My sources tell me that there and many people in the program - both male and female - ready and willing to testify against Jennings in this case. If she's able to survive a summary judgment motion to dismiss her claim, the attorneys will likely work out a settlement behind closed doors to save Summit the embarrassment of testifying, but that is no small feat in Federal Court. I'd guess that more than half of all discrimination cases are dismissed pursuant to a motion for summary judgment.
Normally on this site we don’t dive too deeply into women’s sports. Heck, we don’t dive into the non-revenue men’s sports, either. But when a former female employee files an “unlawful discrimination” suit against an SEC school and its athletic director in federal court and it involves a coaching legend, yeah, we’ve gotta mention it.
After serving for more than 35 years as the Tennessee Lady Vols’ main PR person, Debby Jennings was forced out of her position in May. The University of Tennessee has been working to combine its men’s and women’s athletic departments into one unit for some time… and this spring the axe fell on a number of people, including Jennings. Today, Jennings got her revenge.
Her lawsuit claims that UT athletic director Dave Hart gave Jennings three options back in May: retire, resign, or be fired for “insubordination.” The suit consists of 41 pages and 11 exhibits, according to The Knoxville News Sentinel. In it, Jennings requests that Hart and fellow UTAD employees Chris Fuller and Jimmy Stanton undergo “appropriate diversity and ethics training.”
The real kicker — and I suppose it’s included to show that Hart does not like women — is the claim that Hart forced Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt into retirement. Summitt is suffering from early-onset dementia. Jennings’ suit claims that Summitt was “very upset and extremely hurt” after being told that she would not coach the team in 2012-13.
For Hart, this could be a PR kick to the teeth in the Volunteer State. Jennings might as well have claimed Hart voted for Charles Woodson in the 1997 Heisman race or that he stole Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap. You don’t force out a legend.
At least that’s the spin that’s supposed to come from that bit of information.
But the fact that Hart replaced Summitt with her top, longtime aide Holly Warlick won’t help Jennings’ case that Summitt’s dismissal — if she was forced to retire — was gender-based. One UT official that I recently spoke to about Jennings’ claims pointed out to me that the highest paid assistant basketball coach at Tennessee is Kyra Elzy, a former Lady Vol who was hired away from Kentucky this past offseason. She’s not just the highest-paid women’s assistant, mind you, but the highest paid hoops assistant on UT’s campus. Men’s team or women’s team. That probably won’t help Jennings’ case, either.
At the time of Jennings’ ouster, she went public with her claims of discrimination. Hart responded via statement in mid-May saying that Jennings was “insubordinate, disrespectful and fostered an atmosphere of negativity and division.” He stated flatly: “I lost confidence that her employment was in the best interests of the Athletics Department.” In addition, The News Sentinel acquired a number of emails and memos that would certainly be enough to get many employees fired.
According to another University of Tennessee source I spoke with today, the school feels that it has more than enough documentation to fend off Jennings’ lawsuit. But sadly, Jennings has now dragged Summitt into this mess. In declining health — some days are good, some are bad according to people close to her — the coach will have to either back Jennings who worked beside her for three-plus decades or back the university. She should not be forced into that kind of a position.
Jennings could have sued Hart, UT and anyone else she liked without mentioning Summitt. As we noted above, it’s going to be hard to prove the ex-coach was discriminated against when she was replaced by another woman. And if it comes out that Hart did make the decision for Summitt because of mental health concerns, that will likely be defensible, as well, considering the ailment the ex-coach is battling.
Either way, the decision by Jennings to include Summitt’s tale as part of her lawsuit was clearly made to put Hart in a bad light. Maybe that will work, maybe it won’t. But Jennings’ has also put a spotlight on Summitt who — quite frankly — has much more important battles to deal with these days.