Moody Discrimination Suit: A Symptom of Broader Diversity Problems at ISU?

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Cyclone women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly. Photo: Principal Charity Classic/Flickr

So far, much of the reaction to the Associated Press report Monday that former Iowa State Cyclone and women’s basketball star Nikki Moody has sued coach Bill Fennelly for racial discrimination has been dismissive. Fans have questioned why Moody stuck around for four years, instead of transferring, if she faced the verbal abuse alleged in her lawsuit. Chassidy Cole, another black former player, has denied that Fennelly told Cole she “will end up in prison, just like her mother” and called her a “thug,” as the suit claims. Lyndsey Fennelly, another former player (who, like her father-in-law coach, is white), has also come to his defense, as have several others.

The university, too — which has been under a magnifying glass for months over its handling of campus diversity issues — has disputed Moody’s claims of racial discrimination and retaliation laid out in the 12-page suit (embedded below), telling the AP Monday evening that its Office of Equal Opportunity “thoroughly reviewed her complaints in the context of university discrimination policies,” “conducted a full investigation,” and “was unable to substantiate the complaints of racial discrimination.”

But there’s plenty of reason to take the lawsuit seriously.

Angela McLaughlin, the mother of Brynn Williamson, another black Cyclone who played with Moody, told the Ames Tribune she wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit and that while Williamson (who the paper couldn’t reach for comment) didn’t face the same issues alleged by Moody, she wasn’t always happy with Fennelly:

“She shared many negative things about coach Fennelly during her tenure at Iowa State that she knew that if she ever spoke of, and if we ever spoke of,” McLaughlin said, “there would be retaliation. We never addressed it while she was there.”

McLaughlin declined to give a specific situation she was told about and what the “retaliation” would be. She added that Fennelly was never “negative” toward her or her husband.

“He would have choice things to say that I don’t feel a coach should have said (in the) locker room, gym time, during text messages as a group to the team,” McLaughlin said.

According to Moody’s lawsuit, she, Williamson, and the team’s other black senior were singled out by Fennelly, who allegedly told other players they were “bad influences” and to “stay away from them,” among other things. The suit also claims that Moody and Williamson were not allowed back to use the team’s facilities after graduation, as other players were, although McLaughlin said she hadn’t heard anything about that from her daughter. (The strongest words ISU has used in response to the suit have been that Fennelly, who is on a 12-year, $10.6 million contract through 2019, is “known for his passion and demanding style.”)

Former Cyclone center Bryanna Fernstrom, who in January made the surprise decision to leave ISU for Minnesota’s basketball program, tweeted in apparent response to the original AP story about Moody’s suit:

More broadly, Iowa State University for months has faced criticism from students and faculty about discrimination and a general lack of commitment to diversity on campus. The university’s student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, this week launched an #ISUVoices social media campaign to encourage conversation about diversity, just days after exploring diversity (or the lack thereof) among the university’s Student Government in a separate article sparked by the presence of student group Leaders United for Change at the meeting.

Last September, LUCHA — known at the time as Students Against Bigotry — protested a visit from Donald Trump, whose racial, anti-immigrant rhetoric was already in full swing, at a football tailgate near Jack Trice Stadium. Inside the stadium, university President Steven Leath strolled onto the field with Trump before the game; meanwhile, the bombastic businessman’s visit made even more national headlines when a young woman accosted the protesters in the lot outside, ripping up one of their signs and allegedly making a racist remark.

Later that month, the protest group held a forum on diversity, convincing Leath to attend, and in early October, LUCHA sent a letter of demands to Leath, pressuring him to further address incidents of racism and bigotry at ISU. On Nov. 20, Leath responded, writing a letter to the university community in which he promised a series of steps to make the university a more inclusive environment.

On the heels of LUCHA’s visit to the meeting of the university’s Student Government, Moody’s lawsuit, and the dismissive response to it largely from white students, suggests that much remains to be done to achieve that goal.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.