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VCU Coach Fired for Being Gay?

"And we had a perfect graduation score and a 25-6 season."

Brad Kutner | November 27, 2012

For eight years James Finley went to work for VCU’s women’s volleyball team. For eight years he poured his heart and soul into his team of women. And on Monday November 19th, James Finley was fired. Finley says the reasons for his contract termination are simple. It wasn’t his winning record. It wasn’t his personal commitment to the team. It wasn’t the move to a tougher competing conference his team earned under his guidance. According to Finley, it was because he was openly gay.

Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin came into VCU’s athletics department in July 2012. He was hailed for his previous work at Niagara University, American University, and Merrimack College. VCU’s bio page for McLaughlin quotes him saying “We have the ability to have a national impact in everything we do, and do it without compromise.” Unfortunately, to people like Finley, that lack of compromise includes not having LGBT individuals on his staff.

The VCU Women’s Volleyball season went well for Finley. He and his women entered the Atlantic 10 Conference, a step up in difficulty and glory from their previous seasons in the CAA. People picked the Rams to take 6th place. Instead they took 3rd, with a final record of 25-6 overall in the regular season- they got as far as the semi finals – a solid standing for a team in their first A10 championship.

On Nov. 19th, the Monday after they returned from the championships, Coach Finley had a message waiting for him from AD McLaughlin’s secretary. “They wanted a confidential meeting,” said Finley. He figured it was to discuss his contract renewal – most VCU coaches are on year-to-year contracts, and at the end of seasons, coaches and administration get together to discuss their future together.

Last year’s conversation between Finley and the former AD went normally. “They asked me to win more and have a better APR – graduation rate,” said Finley. “And we had a perfect graduation score and a 25-6 season.”

But when Finley met with McLaughlin this time, the conversation was different. “He said they wanted to go in a different direction,” said Finley. The new direction did not include Finley as the head coach of his team. It did not include Finley on staff at all.

This was awful for Finley to hear. He had put much into the success of his team. But there were several red flags that popped up throughout the season leading up to this moment.

“From the beginning he interacted with other coaches, staffs, other teams. He participated [with them], and  with ours he didn’t…  At booster events, he avoided me whenever I was there. [I'd be] having a conversation with him and he’d walk away when I was trying to talk to him. I’d say ‘Hi’ and he’d look up at me, and put his head back down and not acknowledge me.”

Finley didn’t think much of the issue as the season passed, but on Oct. 5th, when Pat Stauffer, a 30-year-veteran of VCU athletics and an open lesbian, was demoted from Senior Women’s Administrator to  Sr. Associate AD for Sports Administration. It was too much for Finley, it was another red flag.

“If one things happens, OK, it happens; but if it happens a second time, it’s a pattern,” said Finley when he connected the dots. The lack of interaction all season and the circumstances of his dismissal became suspect.

Since his meeting with McLaughlin, Finley has taken action within the university system to solve his problem. He met with VCU’s VP of Diversity this week. He was told diversity was one of VCU’s core values, and that an investigation was started to examine his dismissal and his charge of discrimination. When asked what he wanted, Finley said “I’d like to have my job back.”

And Finley doesn’t blame VCU or the rest of the administration for this issue. He made it clear that he has faith in the system’s ability to clear up the issue. “I have a lot of confidence in Dr. Rao and the university to enforce the anti-discrimination policy in this situation,” he said.

Virginia lacks sexual orientation in its list of protected classes for employment. However, VCU does include it in their anti-discrimination policy. Finley believes this policy was violated.

John Sternlicht, Finley’s husband and a lawyer, admits it’s very hard to prove discrimination in most cases – you have to look at the entire circumstance to understand what has happened. He believes his husband’s situation, with the lack of normal treatment and the demotion of the other LGBT employee, is evidence enough. “You have to have enough evidence to get your case to a jury or your case is thrown out,” said Sternlicht, “and this would be enough to get to a jury.”

VCU’s Executive Director of University Relations, Pamela Lepley, said the university could not comment on matters dealing with personnel because they are confidential via federal law. In a press release, she said “The employment action — non renewal of the contract — was taken in compliance with appropriate VCU employment practices and policies.” She stressed that VCU and AD McLaughlin “are fully committed to the core value of diversity – as reflected in the university’s diversity statement and strategic plan.” Additionally, in a phone call she said there were many changes in staff after the former athletic director, Norwood Teague, left for another school. She could not specify details – whether anyone else was terminated or demoted.

Finley’s volleyball team members were just as confused by his dismissal. “He’s very kind hearted, he knows what he’s talking about with volleyball–he was a good coach,” said Kristin Boyd, an elementary education major and 5-year-veteran of VCU Women’s Volleyball who is graduating in December. “All of the teammates were very surprised and some were upset. We did really well this year, he had no reason to get fired.”

After the team heard the news, they spoke to Finley and asked him, “Did you get fired because you are gay?”

Boyd said the interaction with AD McLaughlin was confusing to begin with – it was also one of the first times he had met the team. “The AD said he ‘wanted the best for us.’ He’s new here and for him to come in and say that made us uncomfortable. He didn’t even know us. He never came to any of our games – he never did anything, but he went to other people’s games and never went to ours… How could he know what’s best for us if he doesn’t know us as a group of girls?”

The language McLaughlin used also caused Boyd and her teammates some concern.

“He said ‘We want someone to better represent the school,’ and coach had never done anything to misrepresent the school – he’s always very appropriate and nice to people, even when people are rude to him. I’ve never seen him in my 5 years misrepresent the school in any way.”

Boyd agrees with Finley and does not think this issue comes from the college’s higher-ups. “Our school is very diverse, I wouldn’t really expect this… I don’t think it’s VCU, I think it’s on the administrative side. I don’t want to throw the AD under the bus, but we never had an issue until he got here.”