Shannon Miller is the most successful female ice hockey coach of all time. She led the Canadian national women’s hockey team to a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and followed that up by winning five national championships in 16 seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before she was abruptly fired from her position, without cause, in December 2014. Miller filed a Title IX suit against the University’s Board of Regents, alleging discrimination. In 2018, a federal jury found UMD officially liable for sex discrimination and Title IX retaliation.
As part of her project Title IX at 50: Educate & Advocate, Distinguished Professor of Humanics Kathy Mangano interviewed Miller about her career and what led her to file the lawsuit. A webcast of the full interview can be viewed at springfield.edu/TitleIXat50. An edited excerpt of their conversation follows.
Mangano: Help me understand this: You were the winningest coach in college ice hockey history. How does an institution let someone with your success go?
Miller: A new chancellor and a new athletic director came to the university. They cut our budget drastically and showed no respect for women’s hockey, no respect for Title IX, no respect for the history or our program whatsoever. During the discovery phase of the federal lawsuit that we launched against the university, an email was discovered. The new athletic director had emailed HR and said, “I want to get rid of these six women. How do I do it?” The six women he had identified were the six openly-gay women in the athletic department. Nobody else. That tells you what his intention was. No matter how successful we were, how well-loved we were by the community, he was getting rid of these six openly-gay women, and that set the table for the rest of the story.
Mangano: Throughout your career you dealt with gender inequities and violations of Title IX. What were some of those inequities?
Miller: The head coach of the men’s team was there for the same period of time I was. My teams advanced to the Frozen Four seven times and out of those seven times, we won five national championships. There are maybe three or four programs in all sports that could say that.
Even though we were so much more successful than the men’s team, they were not in compliance with Title IX. For example, the men’s program would get anywhere from $55,000 to $75,000 a year to recruit. Our women’s program averaged $26,000 to $35,000. So we were getting half of what the men were getting, and significantly lower than most Division I programs. But we still did well. Another inequity was publicity and promotion. We hear all the time that the reason men get paid more than the women is because they get so many more fans at their games. [The UMD men’s hockey coach] was given 15 opportunities a year to go on radio or television. I was given five opportunities a year. The athletic department spun it as, “He gets paid more because he has to do so much more media.” Well, I would like to do it 15 times. So they were out there promoting the men’s team at least three times more than they were promoting our program. Those inequities, they just piled up.
Mangano: What was the reaction when you spoke up and said, “This is wrong?”
Miller: Obviously you start with a gentle approach. Almost every female coach has a story. You start gently knocking on the door and explain what Title IX is and [point out] the inequities. And you imagine how much better an atmosphere you can create for your female student-athletes if they were to be treated equal to the men. And how much more success you could have academically, athletically.
The response was always, “Why do you need more? You’re winning anyway.” I was thoughtful, professional and factual when I presented the inequities. I did try to educate and advocate. I really just tried to move the needle. I said, “We can keep winning for you, but you have to help us out here.” The truth is, I got nothing but backlash. The minute I started to speak up and gently push to create a better and more equal environment for my female student-athletes, it got ignorant.
One day, I came into work and someone had taken my name tag off my door and put a sticky note on my door that said “dyke.” On three or four other occasions, I got hate mail that said, “Go home, dyke.” It was an environment of hate toward successful women, strong women and certainly openly-gay women. I don’t regret the federal lawsuit and the fight that I had to go through, as difficult and draining as it was. I don’t regret fighting, because we have to speak up or there won’t be change.
Mangano: What was the result of the lawsuit?
Miller: It was a federal civil rights trial. Title IX was the biggest component at that trial. We had remarkable witnesses. We had so much evidence. [Former Women’s Sports Foundation CEO] Donna Lopiano, our Title IX expert, said the amount of evidence we had was overwhelming. After a two-week trial, it only took the 12 jurors only three-and-a-half hours to come back and say, “We believe Shannon and her witnesses.” The jury awarded me $4.2 million. The judge agreed with the verdict but the case sat on his desk for a year and a half. He decided that it was too much money for Minnesota. He was ok with the men’s coach getting the big salary, but he cut my financial reward to just under $2 million. I went through this for seven years, didn’t have a coaching job. But we won. It was a necessary fight, and I hope that not only did I help myself, but also female athletes at UMD. Things are much better for them now. You can only hope that you’ve had some small ripple effect on the world.
Photo Courtesy Shannon Miller