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Women, Coaching, And Hockey

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Maine coach Maria Lewis, formerly an assistant at North Dakota and Mercyhurst, has resigned.  Coach Lewis does not appear to have made a statement on her own behalf, so we don’t know her side of the story.  The ostensible reason was a set of Level Three NCAA infractions.  Lewis had been hired to resurrect Maine’s program, but that turnaround stalled last season.  Granted that Hockey East is a very tough conference, Maine is also winless this year.

Level Three infractions are the second-lowest grade.  In this case, they appear to have included scheduling extra practice time, and supervising practices that were supposed to be run by the team captain.  The first, if true, is something for which I don’t have a lot of sympathy.  D-I athletes work hard enough.  The second is a problem with the NCAA’s wishy-washy stance on the student-athlete: if athletes are students, you need to allow them time to be real students.  Don’t give me this ‘captain’s practice’ or ‘unofficial (but required) team work-out.’  These need to be banned.  Even within women’s sports we have seen far too much evidence of programs that treat sports as their athletes’ full time jobs.  You can’t do that AND argue that these athletes are being paid with a free education.  They’re not getting the education.  Be that as it may, Level Three infractions are not a big deal in the scheme of things one can do wrong as a D-I coach.  A lengthy period of administrative leave followed by a resignation is odd.  Posters on the USCHO Fan Forum are speculating that something else may have been involved.

Over my years writing about women’s sports, I have seen female coaches fired or forced to resign for weaker reasons than men, more often.  At Rutgers a male coach can literally throw basketballs at his players’ heads while hurling homophobic slurs and only lose his job when some pesky video hits the media.  Women are in a much more precarious situation. So I do find it possible that a coach whose team was struggling, and who was hired based on star recruiting but was recruiting solid players to Maine, could find low-level violations used as a pretext for her ouster.  I am also editing this to add that, strange as it may seem, it is possible that Maine is that rare school that actually takes compliance seriously, and no matter what Lewis’ win/loss record she certainly erred in that department.  I don’t want to leave out the possibility that we are actually dealing with exactly what it seems.

A few months ago, labor reporters Bryce Covert and Kay Stieger passed around a chart of coaching salaries by sport.  The chart demonstrated that women’s salaries were generally grossly incommensurate with men’s.  Those of us who have been around women’s sports were sadly unsurprised by this continued evidence of second-class status.  But as someone who now specializes in hockey, I noticed something else about the chart: relatively speaking women’s hockey coaches make a lot of money.  The men still make significantly more, but women who coach hockey out-earn pretty much all of their peers.  I am interested to hear readers’ theories about this as a general phenomenon, but it also returned to my mind when I read the news yesterday of Lewis’ resignation.  One poster on the Fan Forum noted that Lewis was being paid a fairly low salary ($45k, according to the Bangor Daily News), which s/he suggested was an indication that the school doesn’t value women’s hockey.  Given the low profile of the sport, I would guess that many schools pay women’s hockey coaches well because of market pressure from other schools, but also don’t have a commitment to the sport.  I wonder if Lewis built performance bonuses into the contract instead.  Or it could be that the poster was right and it’s a sign of Maine’s overall feelings about women’s hockey.

As to the allegations that the problem might be more serious and Maine is trying to cover its bases: it is certainly unfortunate that the school has not even announced the resignation on Maine’s women’s hockey page.  If this particular case were in another women’s sport, I would say that it was almost certain that some program-embarrassing personal malfeasance had come to the attention of the AD. Mostly for worse, my understanding of past semi-scandals is that women’s hockey just doesn’t care much about that stuff.  But as far as I know there were not subterranean rumblings before this happened, and that normally occurs at schools where the coach is behaving badly (although there are also players who defend the coach no matter how bad her/his behavior.)  Another thing that sometimes happens, professional rather than personal, is that more serious NCAA infractions occur but the school chooses to report and punish the lesser ones, wanting to seem proactive in case the greater ones come to light.  We have no real evidence that this is Maine’s situation.  Until more of the story emerges I still think it isn’t so ridiculous to believe Maine legitimately wanted to change direction.  I await Lewis’ word on the situation.

Programming note: the CWHL season starts tomorrow.  In this Olympic year, they will no doubt be facing fan shortfalls due to lack of superstar power.  It’s more important than ever for Canadians and Bostonians to show up at games.

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