Former lacrosse coach alleges racial discrimination in suit against Amherst College

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  • Students enter Johnson Chapel on the Amherst College quad to hear former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak, April 24, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2021 9:21:25 PM

AMHERST — The former head coach of the Amherst College men’s lacrosse team has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that school officials discriminated against him, and ultimately fired him, “on the basis of his race.”

Rashad Devoe, a Black man who says he was hired to turn around a racist team culture, is suing the Amherst College board of trustees, provost and dean of the faculty Catherine Epstein, and athletics director Don Faulstick, along with 25 John and Jane Does who allegedly participated in a “civil conspiracy” to damage Devoe’s reputation.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Springfield, alleges that Devoe was wrongfully terminated in June, just over a year into a three-year contract and shortly after reporting a new incident of racism against Black players.

The allegations include civil rights violations, misrepresentations and fraud about Devoe’s employment contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Devoe never had the chance to coach a game for the school. He had replaced head coach Jon Thompson, who was fired in March 2020 over a racist incident involving lacrosse players. The team was put on probation and banned from all official activities until November; the New England Small College Athletic Conference then canceled its spring 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Devoe is suing for financial damages and reinstatement to the $90,000-per-year job.

“We have reviewed the complaint filed on behalf of Mr. Rashad Devoe against Amherst College and categorically refute the allegations about the College’s decisions and motives in the matter,” said Amherst College in a statement. “Amherst highly values and actively promotes diversity, inclusion, and respect. We have a majority minority student body, an increasingly diverse faculty and staff, and a community dedicated to the work of inclusion.

“Our work is continual and ongoing. We are confident that a full legal review of the complaint will support our position that it is without merit,” the statement concludes.

Last year, Devoe said in the complaint, Amherst administrators lured him away from his previous, higher-paying job as Hampton University’s lacrosse coach with a false promise that he would receive the college’s full support in changing the team’s allegedly racist and exclusionary culture.

According to Devoe’s recounting of events, administrators pressured him to reveal the identifies of three Black athletes who complained about a racist remark made by a lacrosse player, and when he refused, he was fired.

“On May 14, 2021, Coach Devoe had lunch with a black lacrosse player, who confided in Coach Devoe that he and two black basketball players were told that they could not attend a lacrosse party because they would ‘take all the white women’ at the party,’” the lawsuit reads.

Devoe said that officials “would not or could not” provide assurances that the college would protect Devoe and the three Black players from “retaliation and continued discrimination.” When Devoe continued to withhold the names, they fired him “for refusing to participate in the investigation,” the lawsuit reads, which Devoe described as “false and a pretext for discrimination and retaliation.”

The lawsuit lists several allegedly mishandled investigations at Amherst College over the past decade, including multiple racist incidents involving the men’s lacrosse team, such as one in December 2018, when players drew a swastika on the face of a sleeping Jewish student and circulated photos on social media. The lawsuit states that any consequences are not clear, but three players “may have been” suspended for two games.

In another incident, three white lacrosse players chanted the N-word outside a Black teammate’s dorm room in March 2020. The Black player then punched one of the white players, but the Black player, according to the lawsuit, was the only one to receive “immediate punishment.” This incident led to Thompson’s firing and the team’s probation.

Devoe was hired to replace Thompson and work with the student-athletes on building character and promoting inclusivity.

On Oct. 17, 2020, Devoe said, he received a phone call letting him know that several lacrosse players were working out in a group. Devoe said he met with the players two days later to reiterate the ongoing ban on team activities.

“The players and their parents posted threats to Coach Devoe’s safety and insults about Coach Devoe and the lacrosse program on social media,” the lawsuit reads. “Amherst College told Coach Devoe to ignore the threats against him and the program, not to engage, and not to defend himself.”

Last week, Amherst College announced that it has hired Sean Woods to coach its men’s lacrosse team. Woods, a native of Newport, R.I., posted a combined record of 109-42 with the Colorado College Tigers over 10 seasons and was named Division III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference coach of the year in 2013, 2019 and 2021.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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