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Personnel Fouls: Sex Discrimination Suits Shake Tennessee Athletics

For years, the women’s athletics program at the University of Tennessee was a model of gender equity. No longer.

For nearly 40 years, the University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols were a role model for college athletics — everybody’s favorite example of what is possible when a major university devotes major resources to women’s sports. No one embodied that promise more than Pat Summitt, the legendary basketball coach who helped elevate UT’s entire women’s sports program into something approaching a Title IX utopian fantasy.

“It was a fabulous place to work,” said Jenny Moshak, the one-time head of women’s sports medicine at UT. “It was a place that celebrated the student-athlete and the promotion of women as a whole. It was easy to give heart and soul because you felt like you were making a difference. Many, many people would say, ‘The women’s athletic department does it right.’ They couldn’t say that about the men’s department.”

Little did she know.

Summitt retired at the end of the 2012 season, her 38-year career abruptly ended by early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Moshak is gone, too — demoted and marginalized, she claims, for resisting UT’s efforts to bring the women’s sports program under male leadership. After 24 years at UT, she quit this August.

Pride over the Lady Vols’ achievements has been wounded by two lawsuits alleging that Moshak and her colleagues had to work harder than their men’s counterparts, under worse conditions, for less money and fewer benefits, and then were punished when they dared to complain. The suits mostly faded from view after causing a stir when they were filed a year ago, but based on new filings and exhibits, some sex discrimination lawyers believe they will become a model – and a test—for similar cases nationwide.

“There’s massive sex discrimination in college sports,” said Kristen Galles, a Northern Virginia attorney and Title IX specialist who has been following the UT situation closely. “Here, you’re seeing, all at one point in time, what has been happening at other programs more gradually.”

Usually, she said, “discriminatory decisions are made one at a time,” over an extended period, so the pattern may not be apparent. But because of how the process has gone at UT, “it’s all so obvious. It’s a window into the discriminatory decision-making that happens every day in college athletics. And the fact that it’s happening at a school like this really highlights the extent to which discrimination is a problem everywhere.”

In its responses to the lawsuits, filed in federal court in Knoxville, UT contends that it had “legitimate, nondiscriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons” for the actions it has taken, against the individual plaintiffs and more broadly in its consolidation of the men’s and women’s athletic programs.

As the Lady Vols basketball season begins this week, the University of Tennessee, once one of Title IX’s proudest success stories, has become an angry and more complicated tale.

To understand why gender-equity advocates see the UT case as emblematic of larger problems in women’s sports, some background is in order. UT has a long history in women’s athletics, especially in basketball; the first Lady Vols intercollegiate game took place in 1903. By the mid-1920s, though, according to the former women’s sports information director, Debby Jennings, the game was no longer considered to be in the “best interest” of its players, and the team was disbanded, not to be revived for another four decades.

The 1970s marked a turning point for the Lady Vols and for women’s sports in general. First came Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that broke down barriers in education — including athletics — for women and girls. Two years after that, Summitt took over the UT women’s basketball program — a job that paid $250 a month and (legend has it) involved not just coaching but washing the players’ uniforms and driving the team van. By the time she retired, she had cracked the $1 million salary ceiling, collected eight NCAA championships, and won more games than any basketball coach — male or female — in college history. Summitt’s teams also had a 100 percent graduation rate — a record few men’s programs, UT’s included, could come close to matching.

The Lady Vols are a special case, of course. But Title IX’s broader impact on college athletics has been truly remarkable. In 1970, 16,000 women participated in intercollegiate sports; in 2012, the number was 200,000. In 1970, U.S. colleges had an average of 2.5 women’s varsity sports teams; last year, the average was 8.73 teams. Evidence of the law’s transformative effects could be seen at the 2012 Summer Olympics, where, for the first time, women made up more than half the U.S. team and took home the majority of its medals, including almost two-thirds of its gold medals.

Yet these gains have also had an unexpected consequence, making women’s sports more attractive to male coaches. The result is that as the number of female athletes has exploded, the proportion of female head coaches has steadily shrunk. In 1977, nine out of 10 women’s collegiate teams were coached by women. Last year, the figure was closer to four in 10, according to R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, emerita professors from Brooklyn College who have been publishing their Women in Intercollegiate Sport study for 35 years. (Meanwhile, some 97 percent of men’s teams still have male coaches.)

The decline has been less dramatic at colleges and universities with female athletic directors, Acosta and Carpenter report. But in 2012, only one in five athletic directors were women — even fewer at high-profile, Division 1 schools. Some 9 percent of athletic departments had no female administrators whatsoever.

UT was one of the rare places that seemed to have bucked those trends, in part because of its old-fashioned organizational structure. Whereas most other major universities had long since merged their sports operations, at UT, the men’s and women’s departments remained almost completely separate: The Lady Vols had their own athletic director (Joan Cronan, herself a former UT basketball coach and almost as beloved as Summitt), training facilities, public relations people, and sports medicine staff, and the men had theirs.

“We had the ability to structure our staff and develop our programs as we saw fit,” Moshak said. In her case, the programs included Team ENHANCE, a pioneering initiative to help female students cope with eating disorders and emotional issues that has been widely copied — including by UT’s men’s teams. “We could bring our vision to fruition and do amazing things,” she said.

This is not to say that separate ever really meant equal. As is true at many major universities, UT’s men’s programs, especially football, were seen as special; they brought in more money and media attention and received a far bigger share of the resources. According to an annual report to the U.S. Department of Education, UT had nearly the same number of male and female varsity athletes last year. But it spent more than four times as much to recruit male athletes and nearly twice as much on the men’s department’s operating budget. Still, “if you are going to be unequal regardless, at least [with separate programs] you were controlling your own fate,” said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “At least you had a building and a salary and people who were deeply committed to advancing and promoting women’s sports.”

Then, in 2009, UT announced plans to revamp its athletics program to reflect how almost all other NCAA Division 1 universities were organized. The men’s and women’s departments would be merged to make the entire program more “efficient and effective.”

For Moshak and her colleagues, the Golden Era was over.

As part of the process, UT began evaluating job responsibilities and salaries. For the first time, the women’s side was able to get access to the men’s pay data — and the comparisons left them deeply dismayed.

Debby Jennings, for instance, whose work as the longtime women’s sports information director had earned her a national reputation, discovered that her base salary was $4,000 lower than that of her men’s counterpart even though she had a list of accomplishments and awards that went on for pages. Moshak and her colleagues on the women’s strength and conditioning staff, Heather Mason and Collin Schlosser, found not only that they were paid less than men’s trainers — in Mason’s case, some $100,000 less than her football counterparts — but that the university had ignored its own personnel policies and had offered benefits to the men’s side, such as employment contracts, not available to them.

“Football overwhelmingly is the top revenue-generating sport in athletics and the sport that generates the most fan interest,” UT officials argued in response to a complaint Moshak and her colleagues filed with UT’s Office of Equity and Diversity. “With no disrespect being intended to Ms. Moshak, [the director of men’s sports medicine] is more important to athletics because of his football-related responsibilities.” After a yearlong investigation, the office agreed that some aspects of the hiring and salary-setting process showed “inconsistencies” that should be corrected. But its January 2011 report rejected any claims of sex discrimination, holding that for the most part, the women’s and men’s job and salary comparisons weren’t valid, and the university’s chancellor declined to make any changes.

Meanwhile, to the women, the merger was starting to feel less like a consolidation than a hostile takeover. UT had hired a new athletic director, the University of Alabama’s Dave Hart, to oversee the process. It was a process, the women now say, that effectively meant phasing out the Lady Vols’ identity and logo and replacing it with the men’s “Power T” brand. Hart has denied that this was ever his intention, but in a sworn affidavit, Summitt says that Hart admitted as much to her in person.

When Jennings, now one of the female plaintiffs taking on the university, protested that male students seemed to be getting special treatment and that media coverage for female athletes was suffering, she was “shunned for stating her opinions, ... for questioning the male leaders or their ideas, [and] for advocating Title IX equity issues,” her lawsuit alleges. In court documents, Hart described her attitude as “negativity and insubordination.” Jennings was also told not to apply for the job overseeing the merged media relations office because UT’s then football coach “did not want to work with a female,” her lawsuit says. The university denies this, but in court documents it does acknowledge hiring or promoting four men — all younger and with less experience — into supervisory roles over Jennings.

Moshak, meanwhile, says she was demoted, stripped of her supervisory responsibilities, and denied the opportunity to apply for the head training position that eventually went to her counterpart on the men’s side, who came from the football program. Even Team ENHANCE ended up under male supervision.

The merger culminated with the layoff of 15 people — 12 women and three men — in April 2012. Schlosser, a male member of the women’s conditioning staff, was one of them, prompting a heartfelt letter to Dave Hart from the coaches of the women’s softball team: “We keep coming back to the same questions: ‘Why would we let go of one of the best and brightest, not just in our athletic department, but within his entire profession? Why would we not do whatever it takes to find a way to keep one of our student-athletes’ best resources?’”

After the dust had settled, the reconfigured executive staff of the athletic department consisted of seven men and a single woman, while the senior administrative staff was made up of 13 men and two women. The reorganization “effectively resulted in a mass demotion of females and staff working with female student-athletes,” Moshak, Mason and Schlosser claimed. Where the old organizational structure had afforded them autonomy and opportunities for advancement, now the woman’s staff faced what they called a “testosterone wall.”

The lawsuits have also unearthed some recent history that the school might have wished stayed buried. Jennings, in her suit, says the Lady Vols’ most revered icon, Summitt, was pushed out of her job against her will, and that Jennings paid a personal price for standing up for her hero – a set of accusations that were widely reported in local media outlets and in other sports publications and that briefly rekindled the furor over women’s athletics at Tennessee.

When Summitt retired in April 2012, some 10 months after she learned she had Alzheimer’s — and a few days after the layoffs — she and UT officials insisted that the decision was hers. But Jennings’s lawsuit tells a different story.

According to Jennings — who worked alongside Summitt for 35 years and co-authored several books with her — Dave Hart told Summitt that she wouldn’t be coaching the Lady Vols during the 2012-13 season. Summitt was “very upset and extremely hurt,” Jennings says in her lawsuit, and she protested the decision in an email to Hart, calling it “discriminatory” and “wrong.” A couple of months later, Jennings contends, she herself was forced out in retaliation.

In court documents filed last fall, Summitt corroborated Jennings’s account. Hart’s decision “was very surprising to me and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to make on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues and friends,” she wrote in a sworn affidavit. Summitt added that she and Hart had a later meeting where Hart said she had “misinterpreted” what he said. Then, after Jennings’s lawsuit hit the news last fall, Summitt issued a new statement saying it was “entirely my decision to step down ... I did not then, and I do not now, feel that I was forced out by the university.” Meanwhile, Hart reiterated to Sports Illustrated that Summitt’s retirement was “Pat’s decision from the get-go.”

Kristin Galles, the Title IX attorney, says the allegations in the lawsuits mirror what she has heard from many of the female coaches she has represented over the years. The difference at UT, she says, is that the women sued. “That’s very rare because you’re blackballed,” she said. “You’re a troublemaker, you’re a problem, and the men don’t want that.”

Indeed, Moshak and her colleagues say they see signs of blackballing in their case. Both she and Jennings have taken early retirement and are working as consultants. (Moshak is also promoting a new book, “Ice and Go: Score in Sports and Life.”) Heather Mason, the associate strength coach, survived the layoffs but was fired this May. Schlosser remains unemployed.

Meanwhile, Holly Warlick, Summitt’s longtime assistant, who led the Lady Vols to another Southeastern Conference title in her rookie year as head coach, earned $485,000 last year, versus $1.3 million for men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, hired the year before, whose team finished second in the conference last year.

Later this month, the Tucker Center’s associate director, Nicole LaVoi, will release a new study and report card focusing on the number of female coaches in the top NCAA schools. According to Lavoi’s data, UT’s head coaching staff is now 38.5 percent female, below the national average.

The grade she gives to the once-lauded UT program: a D.

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