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Shannon Miller and the Bulldogs: Coach takes aim at discrimination

After a huge legal win, Miller’s lawyer reflects on the meaning of exposing gender discrimination.

Shannon Miller won possibly the biggest victory of her career when a Federal jury ordered the Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth to pay her $3.74 million in her discrimination lawsuit.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Discrimination. Homophobia. Bigotry. Prejudice.

They are just words, unless you have to live them. Then, they become more than that.

They become the painful burden that grows with each passing day. They become the wound that festers that can change an attitude, or a personality, or a demeanor.

For three years Shannon Miller lived under the shadow of an unexplained decision that was a lie. Initially, she was told that her employment would be terminated because she was too expensive, and that an athletic department with a $9 million budget couldn’t afford her.

Never mind that she was never asked to take a reduction in pay. Never mind that the athletic director testified that he wouldn’t have renewed her contract for less than half of what she was earning anyway.

It was only later, when the public outcry became deafening, that the explanation changed.

Now, it wasn’t “financial,” it was “performance.” She wasn’t winning as many games. Her teams hadn’t recently won a conference championship or participated in the NCAA tournament. Attendance had fallen off.

Despite the false statements, the truth doesn’t lie: five National Championships in 16 years, 10 times qualified for the NCAA tournament, seven times qualified for the Frozen Four, attendance at games consistently ranked in the top four nationally, and a national ranking of sixth at the time her non-renewal was announced.

Having started the season 0-3-1 against Minnesota and Wisconsin, the team proceeded to win 11 of the next 12 games. Amidst this beginning, it was announced just before final exams that the coach wouldn’t be returning next season.

What consideration is given to the coach, and also to the players who are asked to add concerns of the status of their scholarship on top of their academics, final exams and the pressure of winning games?

For three years Shannon Miller endured the whispers and the rumors, the lies and innuendos.

Finally, the day arrives. Despite the production of thousands of pages of documents and emails, her case is reduced to two simple questions: Was she discriminated against based on her sex? Was she retaliated against based on her complaints?

The second question was as important as the first, because true to her convictions, she stood up for her players. Why is the women’s recruiting budget less than the men’s? Why do the men have a greater meal budget than the women? Why do her rivals have the benefit of a fifth year and summer school and she doesn’t?

Multiple former players from different parts of the world came to testify on her behalf. The theme was always the same: “I came to UMD to play for Coach Miller”; “I turned down multiple scholarship offers from other schools to play for Coach Miller”; “I learned so much more from Coach Miller than just about hockey”; “Coach Miller is the best coach I have ever had.” Strong words from All-American players, National Team players and Olympians.

In the end, three years of agonizing preparation came down to nine days of trial in front of 12 citizens of Northern Minnesota. They came not only from Duluth, but also from places like Grand Rapids and Biwabik and Hibbing and Sartell.

After only a half day of deliberations, they had their unanimous verdict: discrimination and retaliation against Shannon Miller by the University of Minnesota Duluth. An award of $3.74 million.

Victory and vindication for Shannon Miller, to be sure. Perhaps a re-start to an outstanding career interrupted by discrimination, homophobia, bigotry and prejudice. But maybe also a victory for those who have no voice and who continue to endure acts of discrimination every day of their lives.

Maybe the real victory is hope: hope that others will be encouraged and strengthened and emboldened to stand up for the rights to which they are entitled.

In the end, the coach who risked everything said it best:

“It’s a really big moment for myself, but also for women, specifically women in college athletics. And also for LGBT people—be authentic for who you are and fight discrimination despite the risks. I hope it reverberates across the country.”

And so it should.

Donald Chance Mark, Jr., represented Shannon Miller in her successful Federal gender-discrimination lawsuit against the Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth. He will represent Miller and other coaches in a broader discrimination case that will be heard at the state level.