The day after the women's volleyball team at Virginia Commonwealth University finished its best season in school history, the coach was fired.
James Finley, the coach, says he was fired because he's openly gay. After GayRVA.com first reported Finley's charges last week, the story went national — ESPN, the Huffington Post and others reported the coach's assertion that his contract wasn't renewed because the school's new athletic director, Ed McLaughlin, was uncomfortable with Finley's sexual orientation.
While the university investigates, Finley says he wants his job back. By most accounts, he's credited with resurrecting a dormant volleyball program — in Finley's university biography online, former Athletic Director Norwood Teague calls him "one of the most committed coaches I have ever been around." This year's squad finished with a 25-6 record.
McLaughlin's office says in a statement that the decision was based on a need for "a different direction and different leadership to attain our goals of achieving at an elite level nationally."
That makes no sense, Finley says, given his team's success and positive momentum. Style spoke with Finley by phone on Sunday.
Style: Was it a difficult decision for you to go public with this grievance?
Finley: Yeah, it was a hard decision to do this because you don't know how the end result is going to be and how it's going to affect my marketability as a coach. … I just thought, the athletic department has a lot of student athletes who are gay and lesbian … I can't walk away and leave this for someone else to deal with, because it needs to be a safe environment, and I think that's what VCU represents and stands for.
What makes you so sure that this decision essentially came down to your sexual orientation?
One of the things that happened is after Ed had met with me and then met with the team, the team called me and, you know, they were together and put [me] on speaker phone. And the first thing that my team captain said was, "Coach, they let you go because you're gay, didn't they?" That's the conclusion that my team came up with.
It was just so stark — the incredible difference there was in how he interacted with the other teams and how he did not interact with volleyball at all. And here we are, one of the premier sports that represents VCU so well. And then, you know, over the whole semester he never came to my office, he never asked for a meeting with me. When I would say hi to him in the hallway he would just look at me and walk on and not acknowledge me.
Do you have any faith in President Michael Rao to make a fair decision given that it is essentially his hire [Rao hired McLaughlin to replace departing athletic director Teague earlier this summer] who made the decision to fire you?
He's in a very hard position, I know. I know that he definitely wants to make sure people understand the core value of diversity, and antidiscrimination is one of the most important values at VCU. But the other side of the coin is he just hired somebody, and it's hard to say, "Hmm, maybe I hired the wrong person" or "This guy is out of line." So, I don't know. I think a lot is going to bear down on what the report says. So I'm hoping that the determination is in my favor and if it is, then I'm very optimistic that Dr. Rao will step up and do the right thing.