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After affair and resignation, Texas track coach seeks justice

Coach Beverly Kearney

By Joe Sterling and Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) — The University of Texas women’s track coach who resigned under fire after the disclosure of an affair with a female student a decade ago doesn’t understand why she was targeted for punishment and questions whether she’s being treated fairly.

“Is it because I have a disability? Is it because I’m black? Is it because I’m female? Is it because I’m successful? Is it now because of my sexual preference?” Coach Bev Kearney asked on CNN’s “Starting Point” Tuesday. “I had to finally come to embrace not knowing why, and I had to embrace it because the more you try to figure out why, the harder it is to forgive.”

A head coach at Texas since 1993, Kearney is held in great esteem in the track world. She led the Longhorns to six national titles and was inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007.

She is widely admired for her gritty resolve to walk again after she was partially paralyzed in an auto accident.

But things turned sour for Kearney last year when the university learned of an affair in 2002 with a female student. The revelation came at just about the same time Kearney was discussing a pay raise and a contract extension.

Told the university was going to fire her, Kearney — the first African-American to serve as a head coach at Texas — resigned Saturday.

Asked by CNN’s Soledad O’Brien whether people around her and maybe even her former lover, a one-time student, now age 30, “ratted her out,” Kearney said, “That’s fair.”

The affair began in August 2002, which was not long after the university put a policy into its handbook about consensual relationships between staff members and students. Kearney said she never really thought about the relationship from a legal perspective.

“You know, you get caught up in the emotional and the physical components of a relationship, and the last thing you’re doing is thinking rationally,” she said.

The relationship dissolved after Kearney was paralyzed in an SUV accident in December 2002, and the coach spent many months in recovery.

“As the accident occurred, you know, there was a transformation that went on within me that really changed my perspective on life.”

The policy said that employees in positions of authority must report such relations to “eliminate conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety” or be subject to discipline.

In an e-mail to CNN on Sunday, Patti Ohlendorf, head of the university’s legal affairs department, said: “In intercollegiate athletics and the coaching profession, it is unprofessional and unacceptable for a head coach to carry on an intimate relationship with a student-athlete that he or she is coaching. We told Coach Kearney … that such a relationship crosses the line of trust placed in the head coach for all aspects of the athletic program and the best interests of the student-athletes in the program.”

Ohlendorf denied Sunday that gender played a role in the university’s review and said she knows of no other “UT head coach who has entered into such a relationship with a student-athlete on his or her team.”

“I didn’t know that there was even a rule on the book, and I think the rule had come into play maybe a year prior to the relationship, and I don’t ever even remember reading such a rule, but you know, it talked about disclosure,” Kearney said.

“Throughout the whole process, the disclosure part was never brought to me as to why I was being terminated. I was being terminated as a result of the relationship, and at that point, I said then, ‘Has everyone else been terminated as a point of reference of having had a relationship?’ and the answer was… we don’t view those the same as yours.”

Derek Howard, Kearney’s attorney, said Monday that he and the coach were discussing her legal options, including a gender and race bias lawsuit. He planned to file open-records requests with the school this week, he said. He claimed that male coaches and professors at the school had similar relationships and weren’t punished.

“I don’t see how you distinguish between the value of one student over another because of what they do, whether it’s a musician, a musical student, a business student or an athlete,” Kearney told CNN.

“I think the one thing that I hired an attorney for is not to deny, because the moment it was brought to my attention, I openly admitted to its existence, and so it was never to deny, it was just to guarantee I was given equal treatment because I had grown to not trust the university that I served in terms of equal treatment.”

Kearney said she never denied she was wrong and agrees she made a mistake. She just wants fairness.

“I feel like I’ve been a casualty within this whole process, not because I was innocent but all I’ve asked for was fair due process and equal treatment as opposed to how everyone else that had been under similar circumstances have had,” she said.

She said she’s “never stepped outside the lines” in her career.

“Even in this situation, I self-corrected the situation myself. I admitted to it when brought to me and even after I admitted it, they sent me through an eight-week investigation for something, for other things and ended up firing me for something that I admitted to from the beginning. Why does someone have to suffer through all of that and they even called me in on December 26, the 10th anniversary of the accident, to fire me.”

A CNN story in August profiled the coach, who learned to walk again after she was injured in the accident that killed two of her friends. Thrown more than 50 feet from an SUV, she suffered extensive spinal injuries that left her partially paralyzed. Kearney said she never doubted her ability to walk again and continued to lead her team from her hospital bed.

“When they told me I was paralyzed, it went in one ear and out the next … because I had to get up and coach,” she said.

Track practices were recorded and then played for Kearney on a VCR in her hospital room.

“Because I was an intuitive coach … whatever it is you need to do, I can describe it in a way that you internalize it and you feel it without me having to demonstrate it,” she said in the August story.

Now, she may face an uphill trek in court.

“I don’t want anybody to lose their job. I don’t want to create harm to anyone but I do want to bring to light that you don’t get to arbitrarily administer your rules and decide who is punished at what levels because of something that you don’t like, because you never know if it’s because of that particular situation or is it because of the fact that you may be harboring some type of ill will towards that individual.”

Kearney said “everyone should deserve an opportunity to have fair treatment based upon your policies, whether something is morally acceptable to an individual or not, our law says it’s about the application of the law, and then at some point, there ought to be some form of consideration for that person’s past history, they didn’t find a prior relationship or a subsequent relationship.”

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