NEW ORLEANS – A former associate commissioner of the New Orleans-based college sports league, where the University of Louisiana at Lafayette competes, accuses his former employer of racial discrimination and breach of contract, according to a lawsuit filed more early this month.
Patrick Hairston – who spent four years at the Sun Belt Conference and was responsible for ensuring member schools comply with regulations – was removed from his post in April 2020, and his bosses said his post had been deleted due to budget concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the lawsuit.
But Hairston, who is black, said conference officials immediately hired a white woman to fill her post. Three other racial minorities were quickly fired and a fourth left voluntarily citing a toxic working environment for minorities, according to the lawsuit filed on October 8 in the Civil District Court of the parish of Orleans.
The conference commissioner released a statement Thursday denying that the league exhibits racial discrimination.
Hairston’s lawsuit, prepared by attorney Mark Montiel, acknowledges Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill is a black man. Yet Hairston’s petition alleges he caught the attention of Gill’s top assistant, a white woman named Kathy Keene, almost immediately after Gill took office in 2019.
Despite receiving high marks on his job performance reviews, Hairston said he began to be excluded from meetings relevant to his duties as conference compliance officer. Information once provided to him now went directly to his superiors, prompting him to ask what was going on, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that Keene told Hairston that Gill was not happy with Hairston’s work and that she would not have offered “direction or solutions” when Hairston asked how he could fix the problem.
Ultimately, Hairston was fired on April 30 last year, shortly before three other racial minorities were fired as well, the lawsuit added.
In an interview Thursday, Montiel said the budgetary reasons cited by the conference ringed hollow, given the league did not downsize and simply replaced Hairston, 50, along with the other licensees.
Montiel also said Hairston later got a job on an Amazon delivery service assembly line to continue to financially support his family, who had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Before filing his complaint, Hairston filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission conducted a preliminary investigation and wrote him a letter in July in which it would not come out in favor or against his complaint.
Hairston was entitled to sue for damages in civil court upon receipt of this letter.
In addition to racial discrimination, the complainant seeks damages for allegedly being forced to quit his job despite being under contract with the Sun Belt. The lawsuit also alleges unfair business practices and a debt of over $ 23,000 to Hairston because the conference did not fully pay his vacation pay and waited two months to partially compensate him.
In his statement Thursday, Gill said he could not comment on the legal issues or the contract of a former employee.
Nonetheless, the statement added: “As the first African American Football Commissioner (Division I), I can tell you without hesitation that I do not discriminate or allow discrimination in the workplace.”
The statement continued, âIt is my responsibility to ensure that our conference has employees who perform their work at the level required for a (Division I football) conference. Compliance is at the heart of everything we do in college athletics and is vitally important to our student-athletes, coaches and the schools attending the conference.
âWe value all of our team for the skills and experience they bring to their positions at all levels of the Sun Belt. Employment decisions are made on this basis regardless of race.
Montiel declined to say if he had copies of any communications that supported Hairston’s allegations of racial discrimination. Nonetheless, without giving further details, Montiel said: “I feel comfortable saying that I think there are things that are going to come out in this case that are troubling.”
About a dozen universities are members of the 45-year-old Sun Belt, 10 of which play Division I football. ULL and the University of Louisiana-Monroe are the two state schools participating in the conference, headquartered at the Caesars Superdome. The UN was a former member.