A former University of Oregon women’s track and field coach has sued her former employer for gender discrimination, citing a pattern that most recently culminated with the hiring of an allegedly less qualified male coach to replace her.
Sally Harmon, a UO graduate and a women’s throws events assistant for 18 years, was fired in the spring of 2003 after the athletic department consolidated the men’s and women’s track programs.
Harmon threatened to sue the university in October and followed up on that threat last month by filing a complaint in Lane County Circuit Court, which accuses the University, Athletic Director Bill Moos, track and field head coach Martin Smith and the state board of higher education of engaging “in a pattern and practice of discriminating against women student athletes and employees within the athletic department, including discriminating in pay and benefits.”
Harmon is seeking $122,160 in lost wages and benefits as well as compensation of approximately $1 million for other damages, such as emotional distress, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety and shame and humiliation as well as punitive damages from Moos and Smith in an amount to be determined at trial.
Part of her contention that there has been a pattern of gender discrimination rests on a decision UO made in July of 2000 to pay a new men’s assistant track coach an annual salary of $50,000. Harmon, who was paid $35,724 at the time, refused to sign her annual contract. Her salary was ultimately raised to the male assistant coach’s level, but she felt she was not rewarded adequately for her years of experience or her success. Since becoming an assistant coach for UO women’s track and field in 1985, her athletes have won three NCAA championships and seven conference titles.
Harmon started contemplating legal action in earnest when the university decided to combine the men’s and women’s programs in 2003.
UO hired Lance Deal, a four-time Olympian and silver medalist, to lead the two programs, even though he had no prior paid experience as a Division I coach, according to the lawsuit.
University General Counsel Melinda Grier told the Register-Guard newspaper last fall after Harmon threatened to sue that the athletic department’s firing of Harmon was acceptable.
“The reason you choose one person over another is you select the one you believe is most qualified based on what your criteria are,” Grier, said at the time. “That’s what happened here.”
Harmon is represented by Suzanne Chanti of the Eugene law firm of Walters, Chanti and Zennache.
Harmon told the Register-Guard in the same story Grier was quote in that the lawsuit “is not going to rectify the damage done to me. But walking away from this and not making a statement of what’s been done, and that it’s wrong, would be a slap in the face.”