3 Former Coaches File Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

CREDIT: Dawn Villella, AP

Three former University of Minnesota Duluth coaches, all women, filed a lawsuit against the university this week alleging they were discriminated against based on their gender and sexual orientation during their time working for the athletic department.

Shannon Miller, one of the most successful women’s hockey coaches in NCAA history, and her former colleagues Jen Banford (women’s soccer) and Annette Wiles (women’s basketball), all believe that this discrimination led directly to their exits from UMD. Miller and Banford’s contracts weren’t renewed last December, while Wiles left in June due to the hostile environment.

“I think that there’s a sector of our population that thinks that misogyny is fine,” Miller’s attorney, Dan Siegel — who won the two largest verdicts ever awarded in cases brought against Title IX — told ThinkProgress on Wednesday. Siegel considers this the strongest Title IX discrimination case that he’s ever seen.

“This case is compelling from a legal standpoint because it involves several employees corroborating each other, they are long-term and successful employees, and they allege discrimination that is blatant and explicit,” Noreen A. Farrell, the Executive Director of Equal Rights Advocates, told ThinkProgress via email. “Their case also has a universal appeal because discrimination based on gender and LGBT status is commonplace in athletics at the collegiate level.”

The coaches are accusing UMD athletic director Josh Berlo and others in the athletic department of discriminating against them and providing inferior resources to their departments than he provided for comparable men’s athletics.

“We are shedding some light on some very critical issues,’’ Miller told reporters in a press conference on Monday. “Sexism and homophobia are alive and well at the University of Minnesota.’’

Berlo asked Miller to resign last December, and when she refused, he immediately declined to renew her contract due to “financial reasons.” She was never offered a chance to take to take a pay cut, and male coaches were not cut. At the time of termination, Miller made $93,000 less than the UMD men’s hockey coach, Scott Sandelin.

The suit alleges that all three coaches were treated with explicit hostility and discrimination. One morning, Miller arrived to her office to find that the nameplate on her door had been replaced with a post-it saying “Dyke.” Michael Rietmulder of City Pages details some of Miller’s other complaints:

Starting in 2010, [Miller] received hate mail in her office mailbox, several calling her a “dyke,” often on athletics department stationary. Others included newspaper clippings showing how many fewer fans came to women’s hockey games than men’s games.

Things got worse after athletic director Josh Berlo started at UMD in 2013. On several occasions, Miller says Berlo made it clear that he wasn’t wild about gay people and apparently Canadians. Allegedly, Berlo once pressured her to fill a staff position with a straight white guy from Minnesota. Like Miller, her coaching staff was comprised of openly gay Canadian women and Berlo often grumbled about how “there are too many Canadians here,” according to a complaint.

All three former coaches allege that they were constantly undermined and belittled by colleagues in the athletic department, with one unnamed staffer even threatening to punch Banford in the face. Wiles, who came out publicly in 2013, said that she was “shunned and excluded” after her announcement.

“Colleges that push out women and lesbians as coaches are sending a message to their female student athletes that women are not valued enough to lead their teams,” Farrell said. “This is precisely the stereotyping that kept women out of sports for decades in this country. It harms girls, it harms women, and it harms an important point of Title IX and sports – to foster confidence, build trust, and develop leaders who can set and meet goals. This is a civil rights backslide we cannot tolerate.”

Siegel said this lawsuit is a meaningful not only for these coaches involved and UMD, but for female and LGBT coaches across the nation, especially those at universities that receive Title IX funding. A strong judgment could really send a message that discrimination driven by sexism and homophobia will not be tolerated in college athletics.

“We’ve seen tremendous benefits of Title IX, including a tenfold increase of women participating in college athletics, but we’ve see whole areas of resistance to women’s rights,” Siegel said. “Many women coaches have lost their jobs to men as TItle IX has forced the salaries for coaches of women’s sports to increase. So you’re actually seeing a decrease in women’s coaches in college athletics. This is the next area for change and enforcement.”

The suit, which was filed against the U Board of Regents, asks for back pay, future pay, and damages from emotional distress, and demands a jury trial. No specific amount is asked for. Siegel’s historical Title IX judgement came back in 2007, when he sued Fresno State University on behalf of two fired female coaches. The plaintiffs were awarded payments of $19.1 million and $5.85 million.

“We are committed to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion here at UMD,’’ UMD Chancellor Lendley C. Black told reporters. “I’m quite confident that throughout this process, it will be made clear that our decisions were made in the best interests of UMD. I’m confident we made the right decisions.’’