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Once progressive Tennessee takes major hit with discrimination suits

The University of Tennessee is about the last school in the country one would expect to see embroiled in Title IX lawsuits. During the 38-year reign of coach Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols basketball program set the bar in virtually every aspect of the women's game -- facilities, coaching salaries (Summitt was the first women's coach to earn a $1 million a year), marketing and recruiting budgets, visibility, attendance, strength of schedule, level of play and, of course, winning. Summitt's 1,098 victories are more than any other coach in NCAA men's or women's basketball, and her eight NCAA titles surpass everyone but John Wooden.

Some people so loved working in the Lady Vol environment -- until recently women's and men's athletics were separate departments at Tennessee -- they couldn't imagine leaving. Four years ago, after the Lady Vols won their eighth NCAA basketball title by beating Stanford, Debby Jennings, the team's award-winning sports information director, talked to me about why she was still there 31 years after taking the job. "It's hard to leave a place where the salaries are fantastic, you're working with the best people, you have the best facility, you have the best and brightest athletes, and you have an athletic department that's in total support of every one of your efforts," she said.

Athletic trainer Jenny Moshak, whose week of round-the-clock treatments on the dislocated shoulder of Candace Parker had allowed the senior star to score 17 points and grab nine rebounds against the Cardinal that night, had been with the Lady Vols for 19 years and considered the program a bastion of progress, opportunity and support. Tennessee had even allowed her to start a pioneering mental and emotional wellness program for student athletes called Team Enhance.

Four years later, much has changed in Knoxville. Last year Summitt was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and after spending last season as head coach in name only (former player and long-time assistant Holly Warlick served as defacto head coach) she moved into an emeritus role this spring while Warlick officially took over the program. In the meantime, the school continued the consolidation of the men's and women's athletic departments under Athletic Director Dave Hart, who was hired from Alabama in September 2011.

In the process of merging the programs, the culture of loyalty, support and opportunity that Jennings and Moshak so revered shattered, at least for them. In the last three weeks both have filed gender discrimination lawsuits against the school.

On Sept. 27 Jennings sued the university and Hart for "unlawful discrimination and retaliation" that led to her being forced to retire in May after 35 years in her job. The part of Jennings' 41-page complaint that has drawn the most media attention concerns the circumstances surrounding Summitt's decision to step down. According to the suit, Hart told Summitt in March that she wouldn't be coaching the Lady Vols during the 2012-13 season. When Summitt later told Jennings and others of the meeting, the coach was "very upset and extremely hurt," according to the suit. Jennings sent Hart an email asking him to reconsider, calling his decision "discriminatory and wrong." Jennings claims that her appeal on Summitt's behalf was a factor in the choice Hart gave her on May 15: be fired for "insubordination", resign or retire.

When she stepped down on April 18, Summitt said the decision was hers. But in a sworn affidavit from Aug. 10, 2012, she corroborated Jennings' account of the March meeting with Hart. "This 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," Summitt wrote in the affidavit. She added that unbeknownst to Jennings and the others, she and Hart had a subsequent meeting where Hart said she had "misinterpreted" what he said.

On Oct. 5, two days after her affidavit became public, Summitt reversed course and issued a three-paragraph statement in response to the "confusion" the affidavit might have created. "It was entirely my decision to step down from my position as the head coach of women's basketball at the University of Tennessee," she said. "I did not then, and I do not now, feel that I was forced out by the university." (In a conversation with me last Thursday, Hart reiterated that Summitt's decision to step down was "Pat's decision from the get-go.")

The still-confusing issue of Summitt's decision aside, there is other information in the Jennings lawsuit that is less murky and even more unsettling. According to the suit, as part of the consolidation effort, Hart laid off 15 people on April 13, 2012 -- 12 women and three men. Once the dust had settled, the executive staff was comprised of seven men and just one woman (the bare minimum required by the NCAA, according to the suit) while the senior administrative staff consisted of 13 males and two women.

The suit filed on Oct. 11 by Moshak, Heather Mason, a Lady Vol strength and conditioning coach and Collin Schlosser, a former Lady Vol strength and conditioning coach who was one of the three men laid off in the downsizing, reinforces Jennings's portrayal of a department that has turned into a "good ol' boys club". The suit, which does not name Hart specifically, contends that the three plaintiffs were subjected to pay discrimination based on their gender and/or association with women's athletics, and were subjected to retaliation for filing a 2010 pay discrimination complaint with UT's Office of Equity and Diversity (which the OED eventually dismissed.) In Moshak's case, the suit contends that she was demoted, stripped of most of her supervisorial authority (including oversight and supervision of Team Enhance) and denied opportunity to apply for the head training position that eventually went to her counterpart on the men's side. The suit also contends that the university has allowed "a pattern and practice of gender discrimination to develop which indicates a lack of institutional control" and has created "a testosterone wall" that denies women equal pay and the plaintiffs the opportunity to advance by working in men's athletics.

Not everyone who has been critical to the Lady Vols' success feels aggrieved by the new administration. Last week Warlick told me that Hart has been "tremendously supportive. We've been wanting a locker room for a long time and the first thing he said when he came in was, 'Y'all need a new locker room.' He's been very progressive in making sure we get what we need. Anything I've asked for he's given me."

The courts will sort out whether Hart and the University violated laws in their hiring, firing and promotion practices and/or created a working environment that's hostile to women. In the meantime, Tennessee's image as a mecca for people working in women's athletics has taken a major PR hit.

"I think the culture in women's sports there is going to be way different," says Mickie DeMoss, a long-time Summitt assistant who is now with the WNBA's Indiana Fever. "I worry about the women having a voice."

Jennings, Moshak and Mason have all spoken. It's sad that the only way they feel they'll be heard is through the courts.

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