with her coming out of college, and she didn’t really have a chance to play very much before the injury her rookie year. So what is she going to look like this year?
Robinson: I would add to that, we’ve got some new coaches in the League and some coaches in different places, so that, of course, will have an impact on playing styles. With Sandy Brondello in New York, Vanessa Nygaard in Phoenix, Tanisha Wright in Atlanta, Becky Hammon in Vegas. Anybody else I forgot? Former players as well, so it’s an exciting time for the fans of those franchises to get a look at new head coaches and how that may impact the success of their teams.
On who will contend for WNBA MVP, Rookie of the Year and the WNBA Championship…
Lobo: For rookie of the year, I think Rhyne Howard in Atlanta and NaLyssa Smith in Indiana will have the biggest opportunity because they’ll get the most minutes of the rookies and will have the greatest chance to put up the big numbers. Not to slight Shakira Austin, the No. 3 pick to Washington, I just don’t know that she’ll have as many field goal attempts and that sort of thing to get the stats that she might need. So those are the two – Howard and Smith – that I’m kind of thinking we’ll be focusing on and see how impactful they can be and what to expect will be really high minutes for their teams. In terms of MVP, I imagine it’ll be the same three that have sort of lead the way – Jonquel (Jones), A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. I feel like those three will be the ones again this year who will be playing on championship-caliber teams putting up big numbers, leading their teams and having the best chance to be talked about in that conversation.
Especially this year, because it’s a World Championship year and it’s a condensed schedule, I like the team that stays healthy. You have a lot of teams that are talented enough, whether it’s Connecticut or Chicago or Seattle or Phoenix, when we have these seasons – or Minnesota, it tends to be the team that has their players who can consistently be healthy. Seattle would have been a different playoff team last year if Breanna Stewart was healthy, so the healthiest of those teams to me is the one that has the best chance to win the championship this year.
Robinson: My favorite to win is Chicago. I just believe that having three Finals MVPs on a roster is not a bad thing, but I also believe that Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker on one team are two of the greatest leaders that we have in the sport right now. And obviously they have the depth of talent as well. My MVP, I’m going to go with Jonquel Jones. I think she could win it back-to-back. She’s just playing at a very high level. There’s no one like her in the sport. Knock on wood, she’s healthy and I do believe that Connecticut will play for a championship this year. My Rookie of the Year would be Rhyne Howard of Atlanta.
Previewing the tip-off games they will call this weekend…
Connecticut at New York (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET | ESPN):
Lobo: I’m excited to see what the Liberty look like this year. They have a new coach in Sandy Brodello and the addition of Stefanie Dolson should be a great complement for Natasha Howard in the frontcourt. Betnijah Laney is in her prime and a fully healthy Sabrina Ionescu could be the catalyst for an exciting young roster.
Connecticut won’t have their full roster on opening weekend (Bonner still overseas and Williams serving the first game of her two-game suspension), but we will get to see a fully healthy Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones on the floor together with last season’s most improved player Brionna Jones. The Sun have all the pieces, and the experience, to contend for a championship. They could start laying the foundation for that on Saturday.
Seattle at Las Vegas (Sunday, 10 p.m. ET | ESPN2)
Robinson: There are so many great storylines in Seattle. Sue Bird in her final season of the WNBA. Can she keep this ageless play going? Breanna Stewart, how she progresses coming back from her injury is something that we’ll all have our eyes on very early. This is Noelle Quinn’s first training camp as head coach, so how much more succinct does the team look on both ends of the floor? Also, as they get their full roster and get Briann January and Gabby Williams in the system and acclimated, I think we’ll see a better Jewel Lloyd, and that’s tough to say considering how great she played last season, but I think Gabby and Briann coming in will take some of the responsibility off of her defensively. And those two players will also give the team just that added grit, but also think Seattle is going to have to rely on Jewel a little bit more early as Breanna Stewart comes back from her injury. Overall, I think Seattle will be right there in the championship conversation but Jewel Lloyd just seems to continue to grow as a star in the League and her journey has definitely been intriguing.
For Vegas, what do they look like in terms of their playing style? We hear that Becky Hammon wants to play fast. She wants to shoot a lot of threes. I’m looking forward to her as head coach of Vegas, but I think there’s a very small margin for error in Vegas after losing Liz Cambage. They’re not ‘as’ talented on paper, however, seeing Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby in more prominent roles, this is still a very talented Vegas team, and A’ja Wilson also just continues to cement herself as one of the greatest players in this league.
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