In 2015, Coach Shannon Miller's contract was not renewed, essentially firing her from her post as head coach of the women's ice hockey program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This mid season non-renewal was unprecedented and to date there have been zero male coaches in college athletics that have been let go by institutions claiming they could no longer afford their salary.
Most of what the public knows about the case is what they gather from occasional press releases and social media. Despite what the critics believe, this monumental case is not and never has been solely about damages, or proving who did what to who.
Consider the Miller case as a gift or an open book of quite common experiences for women in college athletics everywhere. This real-life event is a window of unbridled access to a 10,000 foot perspective that has the potential to create lasting value for the future of women coaches in college athletics.
You can read over the facts of the case through various news outlets but everything you need to know about this case that matters, is right here.
Miller's journey and every Title IX and VII case before hers was never about a money, a settlement deal or even about a female coach being dissatisfied over losing a job. Anyone who has gone through a lawsuit or court proceedings knows precisely how taxing the 3-5 year process can be. This being said, those still believing that any amount of money could ever restore the damage inflicted from the litigation stress or reverse the physical and emotional toll it takes on a plaintiff, have no idea what it is like to stand on the front lines of justice. You do not even have to be a coach to read the five points below and gain an awareness of what currently plagues female coaches in athletics daily. How we absorb and analyze these 5 key points has everything to do with whether or not we learn from it.
1. UMD administration is a mere sample size cut from a large underground leadership majority in college athletics. Miller represents the minority of female coaches who chose to fight.
UMD and many universities who are or have faced suits of this nature, want nothing more than for the public to interpret these cases as isolated incidents. Painting plaintiffs as disgruntled and angry women is the path of least resistance for institutions to swiftly gain favor and sympathy while claiming they are doing their jobs. Leaders in athletics bank on the public's attention span being limited and as history has shown us, the cards are in their favor. This has been the same song and dance for the largest Title IX and discrimination lawsuits in places like the University Iowa, Fresno, Brown, Quinnipiac and the list goes on.
As we know, every argument has the potential to house a variety of perspectives. In this case, it appears that there are two sides where on one end you have UMD who made a decision to part with an employee claiming it was a budget issue. On the other side, you have a world class coach who will likely never hold a job in the NCAA again because she stood up to an institution in a court of law after being unjustly terminated. Unfortunately, it's not that black and white. This case isn't even about Miller and if you ever have the privilege of speaking to her face to face, she would be the first to tell you so.
According to the 2017 Tucker Center research, 41.5% of all women's college teams are actually coached by women. That number has risen at a slower pace and is a very prevalent article topic that is dissected and discussed repeatedly concerning the low number of women in college coaching. There is existing research and several different theories as to what causes women to exit coaching. However, if we would all take a deeper look at the Miller vs UMD case we could stop all the head scratching and render this as an easily solvable mystery. This lawsuit as well as all the other major Title IX suits in the United States over the last four decades, all possessed enough compelling facts for individual female private citizens to take on the system in search of justice.
The odds favor the house and women all across intercollegiate sports know the game well. Very few women in athletics are paid what they are worth based on experience and success but even that minority who has climbed the ladder by silent submission feel powerless when it comes time to challenging the system. In college athletics, standing up to the institution more times than not comes with a price of leaving college athletics forever with little to no chance you will ever get back in.
2. Shannon Miller's treatment along with UMD's blatantly discriminatory culture is not an isolated case and is much closer to the norm in college athletics than the public and media want to acknowledge.
I can personally name over 50 female coaches with strikingly similar and nearly identical situations to Miller. This group is not made up of the women you see in the headlines because they either could not afford to challenge the system or had so little support that their open and shut cases never saw the light of a court room. These women are the majority that have silently disappeared and continue to show up nowhere on anyone's data because their stories remain untold. This is why the NCAA and its membership institutions possess zero urgency in issuing a organization-wide remedy or at the very least, acknowledging the existence of discriminatory practices on a mass scale.
For almost three years I have read as critics sit on the other side of the keyboard throw stones at women like Shannon Miller. I have watched and become enraged as the media uses photos repeatedly of Miller appearing angry only to paint an image for the public that she is greedy or hostile.
This is by design.
Women in Miller's situation find themselves in these headlines and are among those who will lose or have lost their livelihood fighting for what is right. We in the women coaching community commend them and bask in the victories of cases like Griesbaum and Meyer over the University of Iowa.
However, we have done so little to support them since. We fully dishonor these women by celebrating their verdict and following it up by turning a blind eye until the next brave soul steps out in front and a new lawsuit emerges. The silence in between these Title IX and VII court cases is what nurtures these universities into believing their behavior is justified.
Women like Shannon Miller take the punches for us. They are subject to endless social media scrutiny and can do nothing but wait patiently hoping a verdict in their favor will potentially serve as their ultimate last word. What Shannon Miller has done in taking on UMD is a symbol of what so many women wish they could or would have done after being bullied, harassed, fired, watched their teams be treated like second class citizens, or are eventually removed from the sport they love. The practice of removing women in coaching when they speak out against inequity in their departments is alive and we need to face it and expose it consistently long after the verdict is handed down in the Miller case.
3. The University of Minnesota Duluth WILL lose, but verdicts alone cannot change misogynistic cultures.
Court cases are but one step in this movement and while being sued for millions should teach universities a lesson, these institutions remain reluctant to change their behavior. Sure, Jackson vs Birmingham Board of Education exists and the 2005 verdict made retaliation a huge no-no for the education system but this has not been forceful enough to stop athletic departments from inventing new ways to get the outcomes they seek when punishing or silencing an outlier. The truth is, institutions recognize that they must change bad departmental behavior and treatment but this is sadly only based on political pressure and not a genuine desire to change discriminatory environments.
The movement of the needle to actually adhere to those policies and change culture has been horribly sluggish at best. Institutions are not getting better at acknowledging and taking ownership of their duties in gender equity. On the contrary, they have developed paths around the law that are carved out of a combination of creative paper trails against whistle blowers and hiring individuals willing to do anything to protect the university. No cost is too great and no lie will be left untold even if that means destroying the livelihood of their strongest female coaches. This is precisely why and how UMD and AD Josh Berlo were confident enough to fire Miller armed with only a weak explanation that is currently being squashed in court.
4. Miller was not fired because she cost too much or budgetary issues were a real concern. She was fired because she is a willful, strong leader which is not valued by athletic leadership.
Miller earned one of the highest salaries in women's college hockey. Her experience and success brought her paycheck to its number just as any man would arrive at his in any other sport after this kind of success. What people do not understand in college athletics is that when Tier 1 sport men win, schools seek them out and bid for them so their salary commensurates with experience. If you are a woman and you win, outside of women’s D-I basketball and a few high profile softball coaches, your success potentially prices you out of your next position.
I have won three national championships over seven years and been to nationals six times. Despite this, I must still campaign to justify consideration for a bonus. As a woman, interviewing for a head coach position is typically met with the idea that there is a preset amount for what a school wants pay their coach no matter what their resume looks like or how much success has been achieved. Schools feel far less obligation in pursuing the best candidate for a women's team than they do to the men's.
Opponents of this argument are immediately followed by the claim that men's athletics makes money so therefore, they deserve more. Writing 15 more paragraphs on how men's sports like football and basketball actually cost the institution more than they make, is an entirely differently article. The rub with schools wanting the cheapest yet most qualified female coach they can find is that it dilutes our resumes and pay negotiations each year thereafter.
I did the math and I will need to work 30 more years to reach the pay level of a third men’s b-ball assistant no matter what my record or other outcomes are. In the UMD case, the employment expert for UMD claimed that Miller didn’t “look hard enough for a job” or that she had "10 head coach or admin positions she should have applied for". This witness may know human resource speak, but she knows zero about the athletic job flow of the field. She couldn’t be more incorrect in terms of female coach value in the NCAA and more notably, Miller’s value in the market.
Miller knows well enough that after what UMD did she would never be able to go to another school that would ever pay her what she had rightfully earned as head coach of the Bulldogs. This point in itself is even moot because Miller also knew that she would be blackballed in college athletics regardless. She was spot on and this outcome is no different for the other female coaches who have been ousted.
This is a systemic issue across the board but we must reject the idea that this is unique to UMD. Countless institutions that do not value their female coaches feed this trend in athletics. The epidemic has been normalized to point where admin and other department officials are actually willing to defend this practice in a court of law as we've witnessed in the Miller case. They will swear up and down that they are right in what they are doing not because it's correct but because it's all they know. Men in college tier 1 athletics are paid based on what kind of results an institution desires. Unless you are Coach Carol Hutchins, Gasso, McGraw, Mulkey, Staley or Summitt (RIP), the pay check based on performance and true resume worth is a mirage. With Miller’s resume no matter what her relationship with UMD, other schools would have been falling all over themselves to get her...if she were a man, coaching men.
5. Miller is not just some disgruntled female coach. She is leader in the movement. She is all of us.
To cast judgment on Miller's persistence and refusal to give up is spitting in the faces of every female coach who has stayed in the fight. It's also a form of abandonment of all of the voices who have gone silent and been unable to speak out. So few are able to wade through the pools of the court system and come out on the other side. Miller did it and is still doing it and will no doubt be greeted with cheers from the coaching community when UMD is handed the loss.
However, the real progress will not be when UMD is finally held accountable and has to cut a check. Court cases come and go and precedent can be set but change will only occur when we stay outraged over what is happening to women in college sports when court is not in session. When the women and men who do not have to fight on a daily basis in their departments start to reach out and care about the ones that do, we will move forward.
The real tragedy is that the future student athletes lose out on these women. Three years have gone by and the women's ice hockey community has been without one of its strongest leaders. Students have missed out on Shannon Miller and countless other women who have been shown the door with no means of recourse. They have been eliminated simply for doing what they would hope their student-athletes would feel strong enough to do in the event they encounter discrimination or unfair employment practices.
Eliminating strength in women's athletics is counterproductive to the growth of our departments everywhere but so few understand the long term damage of this practice. Institutions do not favor the voices of women like Shannon Miller, Tracey Greisbaum, Jane Meyer, Lindy Vivas or Robin Sparks. As a result, we will continue to lose coaches just like them and no matter what kind of study or research shows the low numbers, there will be no quick reverse to this shift unless we recognize and attack it together.
Twenty years from now, legal history books will regard Miller with far more respect than the current media and public is currently capable. Only until we begin to embrace and believe the brave women who choose to speak up in college athletics where discrimination and unfair treatment is so rampant, will we see our numbers stabilize, rise and thrive.
Did you enjoy this article? Tweet at @StandWithMiller and share on Twitter.