The sports world has seen more than its usual share of controversy over the last week. The horrific murder of Kasandra Perkins by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who later killed himself in front of his head coach and general manager, transcends sports and leaves us with more questions than answers. On a less important scale, NBA commissioner David Stern set a new precedent for league regulation by fining the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 for purposely benching their top players against the Miami Heat.
But a story about a college volleyball coach was quickly buried last Friday in the midst of NFL tragedy, NBA uproar and BCS surprises. And no, I’m not talking about the wildly successful Yale volleyball team that finished up its season at the NCAA tournament last week. Former Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU, home of Shaka Smart) women’s volleyball coach James Finley filed a complaint with the university’s Office for Institutional Equity alleging that he was fired from his position because he is gay. Technically, VCU decided not to renew his contract, but this choice ended Finley’s time at the university.
Finley’s case is supported by a compelling backstory. While his overall win-loss record during his stint at VCU was only 151–116 after eight seasons, he had just finished his best season ever, taking his team to a 25–6 record in VCU’s first season in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Rams ranked third out of 12 teams in the conference and made it to the semifinals of the A-10 tournament.
His success this year was impressive — yet first-year VCU Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin decided in a press release that, “our program needs a different direction.” Finley’s players certainly didn’t think so; distraught fifth-year senior Kristin Boyd didn’t mince words when she relayed McLaughlin’s speech to the team to ESPN: “[McLaughlin] said he wanted somebody to better represent the school.”
Those are dangerous words. If that’s what he actually said, how exactly would a new coach “better represent the school” considering the AD himself said the firing was not about Finley’s win-loss record? By not being gay?
I don’t mean to make it seem like this case is clear-cut. VCU will conduct its own investigation, and Finley says he’ll take legal action if he’s not rehired. But for now, we only know one side of the story. Perhaps the internal facts of the case will reveal a clearly legitimate reason for ending the contract. Yet without additional contrary evidence, it will be extremely tough to prove that his contract was not renewed because of discrimination against his orientation.
No matter how the truth shakes out in the end, it’s disappointing that a controversy like this can still exist today. To think of someone being fired simply because he or she is gay is disheartening, especially in a university setting that prides itself on diversity and equality.
And this story only reflects the greater problem of acceptance of LGBTQ individuals in the sports world. This isn’t even a more specific discussion about accepting gay players on teams or banning slurs from the playing field — this is a problem of a lack of tolerance and general kindheartedness toward all people.
After reading a few different stories about the Finley controversy online, I happened to click on the comments section of the ESPN article. Bad decision. (Note to self: Don’t read the comments on any ESPN article, YouTube video or local news website.) The nearly 3,000 comments had their fair share of homophobic rants — hopefully the result of an extremely vocal minority. But just as disturbing were comments justifying the firing of Finley for any reason other than his win-loss performance as a coach. ESPN commenters bring up the fact that there are no anti-discrimination laws in Virginia preventing VCU from firing Finley because of his orientation — so obviously it’s okay to fire him for that exact reason. Others point out that VCU should have vetted Finley more strongly before hiring someone who’s gay — you know, to avoid another “Jerry Sandusky” problem.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid the ESPN comments section is likely a barometer of the feelings many still harbor toward those who are LGBTQ. This hits deeper than just intolerance on the playing field. The attitude toward current topics in sports — for example, Title IX and women in the 1960s and 1970s, or baseball and steroids in the last two decades — says a lot about how those issues are perceived throughout the rest of the country. This isn’t about same-sex marriage or civil unions — this is about respect in sports and therefore society. So, with no disrespect intended toward volleyball and the good folks at VCU, if we have trouble accepting a gay coach at a low-profile volleyball program in 2012, there’s still a lot of work to be done.