By Carey Phillips
Less than a year after the Western Carolina University Board of Trustees refused to approve her contract as women’s basketball coach, Heather Kearney has filed a federal lawsuit against the school and the University of North Carolina System.
The suit primarily centers around claims that male coaches are allowed to treat their athletes in a way that is not acceptable for female coaches to act.
She requests reinstatement, lost wages and benefits, compensatory damages for loss of employment, emotional pain and suffering, humiliation, embarrassment and damage to her reputation as well as punitive damages.
“Western Carolina University does not comment on pending litigation,” WCU spokesman Bill Studenc said. “However, the institution will vigorously defend itself against the claims presented in the plaintiff’s recent filing.”
Kearney, who had been associate head coach at High Point the prior two seasons, signed a five-year contract to become coach of WCU’s women’s basketball team May 16, 2019. The contract had a base annual salary of $145,000.
The Board of Trustees refused to approve the contract the next month.
Shortly after her hiring by Athletic Director Randy Eaton, Kearney named Darcie Vincent to her coaching staff. Vincent was former head coach at Appalachian State, and Kearney served under her as an assistant coach there.
On Sept. 5, 2014, it was reported that Vincent, Kearney and another staff member were no longer employed by ASU.
According to the suit, Eaton, Chancellor Kelli Brown and members of the Board of Trustees received a letter from a group of former ASU players complaining of treatment they had received from the Appalachian coaching staff. The suit said the complaints were repeats of complaints made against the ASU coaching staff five years earlier.
The suit says that Eaton and WCU’s in-house counsel vetted the complaints and recommended that the Board of Trustees approve the coaching contract.
While the complaints are not detailed in the suit, it does list “risks of gender stereotypes,” starting with, “A female is expected to behave in a manner that is consistent with stereotypes about females.”
The suit goes on to say that “Societal expectations of females include that they identify with the roles of family caretaker/nurturer, not the role of ‘leader,’ such as a head coach.”
The suit says that students, parents and administrators evaluate the behavior of female coaches differently than that of male coaches.
The complaint letter mentions terms including “bullied,” “targeted,” and “intimidated.”
“There are common complaints made by student-athletes toward female coaches that include claims of discussions about weight/fitness or claims of ‘pressure to play injured,’” the suit says.
The suit states that at WCU men are head coaches of 58 percent of women’s teams and comprise 66 percent of assistant coaching positions on women’s teams.
“WCU employs several male coaches that have been coaching over several years and who have engaged in coaching methods and behavior that would be, at best, similar to, or at worst, more punitive than any coaching methods used by Coach Kearney,” the suit states.
Male coaches the suit specifically list that Kearney was not allowed to coach in the manner of Bobby Moranda (baseball), Jesse Norman (men’s and women’s cross country and track), Mark Speir (football), Mark Prosser (men’s basketball), Bret Beaver (women’s tennis), Jim Clift (softball) and Chad Miller (women’s soccer).
According to the suit, Kearney and Vincent are gay and “as such, are at an even higher risk of complaints based on stereotypes.”
“The complaint letter mentioned that Coach Kearney and Coach Vincent were at one time a ‘conjugal couple’ and alleged their loyalty was to each other rather than to the university or students,” the suit states.
Kearney is represented by law firms in Greensboro and Des Moines, Iowa.
Kiley Hill, associate head coach at Southern Mississippi, was named WCU women’s basketball coach in July.
Eaton was ousted as athletic director in December.