Katie Brenny was just weeks into her new job as coach of the University of Minnesota women’s golf team when her role drastically changed. Suddenly, she says, she wasn’t allowed to travel to tournaments and became little more than an administrative assistant to John Harris, then director of the university’s golf program.
She appealed to former athletic director Joel Maturi. But 58 days after she was hired, the university told her to resign or to go sell premium tickets and suites for campus events. She decided to quit.
Now, three years later, Brenny’s lawsuit against the university’s regents, which claims she was pushed out because Harris and others learned she was a lesbian, is being heard in Hennepin County District Court. The verdict in the nonjury bench trial, now in its second week, is likely to depend on which side comes across as more credible, because several key university employees have testified that they didn’t know Brenny’s sexual orientation until she filed a lawsuit in late 2010.
Harris, a well-known local golfer who was dropped as a defendant early on, and Maturi are expected to testify. Elizabeth Eull, deputy chief of staff of policy and initiatives for university President Eric Kaler, has sat at counsel’s table for the entire trial.
Brenny, a Little Falls native and a former state high school golf champ, worked as a club professional in North Carolina and as a staff member on the PGA Tour’s Developmental Nationwide Tour, as well as playing professionally, before taking her “dream job” at the U in August 2010. Now 33, she works for the First Tee in New York City, a youth program that uses golf to teach life skills. She went public with her discrimination claim after leaving the university.
David Crum, former associate athletic director for athletic development and supervisor of the golf program, said in court that Harris had an ego and was bad at communicating with staff.
Crum testified that Brenny did a great job during the U’s interview process and that the hiring committee was impressed with her. But after she was hired, he said, Harris moved her to what she considered menial tasks, such as creating a Facebook page for the team, driving players to the airport and making a flier for Harris’ golf camp. She was allowed to observe her players, but not to offer instruction.
“She lost John’s trust, and we worked together to figure out how she could gain it back,” Crum said. “They agreed to a fresh start.”
Brent Benrud, an attorney for the university, questioned witnesses who said that Harris and others made it clear to Brenny that her job would contain administrative work because her coaching job was being restructured.
Brenny testified that she told Maturi that Harris had demanded that three golfers be banned from picking up a golf club until they lost 15 pounds. Maturi was upset by this and said Harris needed sensitivity training, she said.
Brenny also testified that Ernie Rose, then director of swing instruction for the women’s team and Harris’ son-in-law, was asked by Harris if he should hire a 30-year-old fit person (referring to Brenny) or a 50-year-old lesbian for the coaching position. In testimony last week, Rose denied that Harris asked him that.
Samantha Sommers, then a senior and one of the team’s best golfers, testified that Brenny never demonstrated any inappropriate behavior but that Rose was rude and disrespectful. When the team qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 20 years, there was little excitement, she said, because “Harris and Rose made it hell for us to play.”
Sommers testified that several team members knew she was gay but didn’t care. Kris Wessinger, the women’s golf coach before Brenny, told the court that “it felt weird” when she told Rose that Brenny was a lesbian. At some point, several others said, he allegedly told Harris.
But Rose, an All-American golfer in college and a member of the Australian PGA, testified that he never heard about Brenny’s sexual orientation. He added that he would be insulted if somebody called him homophobic, because a member of his immediate family is gay, as is a member of Harris’ extended family.
Harris and Rose have since left the golf program.
Donald Chance Mark Jr., who is representing Brenny, hired former University of Texas women’s athletic director and gender equity expert Donna Lopiano to evaluate e-mails, depositions, student evaluations of the golf program, Brenny’s job posting and other documents related to the case. Lopiano testified that it was highly unusual for Harris to have asked Brenny to resign a few weeks into the job when he hadn’t expressed any dissatisfaction with her work.
By trying to keep Brenny from her players, Harris was perpetuating a stereotype that lesbians are predators and that he needed to protect the golf team, Lopiano said.
“I don’t feel the university has an environment that welcomes diversity and no discrimination based on sexual orientation,” she said.
But university attorney Jennifer Frisch argued that Lopiano’s opinions don’t include any firsthand knowledge or interviews with people in the golf program or school administration.
“There is no way to compare if Brenny was treated different from a heterosexual coach outside the golf program,” she said.
The trial is expected to go on for about another week.