Woman is determined to keep challenging LSU’s athletics, even after jury dismisses her case

When an all-white jury deliberated for less than three hours to dismiss her lawsuit against Louisiana State University last month, Sharon Lewis — a Black woman who challenged being unceremoniously fired after 20 years in the university’s athletics department — could only shake her head.

“I never had a shot,” she told NBC News.

Lewis, a former LSU student-athlete, spent two decades there, most recently as the assistant athletic director of football recruiting and alumni relations until her job came to an abrupt end in 2021. Lewis was told she was being let go amid a personnel restructuring. But she said she believes she lost her job as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment that she and other female colleagues have said they experienced at the hands of a high-profile coach.  

Going into the trial, Lewis, 56, said she knew her odds were slim: a Black woman in Louisiana taking on the state’s flagship university — and its powerhouse athletics department. But she sued the school anyway in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, seeking $6.3 million in compensatory damages and another $300,000 for emotional damages for wrongful termination. 

Separately, a $50 million federal racketeering lawsuit she brought was dismissed by a federal judge, and earlier this month, Lewis and her attorney, Larry English, were ordered to pay $200,000 to former LSU head football coach Les Miles for fabricating claims that the college athletics department was being run as a criminal operation. 

Lewis and English are now appealing that order.

Ultimately, they said, themes of race, gender and the power of an influential college football program converged to protect some of LSU’s administrative leaders and sports stars. 

For years, according to an independent investigation into the university’s athletics department, Lewis had reported several sexual harassment, misconduct and assault complaints that she, female students and other women in the athletics department said they had experienced. 

In her lawsuit, Lewis alleged that LSU, the board of supervisors and specific staff members and attorneys at a law firm that represented LSU at the time retaliated against her and created a hostile work environment after she had reported sexual misconduct against then-coach Miles and assistant coach Frank Wilson. 

Those reports, according to her suit, were largely ignored by her superiors, executive deputy director of athletics Verge Ausberry and senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar. 

Things came to a tipping point in 2021 when the NCAA declared that LSU had lacked institutional control over its basketball and football programs, prompting the independent investigation of the university.

Ausberry and Segar told investigators that Lewis had never reported any incidents to them, but the independent report said Lewis had “lodged several reports of sex harassment throughout her tenure” and was punished for doing so. 

Segar and Ausberry were briefly suspended by the university for their handling of allegations that two student-athletes engaged in intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Segar and Ausberry, who returned to their jobs, declined to comment, referring NBC News to the university’s representatives. 

In February 2022, Lewis was fired during what the school called “a vast restructure,” which prompted Lewis’ lawsuit.   

On Dec. 20, the jury did not find LSU at fault. Lewis and her attorneys said they knew they would have a difficult path to victory when, on the fourth day of the trial, a male juror was dismissed by Judge Susie Morgan after he returned a “thumbs-up” from LSU Athletics Director Scott Woodard as he was about to testify. Lewis told the judge she saw three other jurors offering thumbs-up to the defense or winking at Woodward. They denied doing so, and they were not removed from the jury. 

After the male juror was dismissed, the remaining eight-member jury was made up of three women and five men; none were Black. 

Over the course of six days, witnesses aired their allegations about Wilson, the assistant coach, including Nikole Jessie, a Black woman who worked under Lewis. She told the jury that Wilson repeatedly came on to her, asked her out to dinner and put her in uncomfortable positions by positioning himself close to her. Jessie said that one day in an office, Wilson forcibly kissed her on the mouth. 

Jessie testified that she did not file a report to protect her job, but Lewis said she reported the incident to Ausberry and Segar. As far as Lewis knows, nothing happened to Wilson.

When asked for a response, Wilson referred NBC News to the university. 

 Lewis also testified that Wilson had pulled out his penis in her office and “tried to force me to touch it,” she said. She rebuffed him. 

An LSU employee testified that Lewis told them that Wilson had exposed himself to her, and Wilson’s sister, Julie Harris, told NBC News that Wilson had told her the same thing.

On the stand, Lewis said that when she told Segar about the incident, she referred her to a university therapist. 

When NBC News asked LSU if Wilson had been investigated, a university spokesman said: “There were many discussions within and outside the athletic department. Like the jurists in the trial, we concluded the allegations were not substantiated. Specifically, Frank Wilson testified that he participated in an investigation with the Title IX office regarding the allegations.”

During the trial, Wilson testified that the allegations were “egregious and not true.” He added, “At no point have I ever been accused of the things I’m being accused of now.”

Lewis’ lawyers, however, told NBC News that they believe the investigation to be inefficient because neither Lewis nor Jessie were contacted as part of the process. Wilson left LSU in 2015 to coach elsewhere. In 2019, Lewis filed a complaint against him to have it on the record. Still, Wilson was rehired by LSU in 2021. Three weeks later, Lewis was out of a job. Wilson is currently an associate head coach and running backs coach. 

Lewis said in her lawsuit that she felt animus from staffers after she reported that Wilson had allegedly exposed himself to her. In the weeks between Wilson’s rehiring and her dismissal, she said, Wilson routinely excluded Lewis from events and meetings and “told my student staff to not listen to me or to defy my work orders.”

“I was struggling to do my job and yet stay away from Wilson, while at the same time, protect the young women from sexual advances and horrible behavior. It was mentally exhausting.”

But she told NBC News she is “a loyal LSU alum, I didn’t want to lose my job. Who would be there to protect the girls?” 

In their opening statement, lawyers for LSU said Lewis and her team were “hustling” LSU for money. 

English, however, asserts the university’s claims were “a racial dog whistle. It’s code, using that word. It was disturbing that they played to this all-white jury in that way.”

In court, Ausberry testified that Lewis “didn’t like white people.” Lewis said she was mortified at hearing her former boss’ claim. 

“Here’s the thing: Sharon mostly worked with white people at LSU,” said Harris, Lewis’ sister who attended the trial. “All the accomplishments and successes Sharon had was collaborating with her white colleagues. So that’s a lie.” 

When a white LSU worker was asked on the stand if he believed Lewis was racist, he said, “I’m not going to go that far.”

An LSU lawyer also told the jury that Lewis was using an “Obama policy” to sue LSU, referring to the former president’s guidance on how Title IX complaints can be investigated. Those rules were changed under the Trump administration, narrowing the standards for such investigations.  

“We know, in certain parts of the country, like Louisiana, President Obama is the boogeyman,” Harris said. “And then the lawyer came back and said, ‘Trump got rid of that policy,’ which the Title IX expert testified wasn’t true, that the tenets of President’s Obama’s policy remain. The goal was to somehow twist the case into President Obama against Trump in Trump territory.”

Harris said she understands LSU needed to defend itself, but was playing “the race card against this one Black woman.”

Throughout the trial, LSU’s defense contended that Lewis was not truthful about reporting sexual misconduct allegations to Ausberry and Segar. It insisted the same about her claim that Wilson had exposed himself to her, and maintained that no one had created a hostile work environment for Lewis. 

To dismiss Lewis’ claims that she was underpaid, LSU’s lawyers showed evidence that Lewis had the seventh-highest salary among those in parallel positions at the 14 colleges in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The school also insisted that her firing was part of a house-cleaning when new coach Brian Kelly arrived and made mass changes in staff. 

LSU’s defense during the trial was “that Sharon Lewis is a liar. That’s it,” English said.

“It was clear that the jury in its decision failed to follow the law,” he added. 

Given that the jury only “deliberated three hours — of which probably two hours was lunch — it shows that the jury had a closed mind from the very beginning,” English said.

Lewis’ legal team said they plan to appeal. 

Said Lewis: “Watching how the jury was interacting with people I’m suing, I knew I was doomed. The jury wasn’t going to go against LSU. I’m not trying to bring LSU down. I love LSU. But there are people there who were compromising the university. So I have to fight for myself: a Black woman up against . . . a lot.”