IT WAS never about the money, declared gymnast Thema Williams and her lawyers after a High Court judge found the TT Gymnastics Federation to be biased in deciding to withdraw Williams from a crucial test event for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and replace her with Canadian-born alternate Marisa Dick.
In a 60-page written decision delivered at the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain, Justice Frank Seepersad ordered the TTGF to compensate Williams. She had asked for $11 million but will only get a fraction of that figure, as the judge ordered her to be paid $200,000.
Speaking after the judge’s decision, Williams’ lead attorney Martin Daly, SC, said it was never about the money and his client was willing to accept a written apology from the federation for what it had done. “But they did not want to give one. The money is secondary,” Daly said.
In his ruling, Seepersad said of the actions of the TTGF’s executive, “The court formed the view that these defendants allowed their entrenched biases to cloud their judgment and they acted with undue haste, deprived themselves of the benefit of relevant information and ultimately effected a flawed decision."
Daly described it as the federation and its members saying: "Because you don’t belong to a clique...'you take a child like this and pelt her out'.” Williams, however, was guarded in her reaction to the media.
She said she accepted the judge’s ruling and hoped his message about the effect bias can have on athletes and sport is embraced by all sporting federations, not only the TTGF. She could not say if representing TT was in her future since her focus now was on her studies.
Williams, by virtue of her higher score at the World Championships in Glasgow, was given the nod over Dick to compete at the Olympic Test event – Aquece Final Gymnastics Qualifier – in April 2016.
She and her coach John Geddert were in Brazil preparing for the Olympic qualifier when the TTGF decided to replace her with Dick. Williams claimed the federation told Geddert she was withdrawn because she was injured, a claim Williams denied.
Dick was flown in from Canada and eventually qualified to become TT's first representative in an Olympics. That decision was made on the night of April 15, 2016, after members of the federation received an e-mail from Geddert which they said sought to suggest Williams was not physically prepared to give her best performance at the games.
She denied this during the trial, saying she had an injury, saying it was simply some discomfort. In his ruling, Seepersad said Geddert’s e-mail was not reflective of a clear and definitive view that she was suffering from an injury which may have prevented her from taking part in the test event.
Although he ruled against the TTGF, the judge dismissed Williams' claim against the federation's former president David Marquez, executive members Akil Wattley and husband/wife duo of Ricardo and Donna Lue Shue – both of whom were said to have had a close relationship with Dick and her mother.
Seepersad said although they had their own peculiar issues with Williams, it could not be said they acted outside the scope of their authority when they made their decision. He further held that there was no evidence that the decision taken by the group was intended to cause Williams harm or that there was a “conspiracy” on their part.
“At the material time the court found on a balance of probabilities that they all erroneously believed (as their views were clouded by their individual bias) that they were acting in the best interest of the first defendant (TTGF) and the country and many of them may have strongly felt that the alternate was a better candidate for the OTE (Olympic test event).
“Far too often, at every level of this society, persons charged with decision-making authority allow their personal views and biases to cloud and affect the exercise of their discretion. In adopting such a toxic approach to the discharge of decision making responsibility, grave injustice is usually occasioned, as the best possible decision may not be effected.
“Persons in positions of authority must always be acutely aware of their entrenched and/or inherent biases and they must conscientiously endeavour to exclude bias from the decision-making process. Decisions must always be made objectively, in accordance with the evidence and by the impartial application of all the relevant criteria and considerations. “
Seepersad said the decision by Marquez and the others should never have been taken.
THEMA LOST OUT
In ordering the TTGF to compensate Williams, Seepersad said as a young, talented, elite gymnast selected to take part in the test event, Williams stood to benefit from promotions and endorsements leading up to the games and after.
Though she did not provide evidence of loss of salary or promotional earnings, the judge said it was "inherently plausible that her ability to earn in the future may have been affected by the fact that she is now, not an Olympian" and considered her earning potential now.
"Given her status, she would have been in a middle earning range as it relates to employment, earnings and endorsement income. This would have been plausible when one considers the sentimental attraction which would have attached to her, if she had made history by representing this Republic at the Olympics," he said, but because she was denied the chance to participate in the test event, she would have lost out on the accolades which would have accompanied that feat.
He calculated her earning potential as having been reduced by 60 per cent. Having estimated her endorsement income to have been at least $20,000 annually, and factored in possible income she would have earned at least up to the next Olympic Games in 2020, he ordered she should receive $50,000 for loss of income.
For her "mental distress, hurt and humiliation when she was replaced and her sense of disappointment" he awarded her $150,000.
Williams' legal team also included attorneys Keith Scotland and Reza Ramjohn. Attorney Justin Junkere represented the TTGA, which was ordered to pay Williams' legal costs. Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Ronnie Bissessar and Varin Gopaul-Gosine represented Marquez and the others.
Next Monday, Seepersad will rule on whether Williams will have to pay the former executive members' costs since her claim against them was dismissed. Daly has argued that she should not.