Former DSU volleyball player sues over lost scholarship

DOVER — A former Delaware State University volleyball player filed a civil lawsuit in federal court on June 9, alleging that she lost her athletic scholarship while at odds with an ex-head coach’s requirements to attend church and Bible studies.

According to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Natalia Mendieta, 20, was uncomfortable with then-head coach LaKiysa Killingsworth’s alleged requirement to attend Sunday services with her at Calvary Assembly of God in Dover beginning in fall 2013, and believed not attending would endanger her playing time and scholarship renewal.

Citing the ongoing litigation, a Delaware State University spokesman declined comment on Thursday. Reached by The Associated Press earlier this week, Ms. Killingsworth declined comment.

Defendants in the suit include Ms. Killingsworth, former athletic director Candy Young and the university.

According to DSU’s volleyball website, the program now has an interim head coach.

The lawsuit alleged that actions by coach Killingsworth and AD Young violated Ms. Mendieta’s First Amendment rights to be free of state-established religion and deprived her of her constitutional right to freely exercise her religion.

The lawsuit claims that in fall 2014, Ms. Mendieta believed she was treated less favorably by the coach for not attending church and Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, and the coach allegedly began “manufacturing reasons to remove (her) from the team.”

After Ms. Mendieta and several other teammates narrowly missed a before-game curfew during a road trip on or about Oct. 18, 2014, the lawsuit alleged that coach Killingsworth “confronted Ms. Mendieta about missing curfew and screamed ‘I only kept you out of necessity.

“If you don’t play well the last game you’re gone.‘ “

Scholarship not renewed

In December 2014, Ms. Mendieta said she learned her scholarship was not renewed for the 2015-16 school year, and believed coach Killingsworth made the decision “based on her violation of ambiguously defined team rules and academic performance.”

Ms. Mendieta said her alleged violations of team rules were minor, and she was academically eligible by National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines. She claimed she was the only team member to not have her scholarship renewed, including those who had earlier missed curfew.

According to Ms. Mendieta, she accepted a full scholarship to DSU in 2012 under a former coach, and the school told her “that her full athletic scholarship would be renewed each year for four years as long as she remained academically eligible and performed satisfactorily on the volleyball court.”

Shortly after coach Killingsworth became head coach in April 2013, she said in a team meeting that every player was on a “one-year trial period” with her, the lawsuit alleged. Ms. Mendieta said she felt pressured to “make a good impression on Coach Killingsworth and follow her directives.”

In fall 2013, the lawsuit claimed, coach Killingsworth allegedly began incorporating religious worship in the volleyball team’s activities.

“Ms. Mendieta, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, felt uncomfortable with Coach Killingsworth’s mandatory church attendance requirement,” the lawsuit alleged.

However, Ms. Mendieta said in the lawsuit that she attended Calvary services with coach Killingsworth and the team during the preseason.

During the season, Ms. Mendieta said, coach Killingsworth “distributed bibles to the entire team (including her) and strongly encouraged players to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.”

The lawsuit alleged that coach Killingsworth made attending Calvary Sunday services mandatory prior to spring break 2014, along with FCA weekly bible study meetings for the rest of the spring semester.

“Ms. Mendieta felt extremely uncomfortable going to Coach Killingsworth’s church and attending FCA bible study meetings, but remained fearful of speaking out in opposition to these requirements because she did not want to jeopardize her athletic scholarship,” the lawsuit read.

Going to church

Troubled by the requirements, Ms. Mendieta said in the lawsuit that she sent a letter to the coach on or about March 24 that outlined her concerns and explained why she did not want to attend Calvary Sunday services.

According to Ms. Mendieta, her coach allegedly replied by saying, “I don’t care what church you go to, as long as you go to church.”

After that, Ms. Mendieta claimed, coach Killingsworth’s attitude toward her changed and their working relationship rapidly deteriorated. The coach allegedly avoided speaking to her unless absolutely necessary, the lawsuit said, and her tone was increasingly hostile when she did.

To avoid further antagonizing her coach, Ms. Mendieta alleged, she continued to attend FCA bible study meetings each Wednesday. The meetings were a challenge considering her other academic and athletic responsibilities, the lawsuit claimed.

After spring semester 2014, the lawsuit alleged, another players parents contacted DSU with concerns over the coach’s “persistent emphasis on religion, including the mandatory church and FCA attendance rules.” That player quit the team before the fall semester began, the lawsuit said.

Ms. Mendieta believed the coach allegedly continued to favor players attending church and FCA meetings.

After her scholarship was not renewed, Ms. Mendieta said she brought the decision to the school’s Appeals Committee. The appeal was denied, she said “despite the fact that (she) informed members of Coach’s Killingsworth’s incorporation of religious worship into the volleyball team’s activities and her opposition to the mandatory church attendance rule.”

The Appeals Committee was entirely comprised of DSU employees, the lawsuit said, and then-AD Young authorized coach Killingsworth’s decision not to renew Ms. Mendieta’s scholarship.

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Mendieta was on scholarship for the rest of the spring 2015 semester, but has not been an active member of the volleyball team since December 2014. Ms. Mendieta said she’s now struggling to finance attending DSU next semester.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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