Women in — and out — of sports

Helen Carroll

The story is current. But you can be forgiven for thinking it’s from 10 years ago. Or 50.

Shannon Miller was one of the most successful coaches in college athletics — in any sport, of both genders. She won five women’s ice hockey NCAA national championships at the University of Minnesota Duluth (and a medal with the Canadian Olympic team). Just before New Year’s, though, she was fired. The stated reason? Her salary was too high.

Facing budget problems, the athletic direct and chancellor let her go. They axed her entire staff, too. They did not, however, fire the men’s hockey coach … a man who was less successful than Miller, but earned more.

Interestingly, Miller — and all her (fired) assistant coaches — are lesbian or bisexual.

This is not the first curious dismissal of a female college coach in recent years. Last year, veteran University of Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum was fired, despite being cleared of charges that she had been verbally abusive. Griesbaum’s partner, a woman who was an athletic administrator at Iowa, was reassigned to other duties, soon after Griesbaum’s dismissal.

The year before, University of Texas woman’s track and field coach Bev Kearney was offered a choice (resign or be fired) for having a consensual sexual relationship with an athlete on her team.

These are just three of nearly a dozen gender-related incidents reported by Pat Griffin in a Huffington Post story called “College Athletics’ War on Women Coaches.” All occurred within the past decade. And all cause LGBT activitists like Helen Carroll to wonder why male and female coaches are treated so differently, in so many ways.

UMD’s retention of the less successful, more costly men’s hockey staff is not an isolated incident. Carroll — the sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, pictured — notes that Iowa’s Griesbaum was held to a different standard than male coaches. “Guys say aggressive things all the time, without being fired,” Carroll says. “The consequences here were really severe. Can you imagine Jim Harbaugh being fired for something like that?”

At Texas, according to Griffin, Kearney’s sex and race discrimination lawsuit says that “male coaches who had sexual relationships with female students were either not disciplined or received lighter punishments and retained their jobs.”

“Sexism and homophobia are intertwined,” Carroll claims. “You can’t separate the two.”

And the twin forces of discrimination affect all women, regardless of their sexual orientation. “Every woman in sports faces stereotypes,” Carroll says. “There’s a certain standard of appearance that the people in charge want to put forth.

Almost always, of course the people in charge are males. Carroll points with chagrin to the University of Tennessee. For decades, she says, that school had a superb women’s athletics program. Run by Joan Cronan — and separate from the men’s department — it achieved renown in a number of sports. Cronan battled for equality in pay, sponsorships and facilities with men’s athletics.

But when she retired in 2012, the men’s and women’s departments were merged. The combined athletic director (male) dismissed a number of very experienced, successful women from positions in athletic training, sports information and health and wellness. He replaced them with men. Lawsuits are ongoing.

Taken together, Carroll says, the effects are devastating. Women are being eliminated from positions of leadership, and leadership tracks. Further, the consequences of being let go are different than for men. Males, Carroll says, are quickly hired for new jobs. The stigma against fired women — some of it related to perceptions (real or imagined) about sexual orientation — prevents them from finding new jobs in their profession.

“These are experienced, strong coaches,” Carroll says. “They’re not novices. But once they’re gone, they never coach or work in athletics again.”

It happens, she reiterates, because of “sexism in sports. Look at the leaders. It’s guy athletic directors making decisions, lots of times backed by their college presidents. It’s all because men’s athletics brings in the big money. I’d like to think this doesn’t happen in 2015. But it does.”

There are signs of progress. The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has set up strong support systems. Nevin Caple just launched Coaches Corner (mycoachescorner.org), an online networking platform and comprehensive resource center for coaches and athletic administrators (male and female) at all levels of women’s and girls’ sports.

Will men find the site, and utilize it? They should. Right now they hold positions of power – and thus seem to hold the key to women’s sports.

But Carroll is not pinning all her hopes on men.

“I’m optimistic, because there’s a group of strong young women coming up,” she says. “They’re interested in athletics. They’re coaches, and members of the LGBT Sports Coalition. They’re willing to fight.”

And, so long as they’re all not fired, they’ll fight for women in sports for decades to come.

 — Dan Woog

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Fired coach addresses school board; National Center for Lesbian Rights may get involved


Nikki Williams

I wasn’t able to make it to Lancaster on Wednesday for the meeting I told you about earlier this week, at which fired lesbian coach Nichole “Nikki” Williams and her supporters publicly addressed the board of directors at Life School. But Williams fiancee, Jen DeSaegher, forwarded the below email she sent to the couple’s friends recapping the meeting:

We left the meeting with the feeling that it went well. Mind you, it wasn’t an interactive discussion with the administration and the Board of Directors–so there wasn’t any feedback. The meeting was merely an opportunity for the public (and particularly Nikki) to share our thoughts on Nikki’s termination.

About 8-9 of us shared our thoughts in 3 minute increments (as allowed by the board. There was a 30 minute time limit).

What I found most touching, was that the board members seemed very receptive. They were attentive, and there was a certain type of peace in the room that is hard to describe. I truly attribute that to the prayers being sent our way–(especially those of my faithful mom, Jani DeSaegher–the most amazing prayer warrior I know).

I think the most meaningful moment, for many of us, was when Jan Boyce spoke. Jan is the mother of Kate, a student Nikki taught five years ago–during her first year of teaching (at Red Oak). Jan spoke of Nikki’s impact on her daughter’s life, and how she couldn’t be more proud that Nikki is her daughter’s role model. As Jan started to cry, Nikki did too, and it was definitely a bit of an emotional moment.

As far as what’s next? We actually don’t know. Our lawyer will likely submit one final letter, asking for the termination to be removed from her record. That was the primary focus during all of the speeches we presented yesterday.

We can’t thank you enough for the continued support, sweet thoughts, kindness, and awesome texts. Please continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will move in the hearts of the Board Members (and in the hearts of Nikki & myself), that the matter will be resolved, and that Nikki will have the peace to move forward.

We know that everything happens for a reason, and we continue to believe and keep the faith. Thanks again for all of the support.

DeSaegher added the following in her email to me:

Overall, it really did feel like the board was listening. The feelings in the room were genuine, and they really were attentive. The looks on their faces were soft. There was a peace in the room. Of course [Life School HR Director] Charles Pulliam sat on the side and had a bit of a beaten look on his face. We wondered if once we left, the Board members would shut the door and say to him, “Listen…why did we bypass all of the progressive discipline here and go directly to a termination for someone who was so obviously loved, respected and revered? This has caused a huge mess. Was this really necessary?”

We’ll let you know what happens next, if anything.

Coincidentally, I received an email Wednesday from Helen Carroll, sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who was seeking contact info for Williams after reading my original story about the case. “We would like to see if we could be of any help to Coach Williams,” Carroll wrote. “If you could even forward my contact information to her, that will at least give her the opportunity to talk to a legal organization that has a successful track record in dealing with school systems that operate in this manner.”

I’ve put them in touch, so I’m thinking we haven’t heard the last of this.

—  John Wright