Former coach wins labor case against Diné College

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times
WINDOW ROCK, June 21, 2012

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Lenny Esson


hen Lenny Esson was the given the job of head cross-country coach for Diné College last school year, he was adamant about recruiting and building a team centered around Native American talent.

Esson made it known through interviews with local media, including the Navajo Times, that he intended to recruit Native Americans, an untapped resource right in the college's backyard.

After all, he thought, Diné College is an institution of higher education originally founded for Native American students, and its mission is to apply the Navajo principles of quality learning through thinking, planning, living and assuring.

Little did Esson know, however, that an interview with the Farmington Daily Times would eventually cost him his job.

In the interview, Esson spoke of his goal to turn the Diné College running program into a launch pad for Native Americans.

"That was my intention," said Esson, who also coached high school cross-country for 3 years at Kirtland Central and nine years at Navajo Prep. "Not just go after the best runners but the best student-athletes."

Despite the college's success in winning national championships in men's cross-country from 2005 to 2009, and one national championship for the women during that time, with the help of Kenyan runners, Esson felt something was missing.

Instead of recruiting Kenyan runners, or non-Native runners, by former coach Abraham Bitok, who is now the athletic director at the college, the college needed an all-Native American running team, Esson said.

"I always felt that Diné College could do a better job," he said of recruiting runners from the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes who have strong running traditions embedded in their culture.

"We have a strong pool of runners and Diné College wasn't going after that," he said.

In the interview with the Daily Times, which later ran the story "Coach searches rez for runners," Esson is quoted as saying, "Because we've been recruiting Kenyans for so long, high schools don't want to send their kids here. As far as recruiting goes, I always thought we could do a lot better with getting our Native kids here."

Esson ran for Diné College from 1997 to 1999 and received five All-America honors.

Following the publication of the story in the Daily Times, Esson received a termination notice on March 22, 2011, from his boss, George LeFrance, the former athletic director at the college.

According to the termination letter, Esson was fired for his interview because he had placed the college in a disreputable position with his statements.

Esson said he didn't see his statements as offensive but as truth because the running program was concerned more about winning national championships and not developing the whole person.

Two weeks prior to his termination, Esson said, LeFrance wrote him an evaluation with "superb marks."

Esson challenged the college's decision and filed a complaint with the Office of Navajo Labor Relations.

On Aug. 2, 2011, ONLR issued a probable cause decision on its investigation of Esson's case. Labor compliance officer Angela Gettler found the college in violation of sections of the Navajo Nation Preference Employment Act. On Aug. 16, 2011, Gettler granted Esson the right to sue the college before the Navajo Nation Labor Commission.

His hearing took place on May 22.

"The college didn't show up," Esson said. "The hearing committee by default awarded damages I'm requesting for."

The damages Esson requested included back pay in the amount of $3,000, fringe benefits he would have received from March 22 to May 31, 2011, a copy of his evaluation, a written explanation on what words or action caused his termination by LeFrance, compensation for an adjunct teaching position, and the March 22, 2011 termination to be removed from his record.

Eventually, Esson said he would like to get his old job back. The coaching position is currently held by Gavin Sosa, who recently recruited some of the region's top runners.

"I didn't do anything wrong in the first place," he said. "I didn't get the opportunity to fulfill what I feel the college could offer to students.

"It means a lot more to me as a Diné person that were going after our Native youth here," he said, adding that Sosa carried out his vision. "That is our first priority. I haven't been given the opportunity to fulfill the job I envisioned."

On Wednesday, when the Navajo Times contacted Diné College's spokesman, Ed McCombs, he said college policy prevents the institution from commenting on personnel matters.

For Esson, whose had a place in his heart since running for and graduating from Diné College, it's not about retaliation but about letting others know how he was ousted from his position.

"They have simply failed to defend themselves to why they terminated me and made a negative impact on my reputation as a coach and person for my Native youth, my dignity, and my harmonious balance with nature and life," Esson said.