BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Sharon Lewis, a Black woman who was fired from Louisiana State University (LSU) after two decades in the athletics department, recently faced a dismissive all-white jury in her lawsuit against the university. Despite her slim odds, Lewis sought justice in U.S. District Court, seeking compensatory and emotional damages totaling $6.6 million for wrongful termination and retaliation due to her reporting of sexual harassment by a high-profile coach.
Lewis, a former LSU student-athlete, had served as the assistant athletic director of football recruiting and alumni relations until her abrupt termination in 2021. She alleged that she lost her job as a form of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment experienced by herself and other female colleagues.
In addition to her civil suit, Lewis had brought a $50 million federal racketeering lawsuit, which was dismissed by a judge. Furthermore, Lewis and her attorney were recently ordered to pay $200,000 to former LSU head football coach Les Miles for fabricating claims that the athletics department operated as a criminal operation. However, Lewis and her legal team are appealing this order.
Throughout the trial, Lewis and her attorney asserted that race, gender, and the power dynamics within a prominent college football program had converged to protect LSU’s administrative leaders and sports stars. An independent investigation into the university’s athletics department confirmed that Lewis had reported multiple sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault complaints over the years.
Lewis accused LSU, the board of supervisors, specific staff members, and the university’s attorneys of retaliating against her after she reported sexual misconduct by then-coach Miles and assistant coach Frank Wilson. The independent investigation corroborated that Lewis had indeed made numerous reports of harassment throughout her tenure and that she faced consequences for doing so.
While the jury did not find LSU at fault, Lewis and her attorneys believe that certain gestures made by jurors during the trial compromised the impartiality of the proceedings. They claim that a male juror exchanged a thumbs-up with LSU Athletics Director Scott Woodard just before testifying. Lewis alleged that she witnessed three other jurors offering similar gestures to the defense. However, these jurors were not removed from the jury panel.
During the trial, witnesses, including Nikole Jessie, a Black woman who worked under Lewis, testified about the alleged sexual misconduct by assistant coach Wilson. Jessie stated that Wilson repeatedly made advances towards her, put her in uncomfortable situations, and forcibly kissed her. Lewis also recounted an incident where Wilson exposed himself to her and tried to force her to touch him.
Throughout the trial, the defense tried to discredit Lewis’s claims by questioning her credibility and challenging her allegations of reporting the misconduct. LSU’s lawyers provided evidence that Lewis had the seventh-highest salary among her counterparts at colleges in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and claimed that her termination was part of a staff restructuring.
Despite the outcome of the trial, Lewis plans to appeal the decision. She expressed disappointment in the jury’s interactions with the defendants and felt that justice was unattainable due to bias. Lewis stated that her ultimate goal is not to bring down LSU but to fight for herself, as a Black woman facing many obstacles.
The dismissal of Sharon Lewis’s lawsuit against LSU highlights the challenges faced by individuals seeking accountability for sexual harassment within powerful institutions. The case also underscores broader issues of race and gender in the context of college athletics.