Former head coach of women’s basketball Shannon Schweyen sues University of Montana

Schweyen alleges gender discrimination, demands reinstatement or compensation

By: - November 15, 2021 3:18 pm

Former women’s basketball head coach Shannon Schweyen sued the University of Montana for sex discrimination. (Provided by the University of Montana and Montana Sports Information.)

Alleging a double standard based on gender, Shannon Schweyen, former head coach for women’s basketball at the University of Montana, is suing the flagship for sex discrimination and asking for a reinstatement — or back pay and front pay for lost compensation.

In a complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Schweyen alleges the university unlawfully terminated her after two of her players decided to explore athletic opportunities elsewhere — yet the lawsuit notes male coaches didn’t pay the same consequences when their athletes considered leaving. Schweyen, an MVP basketball player and former “Lady Griz” herself, spent 32 years with the UM basketball program as an athlete and coach, the lawsuit said.

In the complaint, Schweyen alleged that UM paid her less than it paid a male coach despite her having more experience; that the athletic director offered unpredictable and unfair practice times for her team and allowed a male coach’s bullying to go unchallenged; and, in the end, that UM dismissed her for a situation that’s commonplace in athletics, when players formally open the door to transferring, the complaint said. The lawsuit also said the athletic director used a “horrible” team culture as the excuse when he had never brought up the topic to her before and spent no time with the team to know himself.

Schweyen complaint

The lawsuit specifically points to the effect Schweyen experienced, but it said male coaches didn’t experience, when two of her players decided to enter the NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association, “transfer portal, indicating their desire to explore athletic opportunities at other schools.” In spring 2020, the complaint said Athletic Director Kent Haslam agreed to extend Schweyen’s contract, but he changed his mind roughly two weeks later.

“The only reason he gave for the decision was that two women’s basketball players had entered the transfer portal,” the complaint said. “He did not fire male coaches when their players entered the transfer portal in equal and greater numbers. When questioned, Haslam claimed Schweyen’s team culture was horrible, an obvious pretext for his unlawful act.

“This was sex discrimination.”

The lawsuit alleges UM violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination. A separate gender discrimination complaint filed in August by four women, three former high ranking UM administrators and one current faculty member, alleges UM violated Title IX, the 1972 amendment to the federal education act, but the university has described those allegations as “false and inflammatory.”

In a statement regarding allegations in the earlier complaint, UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz stated the flagship’s commitment to equality: “The University of Montana is committed to providing a working and learning environment that is free from all forms of discrimination.” Monday, he said the university disputed the claims in Schweyen’s lawsuit.

“UM disagrees with the allegations in the complaint. UM will defend the allegations in the appropriate forum,” Kuntz said in an email.

The complaint by Schweyen, who still holds school and Big Sky Conference records, describes her notable career as a player and later coach at UM, and it outlines the treatment and outcome she received that it alleges were different than the treatment provided to male coaches. 

For example, Haslam offered Schweyen a three-year contract with a base salary of $130,000 effective Sept. 1, 2016, the lawsuit said, yet he offered Travis DeCuire, the male head coach of the men’s basketball team, a three-year contract with a base salary of $155,000, effective July 1, 2016. But the complaint said DeCuire had less coaching experience, and Schweyen had previously worked at a bigger program, counted “double the conference championships,” and held “a stronger winning record.”

“UM paid its male basketball coach, doing the same job as Coach Schweyen, nearly 20 percent more in base salary in his first year as head coach than it paid Coach Schweyen in her first year as head coach,” the lawsuit said. “UM’s difference in treatment between Coach DeCuire and Coach Schweyen regarding their respective starting salaries reflects an intent and motive to discriminate against Schweyen based on sex.”

Then, when her contract was set to expire in summer 2019, Haslam offered Schweyen a one-year contract, the lawsuit said. It said Schweyen wanted to know what she needed to do to get a longer-term contract, and Haslam said, “do better,” but he set no metrics and offered no specifics.

“At the same time, Haslam offered DeCuire a three-year contract,” the lawsuit said.

The following season, the lawsuit said the Lady Griz improved from 14-16 overall to 17-13 overall, and 12-8 in the Big Sky Conference, “the fourth best record in the Conference.” By comparison, the complaint said the men’s team finished with an 18-13 overall record and 14-6 in the Big Sky Conference.

“On March, 12, 2020, Haslam and Coach Schweyen met at his request,” the complaint said. “Haslam started the meeting by stating, ‘I want you to know you will be back next year as our women’s basketball coach. I felt like you had a good season and I am going to give you the remainder of your three-year contract.” One day later, the complaint said, Haslam also told another UM staff member Schweyen’s contract would be extended two years.

But the lawsuit notes that sometime in the period from March 12, 2020, to April 1, 2020, Haslam reversed course, and he did so without speaking to her or, apparently, with her staff or a majority of the players. On March 22, a player told Schweyen she was entering the transfer portal as a grad transfer, and subsequently, Schweyen and her staff increased their efforts to recruit players, the lawsuit said.

Schweyen earlier had told Haslam that another player had planned to look at a transfer, and then, on March 30, that player told Schweyen she had entered the transfer portal, the lawsuit said.

“At the same time, members of the men’s basketball and football teams were entering the transfer portal, and their departures attracted local media coverage,” the complaint said.

When Schweyen called Haslam to tell him about the anticipated departure, the lawsuit said he was “curt” with her and said he was “‘tired of answering the media and people about why everyone is leaving.’

“Schweyen explained that having two players in the portal was not uncommon, something Haslam should be familiar with as athletic director,” the lawsuit said. “Still, Haslam continued in an aggressive tone, interrupting, and telling her he did not care about what she was saying. Haslam said Schweyen’s team culture was horrible.”

The lawsuit said Haslam had not previously raised such concerns about culture, nor did he spend time with the team to know firsthand, as he did with the men’s team. However, he subsequently decided against keeping Schweyen, who had spent 24 years as an assistant coach at UM working for head coach Robin Selvig, the complaint said.

“On April 1, 2020, Haslam called Schweyen and said, ‘I can’t renew your contract. I am going to go in a different direction,’” the complaint said. “When asked for an explanation, Haslam refused to elaborate, adding only, ‘You wouldn’t survive it … You wouldn’t have a roster, Shannon.’”

Schweyen, also a UM alum, reminded Haslam that all six of her new players would be coming in plus five returning players, the complaint said, and “among the five returning players were the teams’ top two scorers and rebounders.”

“(But) Haslam told Schweyen UM was not renewing her contract because two of her players decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal,” the lawsuit said.

At the same time, the lawsuit said male coaches didn’t experience similar consequences: “Male coaches of the UM men’s basketball and football teams have had several athletes in their programs enter the transfer portal and leave UM over the past five academic years, but they have not been fired.

“For example, UM men’s basketball had four players in the transfer portal in 2016-2017, five students in the transfer portal in 2017-2018, four students in 2018-2019, and two players in 2019-2020,” the lawsuit said. “The male coach, Coach DeCuire, was not fired.”

The complaint notes published a story in August 2020 reporting that more than one third of Big Sky basketball players, both male and female, transferred or left the team “with eligibility remaining.”

“However, Coach Schweyen, a woman, is the only UM coach to be fired allegedly because of the number of players she had in the transfer portal,” the lawsuit said.

The complaint also alleges Haslam made it known he didn’t want Schweyen hired from the get go, and that when he and assistant AD Jean Gee quizzed other coaches and players about Schweyen, the others reported the interviews “were accusatory” and “seemed designed to ‘catch us at doing something wrong.’” UM is the only defendant named in the lawsuit; Haslam and Gee are not named as defendants in the workplace complaint.

“From the beginning, Schweyen could do nothing right in Haslam’s eyes,” the lawsuit said. “Haslam exuded hostility toward Schweyen from her first conversation about her first contract for her position as Head Coach. Haslam asked Schweyen if she intended to hire an agent. Taken aback by the question, Schweyen said she was not sure. Haslam responded, ‘Good. I’m not going to give you more money anyway.’”

Following an interview with Haslam and Gee, a student who left for a nursing program felt so strongly that the athletic director was trying to elicit negative information about Schweyen, that she wrote a letter of support for Schweyen’s leadership and mentorship and shared it with Haslam, the complaint said. Schweyen is represented by Correia and Puth of Washington, D.C., and Goetz, Baldwin and Geddes, of Bozeman.

But the complaint said Haslam dismissed issues when students raised them about male coaches, and he also “tolerated DeCuire’s open disrespect of the woman coaches.” The lawsuit describes the ways basketball practice scheduling was handled as an example, noting one meeting in particular with most of the coaching staff invited to resolve a conflict.

“On the morning of the meeting, DeCuire asked for the meeting to be moved back 30 minutes, strolled in late even then, and said, ‘If I had known I would be negotiating practice time, I would be in a major metropolitan city right now.’

“During the meeting, Haslam sat silent and allowed DeCuire to be rude and condescending to the two head women coaches in the room. Haslam asked the volleyball coach, Allison Lawrence, ‘When you and Travis are both on the practice floor, how do you know when to get off?’ DeCuire responded, ‘When I tell her to.’”

Nonetheless, practice times for the women’s basketball team were set at a less desirable later slot from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., but also changed “day-to-day,” unlike for the men’s team, the complaint said. The lawsuit also said that even after Schweyen raised the issue of disrespectful and discriminatory treatment with legal counsel, Haslam and Gee excused DeCuire’s behavior.

In late April 2020, UM announced assistant coach Mike Petrino, a man, would take over as interim head coach while UM conducted a national search following the season, the lawsuit said. The complaint notes on April 22, UM named Petrino head coach, and in April 2021, it named Brian Holsinger, a male, head coach of the UM women’s basketball team.

“UM’s termination of Schweyen has been devastating to her,” the complaint said. “Coach Schweyen devoted 32 years to women’s basketball at UM. At all times, she set high standards for herself, her players, and her staff. She has suffered bouts of sleeplessness, nausea, anxiety, and loss of the opportunity to coach at her alma mater and continue the tradition of Lady Griz Basketball.”

This story has been updated to include a comment Monday from UM, which had earlier in the day declined comment on the lawsuit.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.