After a former Oakland University women’s basketball player came forward to say her former coach encroached upon her religious beliefs, officials at local civil rights organizations said preaching from a position of power is unacceptable.
“Professors and coaches have the right to share their beliefs,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The issue is when they (use) a position of power to proselytize.”
Former Oakland University women’s basketball coach Beckie Francis was relieved of her duties June 12 without an explanation given to the media. Former Oakland player and Farmington Hills native Jenna Bachrouche came forward to say Francis had discriminated upon her religious freedom when she played for Oakland University from 2010-12.
Bachrouche, a Muslim, said Francis repeatedly attempted to convert her to Christianity.
The university does not comment on personnel decisions, but it did issue a statement June 21 saying an investigation had been conducted into Francis’ behavior and that other aspects of the program were under investigation. She had been on unpaid leave since May 30 after an informant contacted an Oakland University administrator about Francis’ conduct.
Francis and Oakland University director of athletics Tracy Huth both declined comment on the situation when reached Tuesday.
Michael J. Steinberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, echoed Walid’s thoughts.
“(There’s) nothing wrong with a coach at a public university being outspoken about their faith,” he said. “The problem is when they impose that on players.
“Coaches in public schools violate the Constitution when they favor one religion over another.”
Steinberg said the group does not know if there’s any connection between the accusations made by Bachrouche and Francis’ firing. Bachrouche said she was not the person who informed an Oakland University administrator in April, which triggered an internal investigation.
Steinberg said in his 15 years at the ACLU, the group has dealt with similar situations “repeatedly” at high schools, but not at a collegiate level.
“This is an opportunity for Jenna to explain what happened, and a teaching moment for public universities across the state,” Steinberg said. “It’s so clear a college coach at a public university cannot discriminate based on religion. It’s shocking that this could happen today.”
“Usually, college coaches know better.”
Steinberg said Bachrouche contacted the ACLU in September after leaving Oakland. She now plays for Western Michigan University. She and the ACLU have been determining a course of action, but sought to come forward after Francis was fired.
“Usually, we just write a letter and the situation takes care of itself,” Steinberg said.
“It was important to add some context to the type of coach she was.”
Francis’ termination after 13 seasons at Oakland relieved what Steinberg called a “tricky situation” created by the fact Francis is married to Oakland University president Gary Russi, who announced his resignation, effective Aug. 1, just hours before Francis’ firing was made public.
The couple met while employed by Oakland University and married in 1999. Francis took a hiatus from 2002-05 for what she attributed to health concerns.
No other Oakland players, current or former, have been in contact with the ACLU and there is no legal action being pursued on Bachrouche’s behalf, according to Steinberg.
Walid said incidents like these are not common in higher education because of the tolerance training educators and coaches receive. He added if any student or student-athlete finds themselves in a similar situation they should file a complaint immediately and contact a civil rights organization.
“There are some cases where teachers or coaches feel they’re above the rules,” Walid said. “(Francis) knew the rules and consciously broke them.”