Tommy Ramos

Rats, snakes and scorpions: The unthinkable treatment of one softball team and the Title IX lawsuit to fight back

One night in Midland, Texas last month, Midland College softball coach Tommy Ramos walked into his team’s locker room facility and saw something he’d never seen before.

In the undersized portable structure that serves as the team’s locker room—a glorified storage shed, really—he’d already seen rats and 6-foot snakes. He’d watched as more than 20 players walk through mud puddles to cram into the shed, likely violating its fire code, in order to get changed and share the lone bathroom. Outside the shed at the school’s softball fields nearby, he’d seen dozens of fans stand for entire games because the bleachers only seat 25 people, watching as those same fans lined up to use the field’s black widow-infested porta potty.

But he’d never seen this before.

That night, Ramos and his assistant coach opened the door of the shed and saw a couple engaging in … Well, let’s just say, they’d rounded third base. As they quickly dressed, one of the lustful trespassers remained remarkably casual. “Hey, this is where we meet all the time,” he told Ramos. The coach reminded him it was private property. “Yeah, but no one ever knows we’re here.” The other was less comfortable, bolting just before the police arrived, although he eventually turned himself in.

And the couple didn’t need a cunning scheme to enter the locker room—they’d popped the lock with a screwdriver.

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This shed serves as both the locker room and equipment facility for Midland College women’s softball team. (Tommy Ramos)

Ramos has been the coach of the women’s softball team at Midland, a junior college halfway between Dallas and El Paso, Texas, since the program started 19 years ago. Since 2012, the team has played on campus. In between the foul lines, the field is decent. But there’s a reason the three softball facility photos on Midland’s official athletics website show the field and nothing else.

Meanwhile, the 20-plus photos online of the college’s baseball facility are stunning. The men play in a former minor league stadium with lights and indoor batting cages and have a spacious locker room with leather chairs, a training room and an equipment storage shed—one that can’t be accessed with a screwdriver.

Frustrated by these discrepancies—along with other inequalities between the men’s and women’s teams in recruiting budgets, transportation and general support from the college administration—Ramos did the only thing he felt might spur change: He filed a Title IX lawsuit against Midland College.

Title IX, a portion of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs and activities. How the legislation would and should directly influence athletics isn’t specified in the bill, which has caused varying interpretations and ensuing controversy at universities around the country.

Title IX cases have already been big news at Auburn, Michigan State, Iowa and San Diego State—and that’s just this spring. Midland College is another example. “The school has never made meaningful attempts to redress the inequitable situation,” the lawsuit states in its introduction. “This lawsuit is [Ramos’] only option to seek justice for his program.”

[More from Excelle Sports: The University of Maryland could charge students to fund Title IX office]

Ramos vs. Midland College

The relationship between Ramos and Midland president Steve Thomas has been contentious since Thomas arrived in 2008. The administration prior to Thomas had promised to upgrade the softball facilities when the program moved from a public field onto one on campus. Design drawings depicted a grandstand, legitimate locker room and beautiful landscaping. Midland’s baseball team had all of this and more at Christensen Stadium, just five miles from campus. But according to Ramos, Thomas pumped the brakes on the upgrades.

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Midland College men’s baseball team plays at Christensen Stadium, a former minor league facility located five miles from campus. (Tommy Ramos)

Until two years ago, porta potties were the only bathroom options for softball fans. “Have your wife come out and use them,” Ramos told Excelle Sports that he said to Thomas at the time. “They smell.” Thomas didn’t appreciate that remark, Ramos says, but in 2015, a permanent bathroom structure, with two toilets, was added outside the softball field.

Interview requests sent by Excelle Sports to Thomas, Midland’s athletic director Forrest Allen, the school’s Title IX coordinator Tana Baker and its human resources director Natasha Morgan elicited only a phone call from Midland’s public information officer, Rebecca Bell.

“We have all been told that because of litigation, our attorney has advised us not to comment at all on the softball situation,” Bell told Excelle Sports. “I’m sorry, but we really don’t have a comment for you.” When asked, she said it was a university-wide mandate.

In 2014, Ramos said he spoke to Morgan in human resources about the discrepancies between the treatment of his program and Midland’s baseball program. For example, the baseball stadium had lights whereas the softball field did not, causing the women’s team to cut practices short or hold them earlier, which meant students missed class time. Ramos hoped to fix the problems internally and appealed to Morgan’s conscience: “I said to her, ‘As a mother, wouldn’t you want the same opportunities for your daughter as your son?’”

Morgan’s response was heartbreaking. According to Ramos, she said, “Well, I don’t know if my daughter will play in college; my son might.”

Morgan then reminded Ramos that she worked for the president, not him, and that if he wasn’t hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit, there was nothing more to discuss.

The following year, Ramos says, a vice president at Midland insinuated that his job was in jeopardy, pointing to the softball program’s record as the reason. At the time, Midland was 17-0, en route to a 30-0 start.

Thing between Thomas and Ramos seemed rockier, too. On the rare occasions when the Midland president would attend a softball game, he’d sit in the visitors’ bleachers, Ramos says. Those actions seemed to send a clear message to Ramos, that Thomas didn’t appreciate the coach’s pleas for improvement.

Today, Ramos is blunt in his assessment of his president: “He does not care for the softball program.”

Ramos considers Allen, Midland’s athletic director since 2007, an ally, noting that since he filed the lawsuit, Allen has paid him regular visits to offer support. When Excelle Sports reached out to Allen, he responded via email, “I don’t think I’m interested in interviewing for your story” and suggested contacting Bell.

[More from Excelle Sports: How a Trump Presidency could affect women, LGBT sports]

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The Midland College women’s softball field is not well maintained and doesn’t offer more than 25 seats for fans. (Tommy Ramos)

Unfair, yes. But unlawful?

According to legal experts, any judge hearing the Midland softball case would have to consider the entirety of the college’s athletics, not just its softball program. Equipment, facilities and recruiting resources across team sports are among the areas that would be assessed.

“Comparing baseball and softball is very useful because it’s a clear, direct comparison,” said Title IX expert, Marissa Pollick, a lecturer in sports law at the University of Michigan and an attorney at the national law firm Shumaker. “However, if, for example, [Midland College] had spectacular women’s basketball and volleyball facilities—and I highly doubt this, but maybe they’ve just ignored softball—this might not be as strong a case.”

There are three men’s sports offered at Midland—baseball, basketball and golf—while the women have softball, basketball and volleyball. The women’s basketball coach did not respond to a request for comment, but Midland volleyball head coach Tammie Jimenez did.

Jimenez has been on the Midland staff since 2007 and just finished her sixth season as head coach this year. She says her program has been treated “fairly decently” by the administration, especially when compared to softball. The volleyball team’s facility is not an issue because the women play in the same arena as the basketball teams.

But Jimenez says she does have budget concerns. She says her program has to fundraise aggressively to come up with money for basic expenses like travel, while the men’s program does not. It is not clear whether this is because Midland provides the men’s programs with bigger budgets or because the coaches for those teams associate with, as Jimenez puts it, “oil men,” or wealthy supporters and influencers. Jimenez says she doesn’t have associations with those types.

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Midland College women’s softball coach Tommy Ramos holds a team meeting in the squad’s locker room. (Tommy Ramos)

[More from Excelle Sports: The surprisingly difficult life of professional softball players]

Excelle Sports requested data on Midland’s athletic department budget through the Texas Public Information Request Act, but the inquiry remains pending. Midland has also requested a waiver from the Texas Attorney General that such items not be disclosed due to pending litigation with Ramos.

Jimenez says her concerns to Midland’s administration often fall on deaf ears.

“It’s really difficult to voice complaints because they take your complaints as just that—you’re just complaining and it’s not valid,” she said.

According to Jimenez, her requests to use facilities for private lessons or clinics have been denied, while baseball coaches are able to run the same programs without oversight.

“It’s been a change of environment with the change in presidency,” Jimenez said, alluding to the switch in leadership when Thomas became president in 2008.

Players swing back

Despite its lack of proper facilities and less-than-supportive administration, Midland’s softball team has been successful. The women finished 38-16 this season and 20-8 in the Western Junior College Athletic Conference. During his 19 years as Midland head coach, Ramos has amassed more than 800 career wins and a .755 winning percentage. He’s led the Lady Chaparrals—it’s unclear why a flora-inspired nickname needs a separate female designation, but that’s another matter—to nine conference championships and has won the conference Coach of the Year award six times.

The players realize their school has, in softball terms, ‘started their at-bats with two strikes’ and have consequently tried to make their voices heard. The first time Andreina “Dina” Ortiz, a catcher at Midland in 2007–2009, saw the college’s baseball facilities, she and some teammates gave a PowerPoint presentation to Midland’s HR department.

“All we received that day were broken promises,” she wrote in a letter to Midland’s administration supporting Ramos’ decision to file a lawsuit. “Nothing changed.”

Amanda Evans, a former player who now serves as Midland’s assistant softball coach, also wrote a letter to the school in support of the lawsuit, using the opportunity to describe the time a 6-foot snake was spotted in the locker room.

“When it was brought to the attention of our director of facilities, he joked about it being a bull snake and that we should be all right,” Evans wrote.

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Players for Midland College women’s softball team practice in a field home to many snakes and scorpions. (Tommy Ramos)

In multiple other letters penned by players to the administration, the players detailed how the act of retrieving balls from the mesquite bushes beyond Midland’s left field fence is a separate terror altogether. They also wrote about carrying rakes or bats to protect against critters.

This year’s team also wrote a letter to the school that begins, “We would like to address our concerns about how our program is being treated compared to other sports and programs at our campus.” The letter continues that, as the women’s softball locker room doubles as the equipment shed, it should hold no more than 10 athletes (not the 20 or so typically on the team) and how many players have anxiety about the insects, reptiles and rodents inside. The team’s letter mentions a past break-in when thousands of dollars of equipment was stolen and details the problems that occur outside the locker room: “The increase in scorpions in our dugout has forced us to keep all of our equipment on the bench to prevent any players from getting stung.”

These conditions have existed for years. According to Pollick, Midland administration’s inaction is common.

“Things don’t happen on their own because athletic directors decide to do the right thing,” she said. “The law makes a big difference. It’s been a struggle for 45 years.”

From field to courthouse

The justice sought by Ramos’ lawsuit against Midland is threefold. First, it wants “general compensatory damages to the softball program;” second, a declaration that “the discrepancies between the baseball and softball programs at Midland College violate Title IX;” and third, “an injunction requiring Midland College to immediately address and substantially equalize these discrepancies.” Ramos himself is not seeking financial compensation.

Ramos filed the suit in late April. Three weeks later, Midland filed a motion to dismiss it on the grounds that Ramos does not have legal standing. Citing previous cases, Midland’s lawyer, Jennifer Powell of Eichelbaum Wardell, argues that Ramos, as the coach, is not personally affected by the conditions at Midland. Without explicitly stating it, Midland is saying a softball player would have to file the suit.

“It was not at all surprising they filed it, but I don’t think they’re right,” said Ramos’ attorney, John Klassen. “[Ramos] has a concrete injury because it impedes his ability to recruit players, which affects him.”

But the debate is now moot, as three softball players currently on the roster are completing paperwork to join the lawsuit. It is not known what Midland’s response to this will be. While there is no doubt that filing the lawsuit would provide some legal protection if Ramos were to be fired, he and his lawyer insist that this is not the motive behind the decision—instead, Ramos just wants the team’s concerns to be heard.

While Ramos could have made a formal complaint to the national Office of Civil Rights about the infractions he felt—which would have been a more typical approach, according to Pollick—Klassen is not optimistic about the Trump administration’s enforcement of Title IX issues, especially at a low-profile school.

Ramos knows other schools, including some in Midland’s conference, face unequal treatment. He hopes his lawsuit can show them a path to change.

“I want others to know they don’t have to put up with this anymore,” he said.

Since filing the suit, Ramos has heard from coaches at other schools who have recently experienced more favorable treatment from administrations that are perhaps concerned about potential lawsuits against their institutions.

And while nothing has changed for Ramos and the Midland softball program, Jimenez and the volleyball team have felt the effects. One of her grant proposals was denied swiftly in mid-April. Shortly after Ramos filed his suit, however, Thomas visited Jimenez and, according to her, asked, “What do you want? We want to make sure you’re treated fairly.” Said Jimenez: “I guarantee it was all because of the lawsuit.”

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to Excelle Sports. He writes about softball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

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