College Soccer Player Suing Coach Who Benched Her After She Refused to Kneel During Protest
Punishing players for kneeling, or not kneeling, is a First Amendment violation at public universities.
Kiersten Hening was a star midfielder on the Virginia Tech women's soccer team—until she refused to kneel in protest with her teammates. Now Hening is suing her coach for pressuring her off of the team and violating her First Amendment rights. As a public university, Virginia Tech is responsible for upholding constitutional rights just like any other government entity.
Tensions began rising in early September 2020 when a Virginia Tech student athlete advisory committee decided that players would wear Black Lives Matter (BLM) shirts, face masks, wristbands, and armbands during warmups.
The initiative was endorsed by most of Hening's teammates. Her coach, Charlie Adair, even proposed replacing the team name on their uniforms with names of victims of police violence.
Hening dissented. While she "supports social justice and believes that black lives matter," according to her lawsuit, "she disagrees with [BLM's] tactics and core tenets of its mission statement, including defunding the police and eliminating the nuclear family."
She voiced those concerns in a text message to her teammates, some of whom sent screenshots to Adair demanding that the coach address "the fact that some of his players were 'racist' and did not support BLM."
The conflict escalated at a September 12 game against the University of Virginia, when Hening's teammates knelt during the reading of a unity pledge developed by the Atlantic Coast Conference's committee for racial and social justice. Hening remained standing, an act she claims sparked a "campaign of abuse."
According to Hening, she was "verbally attacked" by her coach at halftime. Adair "singled her out and directly attacked her, pointing a finger in her face," the lawsuit reads. "He denounced Hening for 'bitching and moaning,' for being selfish and individualistic, and for 'doing her own thing.'"
Adair then benched Hening. Before the incident, she acted as a media spokesperson for the team and had played the most minutes of any athlete on the team. At the September 12 game, however, she played a total of five minutes.
Hening alleges she was continuously targeted by Adair and received considerably fewer minutes of playing time in ensuing games. By September 20, she had reached her breaking point: "Coach Adair's campaign of abuse and retaliation made conditions for Hening so intolerable that she felt compelled to resign," her lawsuit states. "Hening did not want to leave."
In March, Hening filed the federal lawsuit against Adair, claiming his treatment violated her right to expressive conduct protected by the First and 14th Amendments. "Hening's stance was costly—too costly," the suit reads, "Her coach dislikes Hening's political views. Because she refused to kneel, he benched her, subjected her to repeated verbal abuse, and forced her off the team."
Hening is suing Adair for undisclosed compensatory, punitive, and nominal damages. She also is seeking reinstatement on the soccer team and requesting that Adair receives training on the First Amendment.
"There would be a clearer and easier case if the coach said, 'You're off the team because you did the following,' but that's not always how things work in reality," says Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "The question is whether there's retaliation and consequences, and, in this case, the result was her being harassed by the coach."
A similar incident occurred in 2017 when five cheerleaders at Kennesaw State University in Georgia knelt during the national anthem. They were subsequently prohibited from appearing on the field at home games. In 2019, one of the cheerleaders received a $145,000 settlement for the violation of her right to expressive conduct.
The right to protest and the right to abstain when protesting is the popular choice are both equally safeguarded by the First Amendment. "No matter what your views are on kneeling during the national anthem," says Steinbaugh, "when we violate the rights of one person, we jeopardize the rights of everyone."