Racist, misogynistic slurs, discrimination noted in lawsuit against Sun Belt Conference
Attorneys for accuser confirm settlement agreement with conference
Logo courtesy of Sun Belt Conference
Editor’s note: This article contains links to uncensored deposition testimony that includes racist and misogynistic language.
NEW ORLEANS – Officials at the top levels of a college sports conference headquartered in New Orleans used or tolerated racist and misogynistic slurs that created a hostile work environment, according to recent filings in a 2021 lawsuit by a Black former employee that was settled this week.
Attorneys for plaintiff Patrick Hairston, who accused the conference of racial discrimination after his 2020 firing, confirmed that they reached a settlement agreement with the conference Monday, but would not comment on the terms of the agreement. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Sun Belt website included the administrators named in Hairston’s suit in its staff directory.
The Sun Belt Conference, which includes the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the University of Louisiana Monroe, had been set to go to federal trial over allegations made by Hairston, a former associate commissioner and chief compliance officer. Hairston was fired in April 2020, a move his attorney called “the culmination of a toxic workplace that discriminated against him because of his race.”
Attorneys for the Sun Belt Conference denied allegations of racial discrimination, claiming that the decision to fire Hairston was made by Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill, who is Black, over Hairston’s lagging work performance. But filings by Hairston’s legal team depict an office culture with a pattern of racially discriminatory behavior, where Gill’s top deputies frequently used and condoned racist slurs, including the N-word, and Black employees were shut out of decision-making and given menial tasks.
Neither a spokesperson for the Sun Belt Conference nor the league’s attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
The Sun Belt Conference includes 14 member schools with Division I football teams mostly across the South. The conference’s offices are located at the Superdome in New Orleans. Sun Belt supports more than 5,500 student-athletes across 18 NCAA sports, according to its website.
In 2019, after the conference hired Gill — the first Black commissioner of a conference that competes at college football’s highest level — Kathy Keene, a white deputy commissioner who had sought the top job, orchestrated “a hostile takeover of Hairston’s responsibilities,” the suit alleged. Despite Hairston’s good performance reviews, the organization fired him the following year, claiming his position had been eliminated, and later replaced him with a white employee.
“I played a very important piece in … the Sun Belt office, but I was invisible,” Hairston said in a deposition.
Attorneys for the Sun Belt Conference countered that it was ultimately Gill who decided to fire Hairston over poor performance issues and the added “complexities” Sun Belt faced due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“As the first African-American Commissioner in (Division I football), I can tell you without hesitation that I do not discriminate or allow discrimination in the workplace,” Gill said in a statement to NOLA.com in Oct. 2021.
In public, the conference took a stance against racism and discrimination following mass protests in the summer of 2020 against racism and police brutality — a movement that struck a chord on college campuses and their sports teams, where researchers have found racial inequities among student-athletes. Months after it fired Hairston, Sun Belt established a racial equity initiative that year called “Be the Change,” which included a civil rights trail designed around its member institutions and voter registration drives.
But at work, high-level white administrators at Sun Belt regularly used and tacitly condoned racial, ethnic and gendered slurs, according to depositions filed by Hairston’s legal team. Attorneys for Sun Belt sought to keep those depositions out of court, arguing they were hearsay, though the federal judge presiding over the suit had previously determined the evidence was sufficient to move the issue forward in a trial.
In one instance, a former assistant commissioner named Scott Connors used both the N-word and a derogatory word for women to refer to a young Black woman, John McElwain, a white former employee, recalled hearing through another Sun Belt official, Herbert Carter, who “did not censor himself” when recounting the story.
McElwain said Carter, the conference’s longtime chief financial officer, used the N-word in front of other colleagues and mocked Vietnamese people. In other instances, Carter and Connors used derogatory terms to describe the genitalia of female workers of Indian or Middle Eastern descent at a Subway restaurant they frequented.
Carter also attributed Gill’s hiring by Sun Belt Conference president Mark Becker to what he called “Black s—,” Keene confirmed in her deposition, though Keene said she wasn’t aware of other racist terms used by Carter.
“He was just trying to get me to not worry about the fact that I didn’t get the job, and to let it go,” Keene said.
McElwain said that former Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, who retired in 2019, also told him that he believed Keene, the conference’s white deputy commissioner, was racist, bringing McElwain and Carter into his office at one point to ask them their opinion of Keene.
Benson told attorneys in his own deposition that he never saw Keene mistreat employees due to their race. But he did observe that when the conference was actively trying to diversify its predominantly white staff, Keene pushed back against the hiring of certain Black candidates.
In an affidavit, Alexandria Price — another Black employee who was the Sun Belt’s championships coordinator from 2013 to 2015 — described a similar toxic workplace environment, with “curse words” and “vulgar language involving women’s genitalia” being thrown about. Price stated that, as with Hairston, Keene intentionally excluded Price from key meetings relating to her work duties. Price also observed that she was “pigeon-holed” in her job, while her supervisors fostered and developed her white counterparts.
“[Keene] treated me as though I was inferior and incapable of handling small tasks,” Price stated. “[Keene] was largely dismissive of me.”
Neither Carter nor Keene immediately responded to requests for comment Tuesday.
Gill told an attorney in his September deposition that he was “not sure” if he would launch investigations over the racist language alleged in other depositions, and had not discussed those incidents with Carter or Keene.
The organization also terminated three other minorities, the complaint stated, and a fourth left voluntarily.
After Hairston’s firing, he grew anxious over how to secure another job, given the relatively niche specialization of his career.
“I was worrying about how I’m going to take care of my family, about how I’m going to get my next position similar to what I had at the Sun Belt Conference, knowing that there’s only nine other conferences that had a similar position, and also too in the heat of the pandemic where people were not hiring,” he said.
At one point, Hairston — who holds a masters and doctorate degree, and worked at the NCAA and several universities before his stint at Sun Belt — took up long shifts at an Amazon facility while holding down another job at West Virginia University.
In spring of 2021, Hairston also taught a course as an adjunct in the University of South Carolina’s Department of Sport and Entertainment Management. The focus of the class, as the school featured in an article, was diversity, inclusion and equity in sport management.
“I want to help students to begin viewing societal and management issues through a different lens — especially the diversity, equity and inclusion lens — because one day they will be in charge, and they will have the ability to create a more equitable industry,” Hairston said at the time.
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