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Virginia Hires Allegedly Homophobic Softball Coach

(This story was published in 2005).

The University of Virginia today announced the hiring of new head softball coach Karen Johns. Previously the head softball coach at the University of Florida, Johns was at the center of a two-year storm of accusations of homophobia that eventually led to a settlement by the university.

At Florida, Johns was accused two years ago of benching and alienating a player, Andrea Zimbardi, because Zimbardi is gay. The National Center for Lesbian Rights represented Zimbardi in her grievance against Johns and the University of Florida. In a groundbreaking settlement, the University agreed in 2004 to provide diversity training dealing with homophobia to all its coaches, athletic directors and staff. NCLR's Helen Carroll helped craft and lead the diversity training.

“Virginia’s a very conservative place, and I think that has a lot to do with this hiring,” Carroll told Outsports. “Virginia has some of the fewest protections for LGBT people in the United States.” Carroll added that, even in women’s softball, the good ol’ boy network is alive and well “Coaches protect coaches. I’m sure she got some very good references.”

University of Virginia Assistant Athletics Media Relations Director Bill Hurd told Outsports that the University was aware of the incident regarding Zimbardi when they hired Johns. He said that the homophobia Johns allegedly displayed on her team was, simply, “what the player said,” inferring that the search committee may have not believed that Johns deserved the allegations.

When asked about pushing a Christian agenda on her Florida team, Hurd acknowledged some potential early missteps by Johns.

“When coach Johns first started a Florida, I think there were some things she did that were not right, and she realizes that,” Hurd said. “[Advancing] someone’s religious views does not have a place in a team sport like that.” He added that homophobia also had no place in University of Virginia sports.

While she admits to being a little disappointed by Johns' hiring, Carroll sees it as a possible opportunity. Carroll and long-time gay-sports advocate Pat Griffin spent time with Johns personally during their diversity training at Florida. She is hoping that she made some headway with Johns, and that what allegedly happened to Zimbardi won’t happen again.

“I would love for it to be a success story,” Carroll said. “It’s what we’ve worked so hard for.”

If it isn’t a complete success story, Carroll said that at least people will take notice quickly. “I think there’s more than one person watching what she’s doing now,” Carroll said. “She can either do the right thing with her student-athletes, or she’s not going to get away with it.”

Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said in a statement to Outsports: “As we do in all of our position searches in the athletic department, we did our due diligence and we are very excited to have Karen johns lead our softball program. We were pleased to learn she was available and that those in the softball community with whom we spoke think she is the perfect fit for the university of Virginia.”

Zimbardi had alleged that Johns created an atmosphere of alienation for anyone not sharing her Christian beliefs, outed other coaches and players as lesbians, and reneged on an agreement not to retaliate against Zimbardi when she took her concerns to the university’s athletic administration. She further alleged that assistant coach Heather Compton-Butler made inappropriate and leading comments to her about lesbianism and lesbian relationships. Zimbardi said she was not informed about team practices, and gradually saw her playing time shrink until she was finally released on March 6.

“I was kicked off because I wanted to take a stand against everything that happened to me,” said Zimbardi. “I believe I was discriminated against because of my sexual orientation.”

The National Center for Lesbian Rights represented Zimbardi in her grievance against Johns and the University of Florida. In a groundbreaking settlement, the University agreed in 2004 to provide diversity training dealing with homophobia to all its coaches, athletic directors and staff. NCLR's Helen Carroll helped craft and lead the diversity training.

Florida fired Johns in May, 2005, despite a season record of 41-23, the best record by the team during her tenure. Johns led Florida to four NCAA Regional appearances, with an overall record of 192-131, in her five years as head coach. In not picking up her contract, Florida cited a lack of progress by the team.