A federal judge has ruled that a former women’s soccer player from Virginia Tech can continue her lawsuit against her ex-coach for allegedly benching her after she refused to kneel during a public statement from a social justice organization.
The lawsuit was filed by Kiersten Hening against her former coach Charles Adair. According to Hening, she refused to kneel in support of social justice initiatives including Black Lives Matter (BLM), which resulted in Adair violating her First Amendment rights.
Prior to the team’s season opener against the University of Virginia (UVA) in 2020, a “Unity Statement” issued by the Atlantic Coast Conference’s (ACC) Committee for Racial and Social Justice was read over the loudspeakers. Hening and two of her teammates refused to kneel.
At halftime, Adair “berated” her in front of her teammates for “bitching and moaning” and “doing [her] own thing,” according to the ruling issued by federal Judge Thomas Cullen (pdf).
In the two years before the incident, Hening had been a major on-field contributor. But in the 2020 season, she was removed from the starting lineup for the next two games. In addition, her playing time in these games was drastically reduced, her suit claims. Hening resigned from the team after the third game.
Adair filed a motion for summary judgment. He argued that Hening has not presented a “triable claim” of First Amendment violation because she failed to establish that the coach took an action that adversely affected her rights or that there was a causal relationship between Hening refusing to kneel and Adair’s actions thereafter.
After hearing oral arguments on Dec. 2 from both parties, the court decided to deny Adair’s motion and “allow the case to proceed to trial.”
The Conflict and Legality
In the ruling, Cullen points out that prior to the UVA game, Hening took part in 40 games on the women’s team. As a freshman, she averaged 76 minutes of playing time per game, which increased to almost 88 minutes as a sophomore.
But during the game against Clemson University, which was the game immediately after the incident, Hening only played 29 minutes. In the next game against the University of North Carolina, she only got 5 minutes of playing time.
“Ultimately, Adair may convince a jury that this coaching decision was based solely on Hening’s poor play during the UVA game, but the court, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Hening, cannot reach that conclusion as a matter of law,” Cullen wrote.
The lawsuit, filed last year, accused Adair of wanting to change the names on the jerseys of the players to the names of alleged victims of racial injustice. The coach wanted players to extend support to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd in the 2020 season opener game.
During team meetings, Hening objected to the changes and disagreed with aspects of the BLM movement, for which she was allegedly branded as a racist by some members. Adair had implemented the changes following a mandated diversity training order from the ACC.