A racial discrimination lawsuit by a former MU assistant track and field coach against the university is set for trial in early December.
Carjay Lyles, 36, who worked for the university from 2013 to July 6, 2017, sued the UM System Board of Curators; the head coach of track and field, Brett Halter; and associate athletics director for compliance, Mitzi Clayton, in June 2018.
The allegations include that Halter, who is white, “would refer to Black athletes and staff members as ‘you people,’” according to court documents and that Halter gave preference to white athletes in scholarships.
Lyles’ attorneys note in the lawsuit that in August 2014 Sirena Williams, who was then director of operations for track and field, resigned. In an email sent to staff members, Williams who is Black, said “Halter had treated her differently from the other coaches on staff due to her race,” according to the lawsuit.
From the end of 2014 through 2016, Lyles was the only Black employee on the staff, the suit states.
It also alleges that during the fall of 2015, when the university struggled to address allegations of racism amid student protests, Halter suggested that Lyles should lay grass seed at Halter’s home. Lyles declined, and Halter responded: “I live at MKT and KT (Katy) Trail, and if I have one more K, you sure won’t be coming because three K’s in a row, there won’t be any of you coming.”
This was not the last incident that the lawsuit describes involving Halter and university officials. In February 2016, Lyles brought concerns by his athletes about being packed onto one bus at a track meet. Halter allegedly yelled at Lyles and called him a “nobody.” After athletes sent Halter emails about the bus situation the following day, Halter accused Lyles of “putting them up to it.”
Later that same month, when Lyles offered a suggestion at a staff meeting, Halter yelled at Lyles and “cut him off, threw papers on the table toward him, kicked a trash can and slammed doors while storming out of the meeting,” according to the lawsuit.
Lyles began to see the team’s psychiatrist after the incident. When Clayton, associate athletics director for compliance, found out, she told the psychiatrist to stop meeting with Lyles, the suit alleges.
Not long after Halter’s outburst, Disa Nichols, who was a runner for Sports Management USA, contacted athletes on the track and field team. The lawsuit notes that Nichols is “best friends with Halter.”
Nichols allegedly pressured athletes on the track and field team to make false claims about Lyles. Specifically, Nichols told the athletes that the university could “revoke their immigration papers,” the suit alleges.
In April 2016, a parent of a player on the team complained “and expressed concerns” about the way Halter treated Lyles. Around the same time, Mack Rhoades, who was athletic director for the university, received an email from a student that said Halter attempted to discredit and embarrass Lyles in front of the entire team.
The lawsuit alleges that Black athletes spoke with Rhoades in person around that time about how Halter was treating them and Lyles. They even alleged bullying, according to the lawsuit.
Rhoades left the university not long after. He is now athletic director at Baylor University.
Kevin McDonald, then-interim vice chancellor for diversity, inclusion and equity, told the athletes to put together a “packet” for the incoming athletic director, Jim Sterk. The materials in it described issues facing the track and field team. The Black athletes wrote that they “feel that like the sprints/hurdles/relays are discriminated against and targeted,” according to the lawsuit.
These were the athletes Lyles coached, and most of them were Black.
That following summer, in July 2016, at a hotel during an out-of-town track meet, Lyles overheard a conversation between Halter and Nichols through a window, the suit alleges.
Halter stated, “Him and everyone else that spoke up — we will get their asses, we will make sure he is out by December. If he breathes wrong, we will know it and use it against him. And the kids that spoke up — they will lose their scholarships. Plus, we know enough people, he is done, he won’t ever get another job,” according to the lawsuit.
Nichols is alleged to have responded: “We know enough people, he won’t ever get another job again. You leave the kids to me.”
At the end of that summer, Lyles was the only track coach who did not receive a title promotion, pay raise or a contract extension. Lyles reported the hotel conversation between Halter and Nichols to a university official.
The lawsuit notes that on Jan. 16, 2017, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Halter gave Lyles a written reprimand for being two minutes late. The lawsuit alleges that other coaches were frequently 15 minutes late and never received a reprimand. From February 2017 to July 2017, Sarah Reesman, senior deputy athletics director and chief operating officer, repeatedly pulled Lyles into her office to ask him when he would resign, according to the lawsuit.
Ultimately, Lyles was “constructively discharged” on July 6, 2017, according to the lawsuit. Lyles was contacted by the head track and field coach of the University of North Carolina in August 2017. Around the same time, an athlete on MU’s track and field team told Halter that Lyles was interviewing for a job at UNC.
Lyles didn’t get the job.
He is now an assistant coach at Mississippi State University in track and field. The case is set for a pretrial conference Nov. 23 in 13th Circuit Court for Boone County. The trial is set to begin Dec. 9.