December 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Gay coach fired at VCU
James Finley, VCU, ENDA, Employment Non-Discrimination Act, gay news, Washington Blade, Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU women’s volleyball coach James Finley says he was fired because he’s gay. (Photo courtesy of Finley)

A women’s volleyball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, who says he was fired last month because he’s gay, would have a far better chance of getting his job back if President Obama had issued a non-discrimination executive order for federal contractors.

That’s the assessment of Tico Almeida, president of the national LGBT advocacy group Freedom to Work.

“If the executive order were already in place, Coach [James] Finley could have the Department of Labor investigate whether federal contractor VCU allowed anti-gay animus to overshadow the fact that he led his team to a 25-6 winning record this season as well as a perfect graduation rate for his student athletes,” Almeida told the Blade in a statement.

Almeida said VCU would be a prime target for a discrimination investigation under such an executive order because it has received more than $40 million in contracts in recent years from such federal agencies as the National Institutes of Health, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Defense.

“President Obama should sign the executive order today because every day that passes is another day in which taxpayer money can be squandered on anti-LGBT workplace harassment and discrimination,” he said.

Finley, 52, told the Blade he learned of his dismissal on Nov. 19 when the university’s recently hired athletic director, Ed McLaughlin, informed him he decided not to renew Finley’s contract as coach.

He said he filed a discrimination complaint with the university’s diversity office. The university’s personnel policy bans discrimination based on sexual orientation. A VCU spokesperson said the office has 45 days to investigate the complaint under university rules.

Another university spokesperson, Pamela Lepley, told Richmond news media outlets that McLaughlin’s decision not to renew Finley’s contract was “in compliance with appropriate VCU employment practices and policies.”

In his own statement, McLaughlin said he did not base his action on the fact that Finley is gay.

“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,” he said.

Finley told the Blade McLaughlin told him his reason for not renewing the contract was a desire to take the volleyball program in a “different direction” in order to lift the program to “an elite level.”

Finley and his husband, John Sternlicht, an attorney, consider McLaughlin’s rationale for not renewing Finley’s contract a thinly veiled pretext.

The two say they believe the true motive was McLaughlin’s unwillingness to retain an openly gay man as coach of the VCU women’s volleyball team, despite the fact that Finley is credited by students, other coaches, and sports writers with having vastly improved the team and inspired its women players during his eight-year tenure as coach.

“The reality is they were below 500 [in their win-loss record] for 14 straight years prior to me coming here,” Finley said in a telephone interview.

In the years in which he served as coach, the team has had the highest winning percentage in women’s volleyball at VCU in the previous 20 years, he said.

“We had 25 wins with only six losses,” he said in discussing the current year. “We had our highest national ranking in program history.”

According to Finley, many university officials, students, and the athletic department staff have been fully accepting of him and Sternlicht. Many of his colleagues attended his and Sternlicht’s wedding celebration last year, he said

With that as a backdrop, Finley and Sterlicht said McLaughlin remained distant and unsupportive of Finley since the time McLaughlin was hired as athletic director in July of this year.

He never attended any of the women’s volleyball games at the university’s home court, never congratulated him or the players for their successful season, and appeared to turn and walk in another direction whenever the two crossed paths on campus, said Finley.

Sternlicht said evidence of anti-gay animus surfaced when it became known last month that McLaughlin demoted a woman staffer who was the only other out gay person in the athletic department.

According to the Commonwealth Times, Pat Stauffer, a 30-year employee at the VCU Athletics Department, was stripped of her title as Senior Women’s Administrator and given the new title of Senior Associate Athletic Director for Sport Administration.

Finley said any doubt about McLaughlin’s motive for firing him vanished in his own mind and in that of his supporters when his volleyball players told him McLaughlin said the university wants a coach who would “represent the university well.”

“What he was saying is I, as a gay man, can’t represent the university or the athletic program in a positive way,” Finley said.

Finley’s dismissal comes at a time when LGBT advocates in Virginia say they are uncertain over whether sexual orientation non-discrimination policies adopted by the state’s universities and colleges, including VCU, can be enforced.

Last year, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli said the universities didn’t have legal standing to adopt such policies because sexual orientation discrimination is not prohibited under Virginia law.

For more than a year, Almeida and other LGBT advocates have been urging President Obama to sign an executive order requiring companies and other entities such as universities that receive federal contracts to adopt internal personnel policies banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Existing federal civil rights laws already ban employment discrimination based on race, religion, sex and ethnicity, but those laws don’t apply to LGBT people. A bill pending in Congress known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, would add similar protections for LGBT people in federal law.

But ENDA remains stalled in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, and Capitol Hill observers say it has no chance of passing unless Democrats regain control of the House in the 2014 elections.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • “If the executive order were already in place, Coach [James] Finley could have the Department of Labor investigate whether federal contractor VCU allowed anti-gay animus to overshadow the fact that he led his team to a 25-6 winning record this season as well as a perfect graduation rate for his student athletes,” Almeida told the Blade in a statement.
    Almeida is exactly right.

    And the potential of that kind of enforcement action against discriminators– enabled by a Presidential EO– has an enormously positive ripple effect on all those entities– both public and private– who also do business with the contractor found to be discriminating. The word gets spread quickly– discrimination is simply bad for business.

    We’ve already seen how Obama EO’s regarding hospital and health care discrimination have promptly and radically improved employment and treatment non-discrimination policies in places far more conservative than Richmond.

    President Obama should start laying the PR groundwork now for a federal contractor EO– within a few months at the latest.

    The President’s failure to do so seriously threatens ENDA’s passage on the HIll. Why should Congress act on ENDA when the president has not done the minimum of which he is easily capable of implementing with an EO?

    The Obama Administration is really sending a de facto ‘back door’ message to Congress…
    “Despite what I say publicly to you all, I’m not all that concerned about LGBT workplace discrimination.”

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