The former coach of the Winthrop University women's soccer team claims the school and its administation fired her for "years of resentment" after she advocated equality for female coaches and women's sports teams, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court.
Melissa Heinz, hired as Winthrop's first women's soccer coach in 2002, did not have her contract renewed last year after the team's loss in the Big South Tournament finals. Heinz, now coaching at Valdosta State University in Georgia, claims in the suit she was subjected to sexual harassment during her tenure, that Winthrop fired female coaches in favor of men, and that female coaches are paid less than their male counterparts.
Heinz claims that her dismissal has hampered her ability to get another Division I job.
Heinz alleges Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio, Athletic Director Tom Hickman and men's soccer coach Rich Posipanko all were involved in discrimination against her "after and as a direct consequence of her complaints to Winthrop about inequitable treatment of her program, which came to a head in 2008 and 2009."
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She alleges Posipanko received preferential salary compensation and that Posipanko pressured Hickman and DiGiorgio - who control hiring and firing in the athletic department - to fire her after her complaints about equity and Posipanko's conduct and "verbal harassment" toward her.
Hickman said Saturday afternoon that he knew the complaint was coming and that Winthrop's attorneys were aware the complaint had been filed. Hickman said he could not comment until he had read the complaint.
Heinz alleges she brought up to Hickman, her former boss, the way she was treated by Posipanko as early as 2008 and that afterward Winthrop administrators used a "plan of player dissatisfaction as the pretext" for her firing.
Further, Heinz alleges her firing came after she was a successful coach and member of the community and "followed a pattern of discriminatory and retaliatory firings of female Winthrop head coaches," and that a male coach was hired to replace her at a higher salary.
In the complaint, Heinz alleges Winthrop fails to meet federally mandated gender equity standards, including: Providing equal practice times and facilities; travel expenses; coaching assignments and pay; facilities and equipment; medical and training services; publicity by the school about the program; providing support staff and use of scholarship money.
The lawsuit alleges Heinz wanted to hold soccer camps that coaches use to augment income, as does Posipanko, but was rebuffed by Hickman and DiGiorgio.
Heinz led the program to the Big South Conference regular-season championship in 2006 and was honored as the 2006 Big South Conference Coach of the Year. Ten of Heinz's players were named to the all-conference team, 11 to all-tournament teams, one to all-region and seven to the academic all-conference team.
The complaint states Heinz's salary at Winthrop started at $35,000 and ended at $47,000.