When Shannon Miller, the University of Minnesota-Duluth women's hockey coach, was told she would not be brought back by the school next year, many allegations of sexism were sounded. It made no sense to many fans that her five national championships should earn her less pay than the men's hockey coach, who has won one national title. To be let go, because that lower salary was too expensive for the school, pointed in one clear direction: A double standard for men and women.
Yet the issues may run even deeper than that. Miller has told Outsports that she believes homophobia - in addition to sexism - is one of the underlying reasons for her forced departure from the school, citing various specific alleged examples as evidence of poor treatment she has received from the school's athletic department.
To be sure, the two dynamics are strongly linked. The roots of sexism and homophobia are similar mentalities that dictate men be stronger, smarter and more valuable than women. The historic role of sports in defining masculinity in our culture compounds the issue.
Campus Pride bans University of Minnesota-Duluth
Campus Pride says the University of Minnesota-Duluth will not be considered as an inclusive campus until it answers to questions of why lesbian hockey coach Shannon Miller was fired.
"It's very difficult to separate out sexism and homophobia," said Univ. of Massachusetts professor emerita Pat Griffin. "Of course there are straight women who have been in the same position as Shannon, pointing out inequities in their programs. So it does happen to straight women. But there's always this undercurrent of homophobia, sometimes used to make women afraid to advocate for themselves. Part of that is the expectation that if you're a coach or an athlete, you must be a lesbian, and how the fear of that assumption is used to keep women compliant and silent."
Miller isn't staying silent. She began making noise at the school about homophobia in 2012 when she was asked by the school's Chancellor, Lendley Black, to appear in a video highlighting what he believed to be an LGBT-friendly environment at the school. Miller declined to appear in the video, saying that she did not believe that environment existed. Despite being urged by UMD GLBT Services director Angie Nichols to investigate the issues, Black never spoke to Miller about her concerns. Black touts their Campus Pride Index ranking on his Web page, despite that ranking being suspended.
Beyond general undercurrents of homophobia, Miller believes being an out and proud member of the UMD athletic department generated very real negative consequences during her tenure.
"There's no doubt in my mind that homophobia is one of the factors as to why I've been treated so poorly by some in the UMD athletic department," Miller said.
One particularly blatant incident came in 2007 when the name tag outside of her athletic department office door was removed by someone and replaced by a label that said, "dyke." She reported it to the administration and asked for an investigation. Miller claims there was no investigation into the incident. Despite her twice requesting the department replace her name tag, she alleges they never did; She ultimately replaced it herself.
There have been other more subtle incidents.
The athletic department created a golf outing as a fundraiser in 2006. Various members of the athletic department, including Miller, were invited to be part of the event. At the golf course, Miller alleges that she and another lesbian coach were removed from teams by then-athletic director Bob Nielson and replaced by secretaries. Miller said she asked the Nielson why he replaced them, but she never received an answer.
A similar incident allegedly happened at another athletic department fundraiser when three lesbian coaches were told there weren't enough seats for them in a room full of tables - This despite Miller's teams having won five national titles for the school.
The University of Minnesota-Duluth did not return requests for comment on these incidents.
The whole episode has taken on national interest. Some point to Miller's success as a coach as reason for suspicion over her firing. Female coaches are being replaced by male coaches across the country at an alarming rate (at the time of publication, there is no hint as to the gender of Miller's potential replacement). Others claim that success in women's hockey isn't equivalent to success in men's hockey, so her dismissal was justified. Miller's last national title came in 2010, while the UMD men's team's only title came in 2011.
Yet Miller says she has been asking for more support to remain competitive for years.
"For six years I have been talking to UMD Administration about recognizing that the women's hockey landscape is changing, and the need to adjust to it. I repeatedly expressed a need for a full time Director of Operations like the Universities of Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. Other women's programs have them too. Our men's team was given one and I was told we would receive one the very next year. It's been five years now since that promise and we still don't have one."
Miller's team finished 20-12-5 this season, despite the "distraction" created by the athletic department. They finished the season ranked ninth in the country in computer rankings. Eight teams were invited to the NCAA tournament, and UMD just missed out.
With Miller's final season at UMD over, she will be begin looking for her next gig. She leaves the school with five national championships (most by any coach in NCAA women's hockey). In 16 years she had only one losing season, 2012-13. She has hired two lawyers who are exploring the potential for a discrimination lawsuit against the school.