In December, Shannon Miller, one of the most successful coaches in the history of women’s collegiate hockey, was told that her contract would not be renewed at the end of the season. Miller had been the head coach of the women’s ice hockey team at the University of Minnesota Duluth for 16 years—the only head coach the program had ever known—and in that time she had won five national titles. Between hoisting those trophies she also coached Team Canada to gold at the 1997 IIHF World Women's Championships and silver the following year at the Nagano Olympics.
The school’s decision to part ways was a financial calculation, said Josh Barlow, UMD’s athletic director. Miller, the highest-paid female hockey coach in the country, with a base salary of $207,000 per year, was earning more than UMD could afford.
Earlier this month the school hired Miller’s replacement, Maura Crowell, who joins UMD after five seasons at Harvard. Her contract pays $140,000 in year one with annual increases that will bump her salary, by year five, to $170,000. Meaning, in comparison to Miller’s contract, UMD will save $67,000 in year one and just $37,0000 by year five. This is not an insignificant sum, but it’s also not particularly notable when the school is facing a reported $6 million deficit.
Before the passing of Title IX the gap in sport participation between men and women was staggering. Nearly 3.7 million boys were playing varsity high school sports compared with just 295,000 girls.
For her part, Miller, who has said she was willing to take a pay cut, has hired two attorneys who specialize in gender-equity issues. In Miller’s view, the matter is not, as the school said, simply about cutting costs.
“All I know is what I’ve gone through in the last 15 years working in the UMD athletic department. I know how I’ve been treated. I know why I had to go to HR on many occasions. I know why I had to contact the administration on many occasions,” she told the Duluth News Tribune in February. “Discrimination rears its ugly head in many forms, and I feel I have been discriminated against because I’m a woman. I feel I have been discriminated against because I’m gay.”
Miller led the Bulldogs to a 20-12-5 record this year, despite the distractions surrounding the program. It was the 14th time in Miller’s 16 seasons that the team posted 20 or more victories. While that was happening, 13 state senators wrote letters to the school’s president and chancellor asking for more information regarding the status of Miller's contract. In response, Chancellor Lendley Black said the decision had nothing to do with gender or sexual orientation but rather finance and team performance.
At this point, it appears likely the case will end up in court. When female coaches are pushed out of sport, they are often backed into a corner, forced to exit quietly in hopes of preserving future job offers. This isn’t the case for Miller. Her platform allows for an opportunity to fight back, and in the process bring attention to the ongoing exile of female coaches from collegiate sports.
In 1972, the United States Congress passed Title IX, which states:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
This meant schools receiving federal funding could no longer give preference to men. They were now required to allocate their resources between men and women proportionally.
Before the passing of Title IX the gap in sport participation between men and women was staggering. Nearly 3.7 million boys were playing varsity high school sports compared with just 295,000 girls, writes Ronald Woods in Social Issues in Sports. Beyond that, for every dollar spent in youth sports, a single cent went toward girls programs.
Now, despite the fact that more women are participating in college sports than ever before, the percentage of female coaches has plummeted, and has been dropping consistently since 1978, the year Title IX became mandatory. The law created more paid coaching opportunities (many coaching positions for women’s sports were previously volunteer based) and these new jobs attracted both female and male candidates, the latter of which could now enjoy two career tracks in both men’s and women’s sports. The majority of women's college teams are now coached by men, but only about two percent of men's teams are coached by women.
In February, the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, in conjunction with the Alliance for Women Coaches, released a report on the state of head coaches and women’s collegiate teams.
While the participation gap has narrowed, male athletes still receive 55 percent of college athletic scholarships, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Eighty-six programs were assessed, and schools with female head coaches for 70 to 100 percent of its women's teams were awarded an A. Only two schools, Cincinnati and the University of Central Florida, earned that distinction. Twelve schools received failing grades. At the bottom of the pack was Xavier, which has eight women’s teams but not a single female coach. Overall, less than 40 percent of all women's teams are coached by women.
Women are under-represented in all coaching positions and many of the barriers they face are societal. The gendered division of labor in sports manifests at every level, including administrative, which can skew hiring practices and leave female coaches with few support networks. In 2014, 11 percent of U.S. collegiate athletic programs had no women anywhere in their administrative structures, according to the Women in Intercollegiate Sport project. That same report found that out of 100 head sports information directors, only 12 were female.
Cultural and historical restraints, like fear of homosexuality, are another obstacle faced by female coaches. Often, personal identity is sacrificed in order to keep a job. In her book Strong Women in Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports, Pat Griffin, a pioneer in addressing LGBT issues in sports, writes that, although she is gay, she dated a male wrestling coach in hopes of retaining her own coaching position.
The dwindling number of female coaches also hurts future generations of athletes. Without exposure to the coaches, younger athletes might begin to question their own abilities and not view coaching, or sports, as a viable career opportunity. Tara VanDerveer, who has coached the Stanford University women's basketball team since 1985, told the Atlantic that the lack of female collegiate coaches sends a message to female athletes that "It's okay for you to play, but you don't have what it takes to coach."
While the participation gap has narrowed, male athletes still receive 55 percent of college athletic scholarships, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, and, financially, the gulf in the gender pay gap remains as significant as ever at the coaching level. Head coaches for NCAA Division I women's teams earn an average of $850,400 per year, while head coaches for men's teams average just under $2 million a season. This is further reflected in the pro ranks. The WNBA's salary cap is around $900,000 for each of its 12 teams. Kobe Bryant was paid $23.5 million this season, meaning he earned enough to pay the salary of every player in the WNBA—twice.
Miller is one of the most recent and high-profile examples of a female coach being ousted from her position, but she’s far from alone. Last year, Tracey Griesbaum was fired by the University of Iowa after allegations that she was verbally abusive despite an internal investigation that found her not guilty of any charges. No further reason was given for her dismissal—her experience and success erased by discrimination.
If a female coach navigates the sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and overt discrimination embedded in collegiate sport and finds some level of prosperity, that too can be fleeting. Whether it’s a contract that’s not renewed, a forced resignation under pressure from administration, sexual discrimination, or any other factor, inexperienced coaches who command a lesser salary can step into their place—until the cycle repeats itself.
Miller, for 16 years, was able to maintain her position of power. She won’t let it go lightly. Through her association with sport, her visibility puts her in a position to create social change—to challenge hegemonic masculinity. Despite her accolades in hockey, her most important victory might just happen off the ice.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.