When Arezou Mansourian was little, she wasn’t interested in Barbie dolls or tea parties. Instead, she wanted to fight with her brother or play with his Legos. And when middle school rolled around, she found two weeks of wrestling in her P.E. class much more fun than the line dancing classes.
“I thought, wow this is awesome! It was just so exhilarating,” Mansourian said during a visit to Mills on Feb. 24 where she explained her role in a Title IX case that has incited debate about sex discrimination in America’s public schools.
Mansourian is one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the UC Regents, a suit which started because she and another woman wrestler were cut from the UC Davis wrestling team in Winter 2001. Mansourian believes this to be a major breach of Title IX of the Education Amendments made in 1972, a law that states that institutions that receive federal funding cannot discriminate on basis of gender in any of its programs. In other words, everything must be equal: teams, coaches and facilities.
At Mills, Mansourian told her story and revealed how they began the legal process. Now married and living in Vallejo, Mansourian wrestled in high school, having convinced her father that wrestling was what she wanted to do. Her dad thought that wrestling was unladylike and not classy. She mentioned, amidst laughs from the audience, that he told her, “I don’t want you rolling around on a mat with boys when that’s what I’m trying to get you not to do in high school!”
However, Mansourian got her dad to agree to it as long as she promised him one thing: “Just don’t quit. This better be what you want to do,” she recalled him telling her.
“I guess I kind of always remembered how he said that,” she said.
On the high school wrestling team, Mansourian was subjected to three years of harassment from her male teammates.
“They were so horrible, so mean and so immature. They would be like, You’re ugly and disgusting. I’d go home crying every day,” she said.
Mansourian persevered and decided to attend UC Davis because of its wrestling team and a coach who let women compete. She turned down a seven-year medical school program at UC Riverside for Davis because she thought she would be able to get an education and wrestle.
She and another woman wrestler, Christine Ng, were on the UC Davis wrestling team for two months when their coach, Michael Burch, told them that the school’s athletic director, Greg Warzecka, instructed him to cut the women from the team. When Mansourian and Ng talked to Warzecka, Mansourian claimed he told them that women were too much of a liability on the team and because they would never start, or would never beat a man, there wasn’t any reason to have them on the team.
“You girls would never be worth it,” she remembers Warzecka telling them. “We wish to this day we had a tape recorder in that meeting.”
The two decided to fight to get their spots on the team back and searched for representation. They called lawyers from the phone book, but most of them didn’t want to get involved.
“They all said, ‘Are you kidding me? The UC system? No way. We’re not gonna touch that,'” Mansourian said.
Problems intensified in Spring 2001, when the wrestling team coach, Burch, was fired. Mansourian claims that it was because the administration saw that Burch was supporting their fight against the athletic director. Burch sued the UC Regents for wrongful termination.
With help from the American Association of University Women, who sponsored the talk at Mills, the case, after three years of litigation, was settled in December, with the UC system offering to pay Burch $725,000, which he accepted.
In the spring of their freshman year, 2001, the athletic department told Mansourian that she and any other women who wanted to be on the team could join next year, but they would have to try out and beat a man for their spot.
“Of course, we didn’t win,” Mansourian said, explaining the difference in strength. “We never wanted to compete against men. We just wanted to go to women’s tournaments.”
Burch, in his new job as assistant wrestling coach at Brown University in Rhode Island, found a lawyer, Kristen Gallas, to represent Mansourian and the other women. They began the legal process of giving out depositions and gathering evidence in 2001. In June 2008, what will be seven years after this process began, their case is finally scheduled to go to trial. Although Mansourian graduated in 2004 from UC Davis, she thought her grades wouldn’t be high enough to get into medical school, so she decided to get her master’s at another college instead.
“I was pissed because I gave up UC Riverside – I could be done with medical school this May,” Mansourian said, “But no, I wanted to wrestle.”
Wrestling has increased in popularity in recent years. In 2004, it became an official Olympic sport, and a women wrestler from Stanford received the bronze medal that year. According to Mansourian, California has the highest numbers of high school women wrestlers in the United States.
As wrestling has increased in popularity, the debate over this case has led to many other cases all over the country of schools that may be in violation of Title IX. Dan Siegel, who took over halfway through the legal process as the case’s lawyer when Gallas became sick, spoke of recent cases at Humboldt State and CSU Fresno.
Mansourian and Siegel also touched on the stereotypes that women’s wrestling evokes. Siegel mentioned that when it comes to contact sports, many people are unwilling to support womens’ participation.
“People think I’m a lesbian all the time just because I’m a wrestler,” Mansourian said, noting that the idea of women being aggressive and in contact with other women is still not socially acceptable.
Even though Mansourian doesn’t wrestle anymore, she said that she will take this case as far as she can.
Mansourian sat in front of the audience and said, with a note of confidence and a smile, “I’m gonna stay here and fight for future women.”