College Athletics’ War on Women Coaches

College Athletics’ War on Women Coaches

By Pat Griffin

Right before the holidays, Shannon Miller, the women’s ice hockey coach at University of Minnesota Duluth, got some disturbing news: Despite the fact that she is a medal-winning Olympic coach, a five-time NCAA national championship-winning coach and one of the most successful female coaches in college sports, the Duluth Athletic Director and University Chancellor notified her that her contract would not be renewed at the end of this season. The reason? Her salary is too high. UMD is experiencing some financial problems and they decided that not renewing Coach Miller’s contract as well as those of her staff would be a reasonable decision to help balance the budget.

Never mind that the men’s hockey coach, who has been less successful and makes more money than Shannon Miller does, still has his job and his comfortable salary (Read Nicole Lavoi’s and Kris Newhall’s break down of this situation for more information).

This outrageous decision and the sketchy rationale for it are grounds for a sex discrimination lawsuit all on their own. Placed in the context of a disturbing trend in the diminishing number of women coaches and the treatment of the women in athletics over the last several years, this decision has more far reaching consequences for college women’s athletics. Shannon Miller is the latest in a series of experienced and successful women in athletics to not have her contract renewed, to resign under pressure from administrators, to resign in protest of sex discrimination, to be fired or to be forced into early retirement. These women represent a tip of the iceberg because they have filed lawsuits challenging their treatment.

Many other women in athletics whose names we do not know receive similar treatment but choose to quietly leave athletics, rather than subject themselves to the public attention and stress accompanying a lawsuit. The list of discrimination lawsuits filed on behalf of women in athletics I cite here is far from complete, but highlights this disturbing pattern of sex and sexual orientation discrimination in college athletics:

  • 2007 –Fresno State University: Women’s volleyball coach, Lindy Vivas; women’s basketball coach, Stacy Johnson-Klein; women’s softball coach, Margie Wright; and athletic administrator, Diane Milutinovich sued and won settlements charging the university with sex discrimination, discrimination based on perceived sexual orientation and creating a hostile climate for women.
    2007 –University of California Berkeley: Former women’s swim coach and athletic administrator Karen Moe Humphreys charged the university with sex discrimination after her contract was not renewed. Moe, who had complained about the school’s failure to abide by Title IX, charged the university with retaliation, creating a hostile climate for women and sex discrimination.
    • 2007 – San Diego State University:Swim coach, Deena Deardruff Schmidt, charged the university with sex discrimination and retaliation after her contract was not renewed following her complaints about inequities in the men’s and women’s athletic programs.
    • 2008 – Florida Gulf Coast University: Women’s golf coach, Holly Vaughn and women’s volleyball coach, Jaye Flood won a lawsuit settlement after charging the university with retaliatory discrimination and defamation (they were released) because they complained about sex discrimination in the treatment of men’s and women’s athletic programs.
    • 2008 Mesa College: Women’s basketball coach, Lorri Sulpizio and director of women’s basketball operations, Cathy Bass, sued the college for sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation for complaining about sex discrimination in the men’s and women’s programs. They won a monetary settlement in the case.
    • 2010 – Belmont College: Women’s soccer coach, Lisa Howe, was let go after the coach told her team that she and her partner, Wendy, were having a baby. Belmont is a private Christian school and did not provide protection against discrimination for LGBT employees.
    • 2011 – University of Minnesota: Women’s golf coach, Katie Brenny, filed a sex and sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit against the university charging that her duties were significantly reduced and she was essentially relegated to a secretarial position after the golf director found out she was a lesbian. He then hired his son-in-law to replace Brenny as the women’s coach. Brenny overwhelmingly won the lawsuit in 2014.
    • 2012 University of Tennessee: Jenny Moshak, Debby Jennings and Heather Mason charged the university athletic department with sex discrimination in salaries and benefits. They also charged that they were passed over for leadership positions for which they were highly qualified in sports information, athletic training and health and wellness when the men’s and women’s athletic programs merged. In addition, the lawsuit alleges sex discrimination in the treatment of men’s and women’s athletic teams. This case is on-going.
    • 2013 – University of Texas: Women’s track and field coach, Bev Kearney was told to resign or be fired for having a consensual sexual relationship with one of the women on her team. She filed a sex and race discrimination lawsuit claiming that male coaches who had sexual relationships with female students were either not disciplined at all or received lighter punishments and retained their jobs.
    • 2014 – University of Iowa: Tracey Griesbaum, long-time women’s field hockey coach (the fifth Iowa woman coach let go in the last five years) was fired following an internal investigation of charges made by an unspecified number of unnamed athletes that she was verbally abusive. After an internal investigation, Griesbaum was cleared of all charges, but fired anyway. The athletic director has offered no reason for her firing. Griesbaum is a lesbian and her partner, an athletic administrator at Iowa, has been reassigned outside of athletics in anticipation of a lawsuit.
    • 2015 – University of Minnesota Duluth: I am confident that Shannon Miller will be filing a lawsuit in the near future.

I believe that the public rationale offered by athletic administrators for their decisions in each of these cases masks a deeper and more fundamental problem in college athletics: misogyny, sexism and homophobia. This trifecta of hostility towards women in athletics is made more threatening in an athletic climate in which financial resources are strained to the max and athletic administrators in schools large and small buy into the pipe dream of cultivating big time football (and men’s basketball) as the salvation of cash strapped athletic departments (Only about 20 schools, all in the Football Bowl Subdivision, actually make more money than they spend on athletics).

For years, Title IX and women’s sports have served as scapegoats for the demise of men’s Olympic sports in college athletics as in, “We had to drop our men’s wrestling/swimming/gymnastics teams in order to comply with Title IX.” Athletic directors have been happy to pit the interests of these “non-revenue producing” men’s teams against the interests of all women’s teams rather than take responsibility for their decisions to cut these men’s teams instead of trimming fat from the bloated budgets and salaries supporting football and men’s basketball.

Now, men’s Olympic sports are gone in many schools and women’s sports are on the chopping block. Title IX prevents athletic directors from easily cutting women’s sports as they did with men’s Olympic sports, but there are still ways to cut costs by undermining women’s sports and women in athletics. Getting rid of veteran successful women coaches, especially ones who fight for equality for women in sport, clears the way to hire younger, less experienced, perhaps more compliant coaches at lower salaries. It also affords the opportunity to hire a man to coach women’s teams (only about 40 percent of women’s college teams are actually coached by women now).

Some common elements in these lawsuits are that the women targeted for discrimination are mostly experienced professionals with successful records of accomplishment as athletes and coaches, yet that experience and success does not protect women from discrimination. In fact, it is often devalued as these women are overlooked for leadership positions as at the University of Tennessee or let go because their salary is too high as at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Many of the women who filed these lawsuits had the audacity to challenge sex discrimination in the school’s treatment of women’s sports and coaches. That they were then fired, defamed or released from their positions looks a lot like retaliation for their advocacy for gender equity in athletics.

In other cases, a double standard is applied in which women are treated differently than men. This appears to be so at Iowa where charges of abusive verbal behavior were unsubstantiated, but Griesbaum still lost her job. In contrast, the Iowa football coach engaged in coaching practices that threatened the health of players and the men’s basketball coach lost his temper and slammed a chair during a game, but both men still have their jobs and received only mild reprimands. Shannon Miller, though well paid as a successful woman coach, still earns less than the men’s ice hockey coach at UMD. Yet she is the one let go for having a salary that is too high. This is despite her offer to renegotiate her contract at a lower salary. Bev Kearney was asked to resign or be fired while a male coach who had a relationship with a student kept his job.

Several of the women in these cases are lesbians. Lorrie Supizio at Mesa, Lisa Howe at Belmont and Katie Brenny at the University of Minnesota were subjected to blatant discrimination by school athletic administrators based on their sexual orientation. Bev Kearney’s ill-advised relationship with a student on her team was allegedly treated in an entirely different manner than the university’s response to a male coach involved with a female student team manager. The Fresno lawsuit alleged that male administrators actually cheered losses by teams they believed were coached by lesbians because it would make it easier to get rid of them.

The cases of Tracey Griesbaum and Shannon Miller represent a more subtle kind of discrimination in which lesbian coaches face a double whammy. In addition to being devalued as a female coach and subjected to sex discrimination, lesbian coaches face the hostility of athletic directors who appear to be waiting for any reason, no matter how implausible, to use as a pretext for getting rid of a successful lesbian coach. At Iowa, the reason is a murky and unsubstantiated charge of verbally abusive behavior. At Minnesota Duluth, a financial crisis provides the opportunity to get rid of Shannon Miller.

Several of the women in these cases describe an “unhealthy” athletic department climate of “fear” or “hostility” in which women coaches and women’s leadership are devalued in which women administrators are afraid to speak up to challenge double standards or to support women coaches. In the Fresno State case, male athletic staff actually held “Ugly Woman Athlete” competitions and warned straight female coaches not to associate with female coaches on “the other team” meaning lesbians. At Minnesota her male replacement openly ridiculed Brenny as a lesbian with members of the women’s golf team.

All of these women have refused to accept discrimination (with the exception of Lisa Howe who had no legal grounds to sue). They have refused to leave quietly hoping to find another position in a more hospitable climate for women in athletics. By filing lawsuits they are calling public attention to a persistent problem in college athletics. Unfortunately, taking this courageous stand jeopardizes their opportunities to find future work in athletics. It is possible that other male athletic directors will be reluctant to hire women labeled “troublemakers” who insist that we look at the depth and persistence of sexism and homophobia in college athletics (Only 8 percent of Division 1 schools have women athletic directors, according to Richard Lapchick).

The patterns we see by looking at these lawsuits together paint an ugly picture for young women who might be interested in college athletics as a career. The message is, as a woman coach, you are a second class citizen subject to a double standard in which your success and experience will not protect you from discrimination. In fact, these accomplishments might even contribute to being targeted for discrimination. If you are a lesbian coach, the message is, you better watch your back, keep it on the down low and even if you do stay in the closet, when athletic administrators want to come for your job, they will find a reason to justify their action.

This is a pretty dismal message for women in college athletics. It is pretty dismal message for college athletics in general which often seems to have sold its soul in pursuit of the elusive goal of a football program that operates in the black. The first step in combating this war on women coaches is to make the connections. We must refuse to see each of these lawsuits as isolated incidents of discrimination. We must begin to acknowledge the pattern of sexism, misogyny and homophobia so ingrained in college athletics that it makes this war on women in athletics possible.

It may be that the only way to change athletics is to continue to file discrimination lawsuits. If money is the most important factor in college athletics today, let’s continue to make schools pay for condoning and supporting discrimination. Defending a school against these lawsuits is a costly and losing proposition. In every one of the cases I note here that have been adjudicated, the women won, either in court or in settlements by schools to avoid the court room. Colleges and universities are paying out millions of dollars as a result of sexism, homophobia and misogyny in athletics and reaping lots of negative media attention in the process. If that is the only way to get the attention of college and university leaders, so be it.

The war on college women coaches has got to stop.


Pat is Professor Emerita, University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport. She is also an activist and educator. This articles was originally printed in The Huffington Post, it is reprinted here with permission.