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Consider this résumé: Five NCAA Division 1 titles. Fastest coach to 300 wins in Division 1 history. Career winning percentage near .700. Head coach of the Canadian women’s Olympic team at the 1998 Nagano Games.
Those are the credentials of University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller. And at the end of March, she will be out of a job. Miller and the program she built into a national powerhouse over 16 years fell victim to a college sports system that still struggles to see equal value in women’s athletics.
Almost six weeks ago, Miller learned that her contract would not be extended beyond the 2014-15 season. A university news release said the decision was “due to financial considerations.” In the same announcement, athletic director Josh Berlo added that his department “is not in a position to sustain the current salary levels of our women’s hockey coaching staff.”
Miller earns a base salary of $207,000, making her the highest-paid Division 1 women’s hockey coach. Given the going rate for coaches of other top women’s college hockey programs, it’s likely her less-experienced, less-credentialed, less-successful replacement will be paid around $160,000. Not much savings. And at what cost to a perennially successful program?
Meanwhile, UMD’s men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin reportedly makes $265,000 per year. Sandelin has one national title to his name, and his job for the foreseeable future. His contract runs through 2017. Also, figures from the US Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis database show that the operating costs for UMD men’s hockey are almost $275,000 greater than those for the women’s team.
The numbers make UMD’s decision appear less about “financial considerations” and more about a low valuation of women’s sports. By letting Miller go, the university sends a message about how little a female athlete’s college experience matters. If it mattered more, then UMD would have handled the situation differently, discussed a pay cut, and worked out the “win-win” that Miller thought possible.
The real bottom line? With UMD facing a $6 million budget deficit, the athletic department decided the best way to cut costs was to drop one of the most accomplished coaches in women’s hockey and, in the process, disrespect a team currently ranked No. 7 in the country. Now, players drawn to UMD by Miller’s coaching résumé, which also includes helping develop 26 Olympians, will pay a price that’s harder to calculate.
Miller, who has hired two lawyers with expertise in Title IX and gender-equity issues, believes the disrespect goes further.
“This move was incredibly disrespectful to all women, not just to coaches and to female athletes,” said Miller. “It is a slap in the face to our gender. I will not tolerate it and I will continue to speak out and fight it.”
The timing added to the force of the slap. Miller and her players received the news in the middle of the season, after they had won 12 of 13 games and reached No. 6 in the rankings. The news also broke just before final exams and a few weeks before the University of Michigan signed Jim Harbaugh as its football coach for an average of nearly $6 million per year.
Women’s college hockey will never compete with the revenue-generating juggernaut of college football. I’m not comparing Miller with Harbaugh. I’m not saying women’s college coaches in a variety of sports should make millions, though a girl can dream.
But Harbaugh’s hiring made me think how a multimillion-dollar coach is a point of pride in men’s college sports. It says: We got our guy. It sends the message: We want success. We want national championships. On the flip side, Miller’s firing shows that in women’s college sports a high salary can be a liability. It sends a very disturbing, throwback message to women: Aim high, but not too high.
In an emotional, mid-December team meeting, Miller told her players she wouldn’t be back next season. The coach explained that she didn’t do anything wrong, that this was a cost-cutting measure. There was silence, then disbelief, then sadness. Players cried and asked, “Why is this happening?” Miller wanted to take the high road. She also wanted to be honest.
“There’s a lot of disparity between how men’s and women’s coaches are treated,” Miller told her players. “There’s a lot of disparity between how male and female athletes are treated. There’s a lot of disparity between how the men’s and women’s hockey programs are treated. You’ve got to be strong. What they’re doing to us is wrong.”
It’s easy to hold up Title IX and check gender equality in college sports off the to-do list. But the view from the frontlines of women’s college sports in Duluth and elsewhere around the country offers a different perspective. In ways big and small, women’s college athletics often don’t receive the attention, respect, and resources they deserve. I’ve seen it in small crowds and parent-operated concession stands at women’s games. School administrators, fans, and the media can do better.
In Duluth, people tell Miller that her team needs to win a national championship “because all eyes are on you.” Certainly, a national championship would highlight UMD’s bad, financially-driven decision even more and put a larger spotlight on inequities in college sports. It’s also an unfair burden to place on Miller and her players.
“I’ve got every intention of leading this group to win a national championship,” said Miller. “But if we don’t, how dare you put that on these kids. All eyes should be on UMD and what they did to us when we were ranked sixth in the country. They made it very clear they don’t value us like they should.”
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.