Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) The University of Montana’s decision to not renew Shannon Schweyen’s contract as head coach of the Lady Griz was not discriminatory; rather, it followed persistent complaints about a toxic team culture and a demand Schweyen make improvements, a U.S. District Court judge in Missoula ruled Tuesday.

“Based upon the undisputed evidence in the record, a reasonable jury could not conclude by a preponderance of the evidence that the university terminated Schweyen’s employment because of her gender,” said the order from Judge Dana Christensen.

Schweyen, herself a star basketball player for the Lady Griz, had sued UM alleging she was unfairly underpaid compared to the men’s basketball coach and unfairly let go given her team’s achievement record.

In the November 2021 lawsuit alleging discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, she also said she had never been told about allegations she’d fostered a “horrible” team culture until her contract wasn’t renewed.

Christensen found Schweyen, an employee at UM from 1992 to 2020, did not provide evidence of discrimination, and she had been informed of problems, contrary to her allegation.

The order said UM provided evidence it didn’t renew Schweyen’s contract after receiving ongoing complaints from players and parents — ones documented and shared with Schweyen — she was fostering a negative team culture.

In her lawsuit, Schweyen said players on other teams opted to transfer from UM as well, but as a woman, she alleged she was held to a different standard when athletes departed.

The judge disagreed.

“Schweyen ignores the fact that the university was not just concerned about players leaving the team generally but was concerned that players were transferring or considering transferring specifically because of Schweyen’s behavior,” the order said.

Schweyen’s lawyer, Linda Correia, of Correia & Puth in Washington, D.C., said in an email they are reviewing the judge’s decision and considering next steps.

UM said the decision underscores that it acted in compliance with its own anti-discrimination policies.

UM first hired Schweyen as head coach in August 2016.

In April 2020, Athletic Director Kent Haslam told Schweyen her contract would not be renewed, and the judge found Haslam had ample reason to let her go given the concerns from students and parents, ones Schweyen had an opportunity to address but didn’t.

As early as her first year, a starting player left the team, and the player’s parent sent a complaint to Schweyen and later to Haslam, the judge said.

In the letter, the parent “complained about Schweyen’s conduct, including allegations that Schweyen caused emotional and psychological damage by bullying his daughter, made suggestive comments about a player’s brother, and drank on road trips with the team,” the order said.

Although the order said Haslam was not able to substantiate the allegations she drank on the job, the judge said other players and parents raised similar concerns, such as the coach’s “negative and vulgar sarcasm” and her bullying and harassment of players.

UM initially had offered Schweyen a three-year contract through June 2019.

The order said Haslam told Schweyen in spring 2018 he was going to investigate the complaints, and after extensive interviews conducted by him and the associate athletic director, he produced a memorandum with results and provided Schweyen with a copy.

The memo included themes that emerged from the interviews, including a lack of trust in Schweyen from her perceived favoritism, and the way she corrected players, who said they wanted to improve but felt “corrective language became personal and often became about more than their basketball ability.”

The report included recommendations for improvement, but players and parents continued to raise concerns. At the end of Schweyen’s three-year contract, Haslam offered to renew her contract for one year, with a bump in pay, at $134,589.

In March 2020, prior to the end of her one-year contract, Haslam and Schweyen talked about her future with the team, and Haslam asked about the team environment, the order said: Schweyen said “it was really good.”

“Schweyen also informed Haslam that she believed only one player would be transferring out of the program,” the judge said.

In response, Haslam told Schweyen her contract would be ironed out after she returned from vacation, and the judge said “there is no dispute that, as of March 12, Haslam intended to offer Schweyen a contract.”

But that didn’t happen.

In the following weeks, two more players put their names into the transfer portal, and “several others” said they might leave if Schweyen stayed on board. The two who had opened the door to transfers both “shared complaints they had about Schweyen and indicated that Schweyen was the reason they were transferring.”

Three more players contacted Haslam with concerns, including one who said additional players might leave because of the head coach, and another whose parents described “ongoing issues with the team culture.”

So Haslam told Schweyen on April 1 that he was not going to renew her contract, and he told her the reason was “player retention and student-athletes entering the transfer portal,” the order said.

Even if Schweyen disagreed with the complaints, “the veracity of those concerns is not at issue,” the judge said.

“Haslam communicated those issues to Schweyen along with steps she could take to improve,” the order said.

“Nonetheless, Haslam continued to receive complaints and the evidence shows that he received complaints from members of the Lady Griz team regarding Schweyen’s tentative return as head coach in the weeks preceding the non-renewal decision,” the order said.

“These facts are not in genuine dispute, and they support the university’s explanation for its decision not to renew Schweyen’s contract.”

As for the pay discrepancy, the order said the men’s basketball coach, Travis DeCuire, was hired at higher pay — $155,000 base salary compared to Schweyen’s $130,000.

However, it said DeCuire was paid below conference average for men’s teams, and Schweyen was paid above average for women’s teams.

Plus, DeCuire had head coaching experience, along with “other coaching offers that the university had to compete against, whereas Schweyen had none,” the order said.

The judge also said Schweyen didn’t offer any evidence the male coaches with whom she made comparisons had also received complaints from players about team culture or that they had underperformed.

Additionally, the judge said, Haslam has only terminated five head coaches since he started in 2012; one was in part due to complaints from student athletes, and another was relieved for underperformance even though he had a better overall record than Schweyen’s.

Although Schweyen alleged UM favored men for her job, the order said UM appointed as interim a man who was the most senior assistant coach, and later it hired a man who was a qualified permanent head coach

The judge granted UM’s motion for summary judgment, but in a statement, lawyer Correia said she still believes a jury should hear all the evidence.

“We are disappointed that the Court disregarded evidence that the University of Montana discriminated against Shannon Schweyen based on her sex, including evidence that it penalized her when players entered the transfer portal but did not even question male coaches when their players entered the transfer portal in much larger numbers,” Correia said. “This and other evidence should be heard by a jury in Missoula.”

UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said the university is pleased with the court’s decision.

“The university’s intent has always been to act in the best interests of its student-athletes and the Lady Griz program,” Kuntz said. “The court’s judgment validates the University’s decision to allow Ms. Schweyen’s contract to expire in 2020 and confirms that the niversity acted in compliance with applicable law and its own anti-discrimination policies and practices.

“We wish Ms. Schweyen well in her new endeavors and thank all supporters of UM Athletics and the Lady Griz.”