Madison - St. Clair Record

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Varsity tennis coach at WIU alleges dismissal followed false claims of racism

State Court

By John Breslin | Oct 4, 2019

Western Illinois University

A varsity tennis coach claims he was dismissed from his position after it was clearly, publicly, and falsely implied he was a racist. 

Mirko Bjelica was removed from his position as Western Illinois University's head tennis coach just weeks after being cleared of dropping a player from the team based on her race and for using the n-word without context., according to a court filing.

The allegations are contained in a suit filed in Madison County Circuit Court against the player's mother, Dr. Larissa Malone, a social studies assistant professor at Greenville University.

Mirko Bjelica, former WIU tennis coach |

Bjelica, of Macomb, removed as coach in May, accuses Malone of defamation, invasion of privacy, and breach of confidentiality after she made an official complaint against him and allegedly protested close to the college's tennis court, while holding a sign referring to the claimed use of the n-word.

Malone did not reply to messages from the Record requesting comment on the complaint,

Western Illinois University, when asked why Bjelica's contract was not renewed and whether it was linked to the controversy, passed on a letter that was originally sent to the tennis coach confirming he was no longer to report to work as of May 1. The university referred this publication to its legal counsel.

"We do not comment on personnel matters," Elizabeth Duvall, the college's general counsel, told the Record in an email.

In his complaint, Bjelica details, from his own point of view, the events that he claims ultimately led to his dismissal from his position. They began early in the first semester of the year and centered on the defendant's daughter, Natalie Malone.

The younger Malone was repeatedly told not to play songs with "inappropriate and offensive" lyrics on the tennis court, it is claimed.

Despite this, on Oct. 2, 2018, according to the complaint, she played, and sang along to, a song called Mo Bamba by Shek Wes, which contains repeated expletives, references to sexual intercourse, and to being the best drug dealer. It also includes the abbreviated use of the n-word.

The plaintiff, in his complaint, stated he believed it was against university policy to allow this type of language on the tennis courts, and felt the need to clarify this to the player.

He told her: "From now on, I do not want inappropriate words a^^, b^^^^^. f^^^. or n^^^^^^ on WIU tennis courts or at WIU tennis events anymore."

Bjelica states that he used the n-word for the purpose of clarity, and it was the only time he ever used such a word.

On Nov. 20, the tennis coach dismissed Malone from the team after she "broke every team rule in the book and had accumulated an enormous amount of infractions." He did so with the support of the WIU athletics director's written approval, the complaint states.

Both the defendant, from St. Louis, and her daughter then sent formal complaints to the university, accusing the coach of dismissing the player because of her race, of retaliatory treatment, and referenced the use of the n-word.

On Jan, 26, 2019, the defendant is alleged to have stood by the tennis courts holding a large sign that stated: "It is never okay to say the word N*****".  This happened as the tennis team was warming up for a game against Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville, the complaint states.

Blejlica's argues he was defamed because the actions of the defendant clearly implied he was a racist, and that Malone did not actually believe the words on the sign because of the very fact it included the n-word, in capitals.

In April, Blejica claims he was cleared by the university equal opportunities and access (EOA) office of charges of dismissal from the team based on race, retaliation, and that the n-word was used in context.

He was notified of the non-renewal of his contract May 1, this despite being an employee in "excellent standing," which was supported by annual reviews.

Blejica claims irreparable damage to his reputation, that the controversy caused him to lose his job, and that he has been unable to find another one. It has, the complaint states, caused a "great deal of emotional distress and financial hardship" to the plaintiff, his wife and five children. He is seeking damages of $160,000.

The tennis coach filed the complaint without legal counsel.

Madison County Circuit Court case number 2019-L-1338.

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