A former head coach of women’s water polo at UCSB is suing the UC Regents for discrimination and retaliation, alleging she was demoted after she complained to school officials that her team was shortchanged funding in favor of the men’s squad.
Cathy Neushul’s whistleblower lawsuit was filed September 19 under the color of federal Title IX protections, which mandate equal treatment of men’s and women’s sports teams at public schools. She’s asking for her job back and damages for lost wages.
Neushul is a familiar figure in Santa Barbara’s tight-knit water polo community. An All-American player at UCSB in the 1980s, she’s trained Olympians and coached for the Santa Barbara Water Polo Club. She’s currently the technical director for the Santa Barbara 805 Water Polo Club. Though Neushul no longer coaches at UCSB, she remains on staff as a physical therapist. [She is the sister-in-law of Independent columnist Cat Neushul.]
Neushul became head coach of the UCSB women’s team in 2011 after serving three years as assistant coach. Under her leadership, the lawsuit notes, she led the team through two 20-15 seasons (the most wins for the team since 1997) and she had the highest winning percentage (0.571) of any previous coach.
Over those two years, however, Neushul expressed repeated concerns to school officials over alleged discrepancies between men’s and women’s budgets and coaching salaries. In one instance, she claimed, $40,000 that had been earmarked for the women’s team instead went to Director of Water Polo — and men’s head coach — Wolf Wigo for his fundraising duties, though he “had very little involvement with the women’s team, never attended a single women’s practice, and was not a presence at their games,” the lawsuit states. In another instance, Neushul was allegedly told the men’s team received greater scholarship allotments because it faced fierce competition from Stanford and other top-ranking teams around the country.
Neushul was quietly demoted to second assistant coach of both the men’s and women’s teams in 2013, and the women’s assistant coach was terminated. Soon after, current and former players asking for Neushul and the other coach’s reinstatement created an online petition that generated more than 350 signatures. Letters of support were also sent to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang. Wigo coached the women for all of 2014 before UCSB hired Serela Kay to take on head coaching duties.
The lawsuit states relations between Neushul and Wigo — a three-time Olympic water polo player and a national and world champion many times over — became so strained during this time that Wigo would text Neushul coaching instructions poolside rather than speak to her. The complaint also states Wigo told Neushul she was under investigation by the NCAA, but declined to provide details, and that Wigo himself was the subject of an inquiry over alleged misconduct.
Neushul resigned in November 2013 and claimed the UCSB sports department was “not a safe environment” to work in. Before filing her legal complaint, she reportedly conferred with UCSB’s campus ombudsman, its faculty advisor to the chancellor, and its faculty athletics representative. The lawsuit concludes with sweeping allegations against UCSB that state the school “has also apparently engaged in other Title IX violations” and that there appears to be a “revolving door of Senior Women’s Administrators.”
Spokespeople for UCSB and the UC Regents declined to comment on the lawsuit. A copy of the complaint can be found below.
Neushul is represented by Sonya Mehta with East Bay law firm Siegel & Yee, which specializes in Title IX cases. Mehta said it’s clear UCSB knowingly let Wigo and then-athletic director Mark Massari — who left UCSB for the same position at Oregon State University last year — provide more staff and funds to the men’s water polo team and that Neushul’s demotion came right after she spoke up.
“They’re going to try and allege Cathy wasn’t a good coach, that she wasn’t good with students,” Mehta said of her expectations of the Regents’ defense. “The fact is she’s a remarkable coach. And if she was so terrible, why did they keep her on at all?” Mehta also noted that Neushul had never been disciplined prior to her demotion and that no reason was given for her downgrade in coaching duties.
“We hope UCSB deals with these problems,” said Mehta. “Cathy is trying to right the wrongs here.”