Higher Education

Ray Carter | July 26, 2021

OU coaches say players can be disciplined over politics

In their motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by former player Kylee McLaughlin, University of Oklahoma’s women’s volleyball coaches Lindsey Gray Walton and Kyle Walton say they are allowed to discipline players for political opinions because political disagreements can disrupt team unity.

In their motion to dismiss McLaughlin’s lawsuit, the coaches do not deny that they forced players to engage in political discussions that led to the alleged disruption of “team unity.”

“While Plaintiff was free to make bigoted statements, she was not free from the consequences of how her teammates perceived those statements,” the Waltons’ motion states. “The First Amendment cannot force her teammates to trust Plaintiff or desire to play with her. Consequently, the Complaint makes clear that Coach Walton was within her rights to cultivate a winning ‘team atmosphere by ensuring the players that ‘trust’ each other would be on the court.”

The filing does not list any specific “bigoted statements” made by McLaughlin and does not deny key claims in McLaughlin’s lawsuit.

McLaughlin’s lawsuit against OU and the Waltons says that during the spring 2020 COVID-19 shutdown “the schedule for the O.U. women’s volleyball team changed dramatically” as coaches “for several months, emphasized discussions about white privilege and social justice rather than coaching volleyball.”

During that period, members of the women’s volleyball team were required to watch the documentary “13th.” On June 11, 2020, McLaughlin’s lawsuit says Kyle Walton asked McLaughlin “to give her opinion on the video.” While saying slavery was wrong, McLaughlin said she also “expressed her opinion toward the end of the video that it was slanted ‘left’ and that it took some shots at what President Trump said and compared it with beatings of Blacks from the 1960s.”

Within four days of the mandatory team discussion of “13th,” McLaughlin’s lawsuit said coaches and teammates attacked her as “a racist and a homophobe” during a meeting and that Kyle Walton declared he was “not sure I can coach you anymore.”

In her lawsuit, McLaughlin describes herself as “a political conservative, and Christian who expresses her Christian faith through word and deed.”

By Oct. 6, 2020, the lawsuit said that McLaughlin received an email from the University of Oklahoma’s “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” office that required her to “be in an individual ‘Growth Plan’” that “involved a series of online training” about homosexuality and “unlearning” classism, ableism, trans and homosexual negativities, and sexism. She was also “forced to take courses on diversity and identities, communication, intra-culture communications, active listening, and identity of privilege and race.”

McLaughlin’s lawsuit states that no other member of the team was required to undergo an individual growth plan.

During her time at OU, McLaughlin was selected as a captain of the women’s varsity volleyball team for the first two years she was in the program, was first team all-Big 12, and was selected as national player of the week.

After the events of 2020, she ultimately opted to transfer to another university.

McLaughlin was not alone in observing that the documentary “13th” bashed Republicans. Some reviewers explicitly noted the same when it was released with one reviewer stating, “Equating Donald Trump supporters with Deep South lynch mobs isn’t even its most outlandish tactic,” while another reviewer noted that the movie contrasts clips of former President Trump’s speeches with “law enforcement officials opening fire hoses on Civil Rights protestors in the ‘60s.”

In their motion to dismiss, the Waltons continued to portray McLaughlin as a racial bigot despite not citing any specific examples, saying the coaches “did not place Plaintiff in false light” and that McLaughlin’s lawsuit “fails to state anywhere Defendants were aware that Plaintiff was, in fact, not racist or homophobic.”

The coaches’ motion also states that McLaughlin’s lawsuit “makes clear that her teammates believe she was racist and homophobic.”

A separate motion to dismiss McLaughlin’s lawsuit, filed by the Board of Regents for the University of Oklahoma, makes similar statements, calling McLaughlin’s lawsuit an “inimical rant” related to “difficult conversations that followed the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide discussions of social injustice and inequality in America.”

The Regents’ motion says if McLaughlin has been labelled a racist, it’s her own fault for publicly complaining about the treatment she received at OU.

“Plaintiff states that she has been branded a racist and a homophobe by the Defendants,” the Regents’ motion states. “It was only after the Complaint was filed that Plaintiff received the attention complained about: in other words, Plaintiff caused her own harm.”

The coaches also argue that athletes waive some First Amendment free-speech rights as a condition of scholarship acceptance. Citing prior court cases, the filing states that “student athletes must ‘expect intrusions upon normal rights and privileges’” and that one “such restriction is the freedom of speech.”

The coaches’ motion then compares the dispute with McLaughlin to an on-court disagreement over game tactics.

“As it relates to on court conduct, for example, students are not at liberty to question the decisions of the coach via a First Amendment claim,” the Waltons’ motion states.

Because an athlete’s political views may not be shared by other athletes, the expression of such views can be subject to punishment, the coaches’ motion argues, saying that “a player’s speech that potentially disrupts, distracts from, or hurts ‘team unity,’ ‘sportsmanship,’ or the ‘cohesiveness of the team,’ is subject to a coach’s remedial action.”

In their filing, OU Regents refer to an Oklahoma law protecting students’ free-speech rights as “curiously broad.”

The Waltons also argue that as employees of a state university they are “entitled to qualified immunity.”

The Regents’ motion also declares that the U.S. district court “lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the University is an arm of the state of Oklahoma and immune from suit in federal court based on Eleventh Amendment immunity” and that any charges made against the official acts of OU coaches is a “suit against University employees in their official capacity” and therefore “simply a suit against the University.”

The Regents’ motion also claims that McLaughlin “can point to no conduct by the University or its officials in retaliation to on campus free expression.”

Three attorneys are listed as representing both the board of regents and the coaches on the separate motions.

In a response to the OU motions to dismiss, McLaughlin’s attorney argues that federal court is the proper venue to address a case involving free-speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

“Insisting on a federal court to decide federal law claims is not an insignificant consideration,” McLaughlin’s response states.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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