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College volleyball: VCU coach says he was fired because he is gay

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 12:08 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
Former Virginia Commonwealth University's women's volleyball coach James Finlay poses with his team's photo Nov. 29 at his home in Richmond, Va. Finlay, fired by Virginia Commonwealth, says he was dismissed because he is gay. He wants his job back.

RICHMOND, Va. – VCU women’s volleyball coach James Finley is fighting to get his job back after he says he was fired because he is gay.

Finley, 52, has filed a complaint with VCU’s Office for Institutional Equity. University spokesperson Pamela D. Lepley said an investigation is being conducted and must be completed within 45 days.

Finley was fired on Nov. 19, one day after the Rams lost in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. The Rams finished 25-6, their best winning percentage (.806) in Finley’s eight-year tenure and their first season in the A-10.

Finley said when he met with athletic director Ed McLaughlin and executive associate AD Jeff Cupps, they told him their decision not to renew his contract – which expires Dec. 31 – had nothing to do with his win-loss record of 151-116.

Over Thanksgiving break, Finley said, “My husband and I were talking about it, and we can’t just walk away.”

Finley said a lot of the tension began when McLaughlin, 39, took over as the AD in mid-August. The coach said he started feeling isolated.

Kristin Boyd, a fifth-year senior, said the meeting left her and other volleyball players confused, especially since the season had gone so well.

Finley said he hopes the outcome of the university’s investigation is based solely on his record as a coach.

“You always want to be judged on your work,” he said, “not on who you love.”

Phone messages left at McLaughlin’s office were not returned to The Associated Press. In a Nov. 19 release announcing Finley’s dismissal, McLaughlin said: “Our program needs a different direction and different leadership to attain our goals of achieving at an elite level nationally.”

McLaughlin, who was the AD at Niagara for 6 years before arriving at VCU, issued another statement this week after Finley went public with his complaint.

“I came to VCU because of how the university embraces diversity and inclusive excellence and fosters a community where differences are valued and respected,” McLaughlin said. “It is unfortunate that Mr. Finley feels the decision not to renew his contract was based on anything other than previously stated concerns about the volleyball program.”

Lepley said she could not discuss Finley’s dismissal for privacy reasons, but said in another statement that the school and McLaughlin “are fully committed to the core value of diversity - as reflected in the university’s diversity statement and strategic plan” and that VCU practices “the spirit of that policy statement every day.”

Finley believed that was true at the urban university in downtown Richmond until McLaughlin arrived. Then, Finley said things changed.

Before he was summoned to McLaughlin’s office to be fired, Finley said he and the AD had never had a conversation. When they passed in the hallway, Finley said he would say hello, and McLaughlin never acknowledged him. The coach said at one athletic event, McLaughlin mingled with other coaches and donors, but McLaughlin walked away whenever he tried to join a conversation.

“We would take our team to watch men’s soccer, women’s soccer, field hockey and Ed would be down on the bench, he would be high-fiving the kids, interacting with them,” Finley said. “He knew them by name. ... He didn’t come to our games, he never introduced himself to our girls, didn’t participate with us.”

VCU has become a special place to Finley, he said, because of how fully it embraces diversity, and how it always made the coach, his husband, John Sternlicht, and their three sons feel “welcome, not tolerated.” Sternlicht said much of the athletic department attended their wedding 2˝ years ago.

Finley said to walk away, rather than speak out, would send the wrong message.

The most stinging blow on the day he was fired came when Finley received a call from some of his players, who he described as “distraught” after having met with McLaughlin to learn of his firing. When they told him McLaughlin said he wanted to hire someone “that will represent the university well,” Finley said “that just stabbed me in the heart.”

“When you’ve fought discrimination your whole life, you’re used to code things like ‘new direction,’ ‘we want someone to represent us well,’” Finley said. “In other words, I don’t want a gay person representing me well.”

Kristin Boyd, a fifth-year senior who is graduating next weekend, said the meeting left her and other volleyball players confused, especially since the season had gone so well.

Finley said he hopes the outcome of the university’s investigation is based solely on his record as a coach.

“You always want to be judged on your work,” he said, “not on who you love.”

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