A lawsuit filed by the former women’s track and field coach of the University of Texas could cause widespread embarrassment for current and former university officials.
Former coach Bev Kearney filed the lawsuit four years ago, claiming that the university had discriminated against her by firing her over a decade-old relationship with one of her athletes, while condoning an affair that football coach Major Applewhite had with a student trainer.
Then the case stalled on appeal, but the state Supreme Court ruled last year that Kearney’s discrimination lawsuit could proceed, and her attorneys have been vigorously pursuing potentially embarrassing depositions since then, as the Associated Press reported Monday.
Kearney’s legal claim fires warning shots all over the place, claiming that “other University employees (all of whom are white males) have been involved in relationships with students or direct subordinates and have not been subjected to termination, let alone any meaningful disciplinary actions. These University employees include Major Applewhite (current Co-Offensive Coordinator for the football team) (sic), other coaches within the University’s Athletic Department, current and former law school professors, current and former professors within the University’s undergraduate school, and a department chairperson.”
The reference to the former law school professor is likely an allusion to then-university President Bill Powers, who met his wife of more than three decades when she was a law student of his in the late ’70s, at a time he was married to another woman.
Applewhite has gained an even higher profile since the lawsuit was filed, as he was hired this offseason as the new head coach at the University of Houston. One of his first hires was an assistant coach tarnished by the sexual assault scandal at Baylor University.
Kearney’s court papers claim there are other coaches and officials who either have married former athletes or conducted affairs with employees they supervise. While university policy explicitly permits consensual relationships between an “employee with direct teaching, supervisory, advisory, or evaluative responsibility over other employees, students, and/or student employees,” Kearney claims she was “singled out” as “an African American female” and regarded as different based on a nearly 10 year old relationship.”
In the last two months, Kearney’s attorneys have filed records with the court regarding the depositions of former President Bill Powers, former football coach Mack Brown, and former athletic director DeLoss Dodds.
The university has persuaded the court to seal the depositions themselves for now, but even the brief deposition certification forms hint at more trouble, with Brown revising his interview to make clear that “no arrest or issues brought to me (sic).”
According to the AP, Kearney’s lawyers are willing to discuss a settlement, which could be expensive, given the $475,000 salary she was set to receive back when the scandal erupted in December 2012.
The University of Texas has shown an inclination to settle lawsuits once that is its only hope of avoiding embarrassment. In November, the university settled a lawsuit filed by a student who had been expelled by university President Gregory Fenves personally, after the daughter of a major donor filed a sexual misconduct complaint that the university’s own Title IX officials determined to be unfounded.
Reliving the Applewhite case could prove embarrassing for several reasons. For one, the UT athletics department handled the case in secret at the time, allowing Applewhite to remain on staff so long as he went to a couple of counseling sessions.
For another, although Dodds said at the time that the affair was a consensual one-night stand, and there’s no indication to the contrary, the student trainer’s version of the story has never been made public.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement bringing more attention to power imbalances in these matters, the full story could raise questions about the university’s characterization and handling of the matter.
The university’s board of regents wasn’t told of the affair until an emergency meeting called four years after the fact. That discussion among regents, which was presumably recorded according to the requirements of Texas law, features at least one regent “slut-shaming” the female trainer.
It could also prove embarrassing for certain politicians, such as state Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, who didn’t “understand why this should be the subject of a Board of Regents’ meeting.”
“My perspective — as a senator, a Texas Ex and especially as a woman — is that I believe the track coach was dealt with fairly because that was an ongoing relationship that violated certain rules and policies,” Zaffirini said then. “The case of Major Applewhite is totally different. My understanding is it was one night, not a person under his supervision … there’s no point of comparison.”
Indeed, Kearney acknowledges breaking a rule requiring disclosure of relationships with people under one’s supervision. But by the time she was fired for the relationship a decade later, that was a moot point.
Throughout the period in question, gay marriage in Texas was illegal. Now the proudly liberal university finds itself in the uncomfortable position of explaining whether or not its policies and practices treat adulterous heterosexual affairs more favorably than committed lesbian relationships.
Kearney’s lawyers have reportedly notified the university that they want to take depositions of two other administrators who dealt with the matters. The parties have all declined to comment on the latest developments.
Jon Cassidy can be reached at [email protected]