Details emerge in fired volleyball coaches’ lawsuit

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Courtesy of Delaware Athletics
Former volleyball coaches Bonnie Kenny (left) and Cindy Gregory (right) were fired Oct. 13, 2016 after 14 seasons leading the Delaware program.

BY , MANAGING SPORTS EDITOR
AND , ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

Delaware has filed a motion to dismiss the cases filed against the university by former volleyball coaches Bonnie Kenny and Cindy Gregory. The motion was sent from the university to both Kenny and Gregory on Oct. 23.

The coaches filed separate lawsuits against the University of Delaware, Athletic Director Chrissi Rawak and former Human Resources Director Thomas LaPenta in mid-August. The suits claim that when the coaches were fired last October, the university violated their due process rights (both generally and based on the university’s nondiscrimination policy) and their equal protection rights, discriminating against them on the basis of age, sexual orientation and marital status. Former head coach Kenny, 54 at the time of the suit, and former associate head coach Gregory, 55 at the time of the suit, married in 2013.

Kenny and Gregory were fired on Oct. 13, 2016, following a 14-year career in which they made four trips to the NCAA tournament and won five consecutive CAA regular season titles from 2007-2011. The coaches’ on-court success, however, was stained by a consistent stream of off-the-court issues. Between 2002 and 2016, 34 players left the Delaware volleyball program for non-graduation reasons, many citing a “toxic environment” in which the coaches led through manipulation and intimidation. Kenny and Gregory have yet to be hired elsewhere.

In May, The Review published an investigative report detailing the experiences of these former players. Kenny and Gregory’s team had lost seven consecutive games prior to their firings, but former players did not believe the losing streak prompted the dismissal. The athletic department has not publicly commented on the details of Kenny and Gregory’s termination. However, information provided in the lawsuits and Delaware’s response sheds light on what led to the coaches’ removal and what followed.

Kenny and Gregory were first put on administrative leave Oct. 5, 2016, following a meeting between Kenny, Rawak and LaPenta. Kenny was informed that a parent complaint had been logged regarding her treatment of an unnamed player. Kenny had received a phone call from this parent just two days earlier, in which the parent claimed that she pushed his daughter in Panera Bread, a restaurant on Newark’s Main Street, forced her to lift weights when she was sick and isolated her during a drill at practice, among other accusations.

Delaware’s brief states that this was not the first complaint filed against Kenny.

“I know how hard the last investigation was for you and our hands are tied and we have to investigate,” Rawak said during the October 2016 meeting, according to Kenny’s lawsuit.

After being placed on administrative leave, Kenny and Gregory were given the chance to resign with salary and benefits or, as Kenny’s lawsuit puts it, “go away quietly and make this a peaceful exit.” The other option was to remain on a paid leave of absence during an investigation of the complaint. On Oct. 11, 2016, Kenny’s counsel told the university that she and Gregory welcomed the investigation.

According to former players, Kenny’s program was previously investigated by the NCAA following the 2013 season. One-on-one meetings between players and either Kenny or Gregory, which former players described as “terrifying,” were banned following the investigation.

Two days after Kenny and Gregory said they welcomed the investigation, they were terminated without cause as permitted in their contracts, according to Delaware’s response.

As part of the university’s motion to dismiss, which was submitted on Oct. 23, Delaware submitted a copy of Kenny’s contract, which began in 2011 and expired in 2015, but included the option to be extended. The contract was either extended on a yearly basis or renegotiated, but Kenny’s most recent contract was set to expire June 30, 2020, according to the lawsuit.

How it Happened

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According to both her lawsuit and Delaware’s brief, the university paid Kenny three years of salary following the date of termination, per the terms of her contract.

Beginning in 2011, Kenny received an annual salary of $120,000, with the potential to earn “annual performance-based increases.” These increases could total an annual raise of seven percent each year. Had Kenny never earned the performance increases from 2011-2015, she would have received $600,000. With the seven percent annual raises each year, Kenny could earn up to $690,008.68 over those five years.

The terms of any agreements beyond 2015 have not been disclosed, but under the terms of the contract that expired in 2015, The Review approximates Kenny would have received between $360,000 and $504,918.63 for the three years following her termination.

Kenny and Gregory allege that their due process rights, under the 14th Amendment, were violated. According to Kenny’s contract, however, she could be terminated without cause at any time, provided the university paid her three years of salary.

The day following the initial meeting between Kenny, Rawak and LaPenta, Kenny requested a copy of the parent complaint, which she believed to be the reason behind the investigation and her and Gregory’s subsequent firing.

The former coaches did not receive a copy of the complaint until March 2017, when Delaware responded to Kenny’s allegation of discrimination. At that time, Delaware cited a losing record and three previous losing seasons as nondiscriminatory reasons for their firings.

Kenny and Gregory claim discrimination based on age. Their lawsuits list five former Delaware female head coaches who have been released over the past 15 years, all of whom were over the age of 40 when let go. They argue that all the female coaches hired by Rawak are under the age of 40, with the exception of women’s basketball coach Natasha Adair, 45.

The only other female coach that Rawak has hired besides Adair, since taking the athletic director position in May, 2016, is Sara Matthews (38) –– Kenny’s replacement.

“Mere replacement by a younger employee is not dispositive of age discrimination,” the university’s motion to dismiss the case states.

The coaches also claim discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Of the five female coaches released over the past 15 years, four are believed to be gay, according to Kenny and Gregory’s lawsuit.

“Bonnie [Kenny] and Cindy [Gregory] citing sexual orientation discrimination and ageism for the reason for their firing is a severely transparent attempt to flip the script and make them look victimized, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” a former player, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

Additionally, Kenny and Gregory argue that, unlike the spouses of other terminated, heterosexual, male coaches, like Dave Brock (football) and Monté Ross (men’s basketball), Gregory did not receive health coverage for the time period after termination. Her spouse, Kenny, received her base pay, but Gregory’s health insurance was terminated Jan. 31, according to the lawsuits.

The coaches contest that as a product of their wrongful termination, they lost additional revenue streams from Club Delaware — a private youth volleyball club that they operated using Delaware’s facilities — and a volleyball camp they independently operated at Delaware facilities.

The university informed Kenny and Gregory on Oct. 27, 2016 that Club Delaware was no longer permitted to use Delaware athletic facilities. The Review found that on Nov. 5, 2016, a tryout for Club Delaware was taking place inside the Bob Carpenter Center. Former Operations Director Brian Toron, who was promoted to interim head coach after the Kenny and Gregory’s firings, was present at the tryout.

According to former players, recruits were required to attend Kenny’s summer camp in the weeks leading up to the start of preseason, but at a cost. In 2015, the four-day camp cost $550 for commuter athletes and $595 for athletes staying overnight, according to a camp brochure.

“That’s one of the things that she says, ‘I’m offering you this scholarship but you have to pay to come to my volleyball camp,’” Liz Brock, who was a freshman on the team in 2012, said.

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Courtesy of Delaware Athletics
Former players say all freshman joining Kenny’s program were required to attend her summer volleyball camp.

In their lawsuit sent to the university in August, the coaches claim that their removal from Delaware “damaged the good names and reputations of Kenny and Gregory in a manner and to a degree which made it impossible for them to secure comparable employment in the coaching profession.”

They allege Delaware shared information with The Review in a “post hoc attempt to justify UD’s actions in terminating Kenny and Gregory by manufacturing new ‘evidence’ justifying the effort to extract resignation.” The story, “Psychological Warfare,” was published six days after Kenny and Gregory notified Delaware of their right to sue. They claim the story further prevented them from obtaining comparable employment.

In their response brief, Delaware did not address this topic. The department declined opportunities to comment on the reasoning behind Kenny and Gregory’s firings prior to The Review’s publication in May.

Former players told The Review that they sent letters to former athletic directors, expressing their concerns with Kenny and Gregory’s program. They believe their complaints had been documented over the years and accumulated in a “case file,” but none of the previous athletic directors –– Edgar Johnson, Bernard Muir, Samantha Huge, Eric Ziady, Matthew Robinson –– took action.

“I’m sure this new [athletic director] came, opened up their case file, was wondering why they’re getting paid so much money for losing so much … and just pulled the plug,” Karina Evans, a player who left the team after the 2013 season, said in October, 2016. “I’m totally Chrissi’s champion here.”

Please contact Teddy Gelman at tgelman@udel.edu and Brandon Holveck at bholveck@udel.edu for comments or requests for further inquiries.

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    SWJ 8 months

    As a former friend and CLHS class ‘79 varsity volleyball teammate, I am saddened to see this story about Cindy and her wife. Cindy was always intense with her training, even back then, which seemed to set her apart from the rest of us. We’d all struggle with “the leaper” machine, and the revealing progress chart our coach posted behind it, but I think Cindy loved that part of it, like the training was better than playing the sport itself, maybe? Even at 5’5”, she jumped higher than any one else, but this didn’t necessarily make her the most talented hitter. Maybe this is what is behind this mess, that somewhere along the way, the joy of playing the sport gets bogged down by over-training, and not letting natural talent and the joy of sport rule the day. It’s sad reading about how many girls have had that joy spoiled by Cindy and her wife’s coaching method. Pity.

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