Ex-U of Minnesota Duluth coaches file discrimination lawsuit

Coach Shannon Miller
Former University of Minnesota Duluth coach Shannon Miller was the school's first head women's hockey coach. Here, Miller talked to players during a February practice in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery | File for MPR News

Updated: 5:10 p.m. | Posted: 12:30 p.m.

Three former University of Minnesota Duluth coaches, including women's hockey coach Shannon Miller, filed a discrimination lawsuit against the university Monday, saying they lost their jobs because they're female and gay.

The lawsuit alleges seven counts of discrimination against Miller, as well as former softball coach Jen Banford and ex-basketball coach Annette Wiles.

The lawsuit also alleges that the university unlawfully retaliated against the women for reporting they were harassed by co-workers. And they claim retaliation for advocating for equal funding for women's sports.

Miller and Banford also claim discrimination based on their Canadian nationality.

"We understand and expect that this will be a very important case here in the state of Minnesota, which we expect will have an impact on the treatment of women and LGBT people at the University of Minnesota," said Dan Siegel, a Oakland, Calif.- based civil rights attorney representing the coaches.

Lendley Black, chancellor at University of Minnesota Duluth, says he has not yet reviewed the lawsuit. But he disputes any claims of discrimination.

"I have every confidence in the decisions that we made here at UMD," Black said, adding, "I'm also confident that through the course of the impending legal process, those decisions will be made clear."

Miller led the Bulldogs to five NCAA national championships, but UMD officials cited a budget deficit when they told her last December that they would not renew her contract.

Miller made about $235,000 a year, the highest salary among Division I women's coaches. Her replacement makes about $67,000 less. By comparison UMD's men's coach earns about $300,000 annually.

Siegel said the dollar amounts are so small the decision to let Miller go could not be financially driven.

"The amount of money at stake here is trivial, about a tenth of a percent of the budget deficit. If they had wanted to keep Coach Miller, they could have kept her."

Black said he can't talk about the specifics regarding Miller's firing or the other coaches' departures. He said the university is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive campus community and that it's been a focus since he came to UMD five years ago.

"We can always get better," Black said. "Any campus that's dealing with diversity challenges, knows that diversity takes time. It's a painstaking process at times. I will continue to listen to concerns, continue to seek best practices, and we'll continue to move forward."

Miller's firing has become a flashpoint in a wider national debate over gender equity in college athletics, especially among women's coaches.

Since the landmark Title IX law was passed in 1972, the number of female college athletes has exploded. But the number of female coaches has plummeted.

"It's really important for schools to have environments that are welcoming and certainly not discriminatory," said Neena Chaudry, director of equal opportunity in athletics at the National Women's Law Center. "I think that there's still an uphill battle for women in coaching."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified back pay and compensatory damages, as well as attorneys' fees.

Miller on Monday told reporters a story she said exemplifies the discrimination she faced at UMD.

"I showed up to work one morning, and my nametag was taken out, and there was a stickie on my door with the word 'dyke' written on it," she said. "Of course, I reported that, and I never did get a new nametag, there was no investigation, and nothing happened."

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