Sunday, January 18, 2015

Minnesota-Duluth digs hole deeper

When I give my sport management students scenarios about sport organizations and their responses to or creation of various controversial situations, I do so for several reasons. One is to present examples of non-compliance with laws or policies and ask them to think critically about what went wrong, why, and how. Another is to demonstrate lack of leadership and the consequences of ignorance and/or ego. I ask them (as an example) "do you want to be the athletic director under whose watch multimillion settlements had to be made with victims of retaliation/abuse/discrimination?" Hopefully they get it.

Of course the real test is what they do when they gets jobs in athletics. This is a test that University of Minnesota Duluth Athletic Director Josh Berlo is failing. Last month, as we noted, he announced that women's ice hockey coach, Shannon Miller, would not have her contract renewed because, as the highest paid coach in women's ice hockey (at just over $200,000) the cash-strapped university could not afford her anymore. After considerable outcry--which is ongoing--the chancellor issued a vague statement suggesting that there are other issues:
"The decision to not renew Coach Miller's contract was difficult, but was made thoughtfully after a full review of a number of factors. It's the right decision for the program and I support it. While the decision is sound, we did not communicate it publicly as clearly as I would have liked. We could have communicated this in a less narrow way, and more clearly explained our desire to see the program go in a new direction."

I have already noted how the money rationale was not so much "narrow" as discriminatory. But I am curious about the always-vague but at least equally applied "new direction." The team has won 12 of their 13 games this season. Miller has produced over 20 Olympians and was the national team coach for Canada in the first Olympics that offered women's ice hockey. What direction is UMD looking to take their program? Down? 

I have, as I am wont to do, buried the lead. The latest news out of UMD is that a second female coach has been told her contract will not be renewed. Softball coach Jen Banford, who is also very successful and has been at the university for a decade, will no longer be the softball coach.

There seems to be confusion over Banford's dismissal, though. Berlo told ESPNW that the coach would remain the softball coach; it was her position as Director of Operations for women's hockey (i.e., part of Miller's staff) that was being terminated. But a copy of the letter Banford received (which can be found via the above link to Kate Fagan's ESPNW article) very explicitly states that it is both positions. Banford herself confirmed this with Human Resources.

Banford believes she is being retaliated against for her support of Miller and the women's ice hockey program. She too has retained lawyers. The he said/she said is playing out in the media--not in the athletic department offices. Berlo said this is a paperwork issue and that he plans to retain Banford as the softball coach and is merely restructuring her position. Banford told ESPNW: "Josh has not spoken with me in six weeks. To me, it's obvious why he's saying he's in the process of writing a renewal, but if he wanted to give me a renewal, he would have given me that on Dec. 11."

I could never have devised a scenario like this for my students. Two female coaches' contracts not renewed within weeks of one another and with specious rationales for the dismissals; it just would not have been believable. But here we are.