Monday, September 28, 2015

Lawsuit against Minnesota-Duluth

In a move that everyone knew was coming, three former coaches at the University of Minnesota-Duluth have filed a lawsuit against the university alleging discrimination on seven different counts including gender and sexual orientation. Shannon Miller (hockey), Jen Banford (softball, hockey relations), and Annette Wiles (basketball) have worked together on the lawsuit, which was precipitated by events that began almost a year ago when Miller's contract was not renewed because the university claimed it could no longer afford her. She was, at the time, the highest paid women's hockey coach, but notably paid less the UMD's men's coach.

All three women are gay and the lawsuit alleges that their openness about their sexuality was a key factor in the discrimination they faced. We have not heard about specific incidents of discrimination, rather the coverage has focused on contracts and the timeline of events that lead to the dismissal and/or resignation of each woman. But I suspect more stories that corroborate the women's claims will be made public as the legal challenges proceed. Miller, for example, recounted to the press today that she came to work one day and found that the name tag on her office door had been removed and replaced with the word dyke. She took it down and reported it. The name tag was never replaced and the incident never investigated. She also received anonymous hate mail on department letterhead.

The UMD chancellor has said that--although he has not yet looked over the lawsuit--he is sure that the claims of discrimination against the university will be proven false but that "we can always get better" on diversity issues. Miller's story certainly exemplifies the need to do better and also suggests that the chancellor's comments about no discrimination taking place may be a little overconfident at this point.

The lawsuit is against UMD but it cites athletic director Josh Berlo extensively. Berlo remains the athletic director and the university continues to support him. Miller cites his arrival at UMD in 2013 as a turning point in the culture of the department:
"It's language; it's how they treat you in meetings; it's how they don't meet with you; how they react when you take something forward to them, a complaint. So there was a shift, and it was a really strong shift, and it's the most abrupt and rude treatment I've ever received in my entire life as a professional." 

I find this indictment of Berlo interesting in light of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled "Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?" It is certainly relevant to the issue of female coaches and female athletic department administrators, as noted by friend-of-the-blog and activist Pat Griffin.

According to one of the coaches' lawyers--Dan Siegel, who was counsel on the Fresno State cases in which dismissed female coaches won millions in their discrimination lawsuits--the university has not engaged in any conversation about settlement. Right now this appears to be a "digging their heels in" case. Though this case, according to Siegel, is less complicated than the Fresno cases in terms of evidence proving discrimination. It is also notable that both schools are state universities. This means that the burden of either a settlement or award in favor of the plaintiffs will be born by the taxpayers--in one way or another.

I had truly thought that Fresno State would serve as cautionary tale for other institutions. UMD though appears to be on the path to becoming the new (old) Fresno State.