University must confront claims of possible racial discrimination in Kearney case

AddThis

On Nov. 14, Bev Kearney, former University of Texas women’s track coach, filed a wrongful termination suit against the University on the charge of gender and race discrimination — the latest twist in a news story that’s been hanging over UT Athletics since January. 

With the lawsuit pending and much evidence left to be aired, the results of Kearney’s legal effort are still up in the air. But the story behind it — and the implications about race, gender and student-staff relationships within it — has been getting far less attention from students than it deserves.

During Kearney’s 21 years at the University, she was lauded for her mentorship of student athletes and involvement in the community, and held the honor of being UT’s first black head coach in any sport. She accepted awards for her performance on national television and was frequently invited to speaking events by UT administrators. 

Granted, some questions have been raised about Kearney’s coaching techniques: An October article in Texas Monthly contained stories from former students who felt abused and neglected under Kearney’s coaching. 

But it was a consensual affair with one of her former student-athletes that the University is claiming as its reason for Kearney’s termination, an affair Kearney failed to report until asked about it 10 years later.

According to University Policy 3-3050, a consensual relationship between “employees with direct teaching, supervisory, advisory or evaluative responsibility over other employees, students and/or student employees” may exist, though the University disapproves of one happening and the teacher or supervisor has an obligation to report the relationship’s existence. 

In other words, the University allows for consensual relationships between employees and students. And yet, in an email to CNN.com, Patti Ohlendorf, head of the University’s legal affairs department, said: “In Intercollegiate Athletics and the coaching profession, it is unprofessional and unacceptable for a head coach to carry on an intimate relationship with a student-athlete that he or she is coaching,” indicating that Kearney’s termination resulted not from her failure to report her affair, but rather from having the affair at all.

But Kearney has not been the only member of the University athletic department to have sexual relations with a student. Soon after the University initially attacked Kearney, Major Applewhite, then an offensive coordinator for the football team, made public a “one-time” fling with a student trainer in 2009. At the time of his confession, he was an assistant football coach. While the University forced Kearney to resign, they punished Applewhite with a temporary pay freeze and then gave him a promotion and raise the following year.

In other words, Kearney and Applewhite — both coaches — had sex with students. Kearney, an African-American female, lost her job and is currently unemployed. Applewhite, a white male, suffered a temporary pay cut and is currently a co-offensive coordinator of the football team. And, when asked about the difference between the treatment of both by Texas Monthly, Ohlendorf responded by saying only, “We see [Applewhite’s case] as different … He’s not a head coach.”

From the outside looking in, the difference between an assistant and head coach seems not as monumental as the differences between Kearney and her colleagues in race, gender and background.

If Kearney was fired solely because of her actions, then the University needs to explain in greater detail how her case differs from Applewhite’s. In a case where racial and gender discrimination are alleged, the University has no right to be tight-lipped in its comments and ambiguous in its policies.