Judge gives green light to lawsuit from Virginia Tech soccer player benched for refusing to kneel

More than two years after a Virginia Tech (VT) soccer player alleged her coach retaliated against her for opposing an on-field Black Lives Matter demonstration, a federal judge has ruled on whether or not her lawsuit can proceed.

Kiersten Hening, a walk-on turned starter, was ready to commence her junior year with the VT women’s soccer team the Hokies at the Sept. 12, 2020 home opener against the University of Virginia (UVA). However, her relationship with Coach Charles “Chugger” Adair began a downward spiral when she chose not to kneel along with other starters on the field in a show of support for Black Lives Matter several months after George Floyd died while in police custody.

After filing suit in 2021 that Adair had violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, federal Judge Thomas Cullen announced Dec. 2 that the lawsuit can proceed to trial and wrote, “While the US Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit may not have addressed the novel factual circumstance presented here–i.e., a college coach allegedly retaliating against a player for refusing to kneel with her coaches and teammates in support of perceived unity and social justice–the core constitutional principle is both clearly established and fundamental to a free society, and especially to an institution of higher education.”

BizPacReview reported at the time the lawsuit was filed that Hening alleged Adair berated her during halftime of that game for “being selfish and individualistic” and for “doing her own thing.” In the next game she had been removed from the starting lineup, told to play an unfamiliar position, and was allegedly yelled at after the game. By the third game her playing time had been dramatically cut and on Sept. 20 she announced she was leaving the team because of Adair’s alleged “campaign of abuse and retaliation.”

According to the suit, “Coach Adair’s tirade was so extreme, so personally directed at Hening, and so disconnected from the game itself, that her teammates approached her afterward to comfort her and express their shock.”

Cullen included points on Adair’s believed retaliatory coaching decisions in his statement and wrote, “Hening, who had been a major on-field contributor for two years prior to the 2020 season, also asserts that Adair removed her from the starting lineup for the next two games and drastically reduced her playing time in those games because she engaged in this protected First Amendment activity. As a result, Hening resigned from the team after the third game of the season.”

“As a freshman,” he continued, “Hening averaged 76 minutes of playing time; as a sophomore, nearly 88. But during the Clemson game [the next game after the kneeling incident], Hening only played 29 minutes, and, at the UNC game, just 5.”

The initial suit sought a jury trial, reinstatement to the team, unspecified compensation for damages along with a reimbursement for legal fees. Since that time, Hening has amended her request seeking a court order requiring Adair “undergo First Amendment training.”

Adair had challenged the claims of retaliation and sought a dismissal of the suit in part by noting that two other players who chose not to kneel had not faced any reduction in playing time, but was denied. As originally reported, at least one of Hening’s teammates who stood while other starters kneeled was on scholarship, and her parents had warned the coach against taking action against the young woman.

“Ultimately,” Cullen stated, “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.”

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Kevin Haggerty

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