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Shannon Miller

Shannon Miller
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Name: Shannon Miller
Sport: Ice-Hockey
Role: 5 time NCAA Championships & Silver Medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics
Nationality: Canadian
Date: Sep 2015

One Woman’s Fight For Equality…

In 1972, a law was passed in the United States, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender to all schools receiving federal funding.  This law, called Title IX, was to ensure that all schools spent the same amount of money and effort on creating opportunities for both men and women and in particular for men’s and women’s sport.  Before Title IX, women and girls were virtually excluded from most athletic opportunities in school with fewer that 7% of all high school athletes being girls.  Figures released in 2011 showed that this number had risen to 41% of all high school athletes now being girls.  All seems very positive…that is, until you look at the deeper facts.

There are still huge discrepancies in the equality of sports in the US, with female sports scholarships falling behind by $183 million to their male counter parts and there are 63,000 fewer opportunities in NCAA institutions for women.  There is also another major issue – the equality of coaching staff.  Before 1972, 90% of all women’s sports teams were coached by women (although most were voluntary roles) and by 2015, that figure has dropped to only 40% and within some sports and some Universities this drops below 10%.  So, where has it all gone wrong?  One coach in the U.S; a Canadian born Ice Hockey coach, is about to embark on a historic journey to find out why.

After playing ice hockey as a young girl, Shannon Miller went on to coach her beloved sport and become the first ever-female Head Coach to lead her Country to an Olympic Games and to win multiple World Championships.  A few short years later, she went on to become one of  the few female head coaches in NCAA hockey and the first head coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD). Miller’s 16 years at UMD saw her win 5 National championships, out of a possible 14 (more than any other program) and advance to host the league playoffs 15 years out of 15.  Shannon became the most successful women’s ice-hockey coach ever.

However, behind the scenes Shannon battled daily with discrimination and negativity.  Rather than being celebrated for her success, Shannon experienced a number of sexist and homophobic incidents and has publicly stated “I feel I have been discriminated against because I’m a woman. I feel I have been discriminated against because I’m gay.”

It all came to a head when in December 2014, Shannon was called into the Chancellor’s office and with the new young Athletic Director present, was told that her contract would not be renewed at the end of the season as the University needed to cut back on funding to save money towards their $6 million budget deficit.  With one of the strongest coaching staffs Shannon Miller had ever had, while being ranked 3rd in the league and 6th in the country, and while in the middle of their season, Shannon was told that she and her entire coaching staff were losing their jobs. Shannon left that meeting feeling hurt, betrayed and was in utter shock. The men’s program however, was unaffected by these so called funding cuts and the less experienced and yet much higher paid men’s Head Coach was also unaffected.

As Shannon begins her journey to fight for equality and to defend the name of Title IX along with 2 other female coaches from the same University, Shannon will be creating a legacy for all sports women for future generations.

More about the Shannon Miller Case since our interview:

Why the Shannon Miller Case is important for all women in all sports

The Shannon Miller Case continues with a Title IX complaint

Can you tell us how you originally started your coaching journey and what it was about ice hockey you love so much?

When I was younger, my father would watch the NHL (National Hockey League) and I would watch with him, and that got me interested in the game.  I grew up in a small City of 5,000 people and they started a girl’s hockey team in my hometown.  My Dad registered me for the team and I started playing with the girls.  We ranged in ages from about 12 years old to 17 years old.  There were other girls’ teams that we would travel and play, and even though the team had girls in grade 6 playing with kids from grade 12, it was very a great experience and a lot of fun!  My love for the game just grew, the more I played the more I loved the game.

How did that develop into coaching?

I think it was because I was a smarter player than I was a skilled player!  I went on to play hockey at University, and was part of the first ever University of Saskatchewan women’s team.  What I realized was that for years there were a lot of players that were more skilled than I was, but I could really think the game…so what happens then is you end up being a player – coach while your playing.  People turn to you to strategize during the game, you find yourself studying the game, and then you realize that you have an interest and  gift for coaching. I transitioned from just playing, to being a player-coach, to just coaching.

You went on to have an incredibly successful coaching career and lead Team Canada  to the Olympic Games and many World Championships, being the first female to be the Head Coach to do so.  Then you moved on and started a brand new women’s program at the University of MinnesotaDuluth (UMD), being the first head coach ever.  What were the early days of this like, do you have any particular fond memories?

I was very excited to have the privilege to start a program from scratch.  I felt a tremendous amount of responsibility because there wasn’t a Division 1 Program (highest league in the US) and there were no staff, no coaches, no anything; I had to build it.  I really embraced that opportunity and was very excited, but felt a tremendous amount of responsibility about doing it right.  I had to get it right the first time because I was laying the foundation for many years to come.  My vision and also the vision of the Chancellor of the University at the time, was to have an international team, which would reflect the community of Duluth.  Duluth was comprised of Americans, Canadians and Scandinavian’s. We recruited potential student athletes from our state of Minnesota, across USA, Canada and Scandinavian countries. We were the first women’s program to do this in the United States, even though there had been Eastern Colleges playing ice-hockey for many years already.  What we did was really unique and rewarding, and it really got the program going in the right direction.

When did you feel that things started to get uncomfortable at UMD, when did you start experiencing negativity and discrimination?

There was quite a bit of discrimination right from the beginning. There were people that didn’t want women’s hockey to be added, and people that didn’t want a Canadian to come in and coach start the program. An assistant coach from the men’s team wanted the job and many people wanted him to have it. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with the gentleman that was the Athletic Director at the time and eventually I established a good relationship with the Chancellor of the University. So I managed the jealousy and negativity the best I could, and I had a certain level of appropriate administrative support. The UMD Administration changed, things got worse, and it’s been a very difficult time.

Were other women’s sports affected or was it just women’s ice hockey? 

IF you’re referring to funding and treatment, the women’s programs, coaches and athletes at  UMD were not treated equal to the men’s programs.

How did you as a person fight through that and stay motivated to coach as best as you could over 16 years?

It was very difficult because you know that there are certain people that are constantly trying to harm your reputation as a person, a professional and bring you down. There people putting up barriers to stop you and these people are supposed to be supporting the program. It’s very difficult hen you have to compete with outside opponents and protect yourself on the inside as well.  It was important to me to stand my ground, not let them bully me or destroy me, and when you love your team and love what you do, it helps you get through it. Strong female mentorship is so important for these young female athletes, and I strived to be a tremendous role model for these young women.  My players knew that I always stood up for them, my staff knew that, and that I had the courage to fight for our program. My approach was to ‘stand in the fire and not shrink back.’

Is that what has given you the strength now to file for the law-suit and to speak up as to what has happened to you?

I am fortunate because two parents that were strong and honest raised me. Both my parents role modeled a very strong sense of right and wrong, and taught us that no matter how difficult it may be, always do the right thing. That is the foundation that I was raised on, and I carry that attitude and approach through my day-to-day life.  Over the years you find wisdom and you integrate it into your whole self as you evolve. As your awareness grows, you become more centered, leading to more stability, inner strength and confidence. I have inner peace and inner strength, and I am telling the truth – all of this gives me the confidence to fight this horrific injustice. Others inspire me, and I hope to inspire others.

What do you want to see happen as a result of the law suit – is there anything specific you want the University to do?

I guess my hope is that I am helping shed a very bright light on a very big problem that exists. I hope people who say they believe in ‘equality’ really stand back and think about if their actions reflect those words. I hope to shed light on how much discrimination and horrible treatment exists, and that everyone take note and do what they can to create change. THINGS MUST CHANGE FOR WOMEN.

Is it true that you were told that the reason your contract was not being renewed was that the University needed to cut back on your pay; has the men’s s Head Coach had his pay reduced or was the men’s program affected in any way?

I was told that the University had a $6 million dollar budget deficit and that they were not going to renew my coaching contract or that of my assistant coaches for financial reasons. To the best of my knowledge, none of the men in the athletics department have had to take a salary decrease or have lost their jobs. In fact the football coach who was a new head coach and not won any national championships as a head coach was given a new contract during this time. I was making a base salary of $207,000 and I had won 5 National Championships, my team had made it to the playoffs 15 years out of 15 years and I have a masters degree; our men’s coach has won 1 national championship, doesn’t have the other credentials that I mentioned and he was making over $300,000 a year. The discrimination is loud and clear.

Did you or the other two female coaches ever have any issues with your teams because you are gay?

There have been no issues with the fact that I’m gay, or that my staff was gay, because this generation doesn’t care.  It was not an issue within our team.  Any issues there may have been would have been because of adults.

Some of what you are saying sounds like a movie from 50 years ago.  It is unbelievable how far we have come in sport and yet how much further we still need to go – even for just basic human rights.

That’s exactly what this boils down to – human rights.  That’s why it is so important to fight these battles and create change.

Although Title IX came in to law in 1972, it seems that it is only just in recent years being used as a tool by women to fight for their rights…is this the case?

Yes, that would be my understanding now of being in the United States for 16 years.  The law has been there and that has made the Universities a little bit more aware of what equality means and some may they have possibly moved in that direction a little bit more than they did 20 years.  But, as I have heard from Title IX experts is that most universities are not in compliance, an likely won’t be unless they are forced by law to do it. The time is now.

What advice would you give to other female coaches that have been or are in similar situations to you?

First of all, get very educated on what equality means, what discrimination means and what Title IX is.  I would tell those female coaches to educate themselves and then educate their staff and players.  Make sure your players understand what it is so they know their rights.  If your not comfortable to do that then bring someone else to educate your team, because if they understand why you are fighting those battles, they will be more supportive and rally around you while understanding what is going on.  I would also say to these coaches, it does take time to find that wisdom and to grow that inner strength, so be patient with you. When the time is right, have the courage to speak up and do the right thing. Understand it may be difficult, but necessary. Why would any of us settle to be treated with such disrespect?

Do you have any plans for Head Coaching roles in the future?

I want to keep coaching or land in another type of important leadership and mentorship role. I have so much passion and compassion and I want to direct it in a manner that will be beneficial to many and create positive change. I find it very rewarding to mentor young women, to lead and to build. I have a strong leadership skill set, I am centered and confident, and I look forward to my next chapter in life.

All of this must be really difficult for you and at times you must get very angry.  But I can imagine many people are very proud of you and all female coaches are grateful for everything that you are about to do.

I have my moments were I am angry about how I was treated, my coaching staff, and what UMD Administration did to our team in the middle of our successful season.  That is very natural to feel that way. But most of the time I say centered, I stay positive and I embrace all of the support we are being given. We have tremendous support from people in Duluth, across the country and it’s far reaching coming in from many different countries as well. This support inspires us and will help us fight the fight!

  1. Amy Hollingsworth

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    I had to check the date of this interview. It is easy to become complacent and assume all is well. Thank you Shannon for standing up and being heard. Thanks to Female Coaching network for providing the forum for Coaches to connect, share, inspire and create change.

  2. Steph Schleuder

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    I am retired now, but I was a collegiate volleyball coach for 34 years. Coincidentally, I am a graduate of Minnesota, Duluth (UMD) and was the first woman inducted into the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame. I am appalled and deeply saddened by what has happened to Shannon, to Jen Banford, former softball coach and Directory of Hockey Operations and to Annette Wiles, former women’s basketball coach. It is blatant discrimination and violates several laws here in the U.S.A. and within the state of Minnesota. I belive these women will be vindicated by the courts, but it has been a nasty and difficult journey. And, their date in court is likely 2 years away. No one should be treated the way these women have been treated.

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