The story of Riverside City College women's basketball with head coach Alicia Berber

June 25, 2023
We sat down for an exclusive with Riverside City College (RCC) women’s basketball head coach (HC) Alicia Berber to dig into her decades-long battle for sports equity.
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The story of Riverside City College women's basketball with head coach Alicia Berber

😤 Upsetting the old boys club

Coach Berber hasn’t just led RCC’s women hoopers since 1999, she used to be one of them. The RCC Hall of Famer is the only All-American the program has ever had, becoming the Tigers’ then–leading scorer before balling at Washington State.

  • As an HC, Berber invests in her players’ on- and off-court success, boasting an unheard-of 100% graduation rate for her transferring sophomores (with RCC being a junior college). GOAT–level sh!t.

That investment stems from her own RCC athletic experience. “I dealt with [unequal treatment] as an athlete,” Berber stated. “So, when I became a coach and I saw these inequalities, [I decided that] I’m gonna change it.”

  • But, of course, demanding change came at a cost.

While she played the “old boys club” game early on in her coaching career, Berber decided to stop after a game in 2008. Rather than going to the bar with various athletic department staff (an unspoken requirement), Berber says she realized, “What am I doing?... This is crazy. I’m pregnant. I don’t need to be at a bar,” and she went home instead.

The blowback was immediate. The very next day, RCC’s then–athletic director (AD) Barry Meier unleashed what Berber describes as his “wrath,” saying “You didn't listen to me, you're not getting any money for your program.”

While the athletic department’s culture had already been rife with harassment and discrimination, not going to the bar post-game, according to Berber,spurred years of aggressive bullying, denial of growth and financially beneficial work opportunities, and racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks aimed at and around Berber.

  • Shortly before the lawsuit was settled, Meier disgracefully resigned after an investigation revealed porn on his work computer. Because of course.

🐻 Unleashing the mama bear

Following the lawsuit and with a new AD at the helm, it’s easy to assume that conditions would improve…but you know what they say about making assumptions.

Instead, the harassment ramped up, but it was the treatment of her student-athletes that had Berber calling her lawyer. As recent RCC grad and team captain Shanon Jordan told The GIST, “it started in the weight room. We were trying to do our workouts, it was our time and people would come in and take stuff out…it felt like they were trying to undermine [our coach’s] authority.”

  • “It was the [other] coaches,” Jordan continued, “they would instruct their players to come in and take stuff. The students were just listening to the coaches, but the coaches knew they shouldn't have been doing that.”

For Berber, the combination of unequal access to the weight room and the removal of equipment during those small windows was another breaking point. “I'm a Mama Bear with my athletes. I make sure they're taken care of, and it just got to be way too much,” she says.

After attempting to reconcile such treatment to no avail, and being told by the football team’s assistant HC that she “really needs to learn to respect the men’s football program, because we have a lot of guys," Berber began a second, still-ongoing lawsuit, and along with her team, decided to publicly raise her voice.

✊ The protest

The team took to social mediaand designed black T-shirts reading “#Equality in Women’s Sports” on the front and “We Deserve to Be Here” on the back. They dubbed their final home game of the 2021–22 season a “protest game.”

Hundreds of fans showed up to the contest and even more supported from outside the gym. RCC, their opponent (Orange Coast College), and many fans donned the shirts.

  • According to Jordan, “it was a really good game. We have the sea of the black shirts on the one side…I don't even remember who won that game…but I do remember us being all united.” Chills.

In addition to the RCC community, basketball royalty like Ann Meyers-Drysdale, the first woman to ever receive a four-year NCAA scholarship, and Olympic gold medalist Cheryl Miller took notice of the protest.

  • But after a local ABC station covered the game, aggression escalated from athletic staff who felt called out.

💥 The backlash

Before the protest game, Berber asked men’s basketball HC Phil Mathews if he’d consider letting his guys wear the shirts in support of the gals, but he refused to “get involved.”

  • Then after the local news story aired, Mathews, who was livid that folks might think it was his players mistreating women, told Berber, “we would have supported you…but now you f**ked yourself.”

The personal harassment of Berber amped up, along with the backlash against her team. “The [men’s basketball] assistant coach [was] coming in and pushing us out of our practice time,” says Berber. Jordan recalled that during one such interruption, despite being told that it was not the guys’ time on the court, their coach told the men “No, keep coming in.”

  • Berber may have best summed it up: “[Mathews] was angry because everybody thought it was him, but then all of a sudden, he became part of the problem.”

And that problematic behavior unfortunately galvanized some male athletes, who would throw balls at the gym door to intimidate the women during practice. In one instance, Jordan was shocked when one of the boys came up behind her and menacingly said “Yeah, you better keep walking.”

  • Both Jordan and Berber are quick to assert that these incidences are the behaviors of a few “bad apples” and that the majority are great young men who, per Berber, “want to support their friends” but were told “not even to look at [her] or speak to [her]” by their coach.

Between the bullying and threats, the safety concerns grew to the point that campus police “came in just to watch practice” and would escort Berber between her office and her car to avoid more instances of angry individuals “getting in [her] face.”

  • But Berber knows exactly where all the backlash and decades of harassment comes from: “They just can't stand that I'm speaking up.”

🌊 The new mission

Speaking up has resulted in incremental differences at RCC, including more eyes on the institution’s Title IX compliance. The ripple effects of Berber’s fight are positively impacting the community, too.

  • “Everyone was really just supportive, from our parents to the community,” says Jordan. Berber’s teen daughter even gave a Title IX speech wearing the #Equality shirt, and other teams and schools have also chosen to sport the ’fit.
  • That community support showed Jordan that “there are people willing to help make a change, people that want to make a difference. As long as you keep fighting for what's right…and [put] things out there that are good for the world, things are gonna work out.”

Sadly, because battles to ensure Title IX protections are common, others who’ve heard Berber’s saga have reached out for advice and her lawyer’s number. In one instance, an LA community college was considering canceling their women’s basketball program.

  • They called Berber, who said, “Why don't you just wear the shirts? Walk around campus, let your voice be heard.”
  • “Literally within two days, all the coaches got their stipends back, and their women's program was back in motion,” recalls Berber, “That was freaking awesome.”

After 23 years of stress, Berber is letting the lawsuit “take care of [itself].” Meanwhile, she’s focused on leading her squad and says she’s “excited about getting the message out. I’m excited when people will come up to me and say ‘oh my God, you're the equity shirt lady!’ I'm like ‘yes! I’m the equity shirt lady, heck yeah.’ I'm just excited to see where it's gonna go.”

Berber’s impact and legacy are palpable. Next fall, Jordan will continue her education at Spelman College, but reflecting on Coach Berber’s influence, she says “it was never about her, it was just about us and our experience….it was never about making herself bigger….It was just about, how is she gonna help us be the best players and students we can be.”

  • Today, RCC. Tomorrow, a more equitable world for women athletes.