Former Lady Vols Sports Information Director Debby Jennings Considers Legal Action Against UT

TEAM PLAYER: Former information director for the Lady Vols, Debby Jennings spent her entire career at the University of Tennessee—before allegedly being forced to retire, according to a May 18 letter her lawyer sent to UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. Attorney David Burkhalter's letter states that Jennings has the basis for a 'discrimination/retaliation' case against the university.

TEAM PLAYER: Former information director for the Lady Vols, Debby Jennings spent her entire career at the University of Tennessee—before allegedly being forced to retire, according to a May 18 letter her lawyer sent to UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek. Attorney David Burkhalter's letter states that Jennings has the basis for a "discrimination/retaliation" case against the university.

The sudden retirement of Lady Vols Sports Information Director Debby Jennings was announced last week in a terse, three-paragraph press release that shocked fans of the women’s program, many of whom were already suspicious that the consolidation of men’s and women’s departments would mean second-class treatment for the Lady Vols. They feared that Jennings’ retirement was not voluntary.

A May 18 letter to University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek from Jennings’ attorney, David Burkhalter, will likely confirm the worst fears of Lady Vols fans. Burkhalter’s letter says that on May 15, UT Athletics Director Dave Hart called Jennings into his office, accused her of insubordination, and gave her three and a half hours to decide whether to retire or be fired.

The letter says Hart wanted her decision before he took off on a public relations jaunt at the end of the day with the Big Orange Caravan. When she returned to her office, it says, Jennings found that her computer had been removed and her e-mail files deleted.

A media source who has covered Tennessee athletics for years says that former Coach Pat Summit was “emotionally distraught,” when she heard of Jennings’ forced retirement. “They didn’t even have the decency to notify her, until after the fact. Nobody would have screwed with Pat if she were still coach; Debby would still be here. This is such a shame—the women’s department was so well run. Now it looks like they’re being sucked into the vortex of incompetence on the men’s side.”

Another document obtained by Metro Pulse—a letter from Jennings to Hart dated Jan. 11—says Hart had started pressuring Jennings to retire last December, with Summitt still at the helm. Jennings, who is a 57-year-old cancer survivor, politely declined, saying in her letter that she needed to keep working and to keep her health insurance, at least until she is 62, and that she suspects that the pressure to retire came because she expressed disapproval of discrimination “toward me and others.”

She also said in her letter to Hart that she had discussed Hart’s ultimatum with Summitt:

“She told me I had her full support and that she didn’t want me to resign. Further, you obviously don’t know me. As a woman of character, I would never voluntarily quit as long as Pat Summitt is associated with the Lady Vol basketball team. I would not abandon her.”

As Pat Summitt’s right arm for 35 years, Jennings directed a media relations department that won more than 400 awards. In 1995, she won the first Mel Greenberg Award for lifelong contributions to women’s basketball. In 2002, she received the College Sports Information of Directors of America Trailblazer Award and became the second woman inducted into the CoSIDA Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Tennessee Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame in 2010.

Her “retirement” came at the end of a difficult season that started last August when the iconic Summitt rocked the sports firmament by announcing that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type, and intended to keep coaching for as long as possible. It ended with Summitt’s retirement last month. In between, as tributes poured in from everyone from the president of the United States to coaches and players of opposing teams—many of whom donned Alzheimer’s Association purple and raised money to fight the disease—Jennings devised a plan to help Summitt deal with the demands of the media and a fan base accustomed to unparalleled access to the beloved coach.

Concurrent with Summitt’s health issues were tensions brought on by the Women’s Athletics Department’s absorption into the men’s department, a process that began before Hart arrived last year. (The move resulted in job losses in both departments but allows Hart to claim a savings of more than $1 million annually.) The new regime imposed restrictions on Summitt’s long-standing open-door policy for fans and the media, and those concerned with gender equity noted that just one of the eight executive-level positions in the combined athletics department is held by a woman, the bare minimum mandated by NCAA regulations.

Burkhalter’s letter to Cheek gave UT officials 10 days to avoid litigation in language that goes far beyond the usual legal boilerplate:

“After 35 years of loyal, excellent and award-winning service to the University of Tennessee, this treatment is unconscionable. Further, as an alumnus of UT holding two degrees, the treatment afforded to Debby makes me sick. Faced with this ultimatum, Debby had no choice but to ‘retire.’ Her duties were thereafter taken over by a younger male.

“As you know, her forced retirement follows an approximate two-year period during which Debby had been quietly complaining of gender and age discrimination and hoping that this would be rectified behind the scenes. Her complaints, however, only resulted in increased hostility, harassment, curtailment of responsibilities, isolation and other forms of retaliation by the men placed over her.”

Burkhalter wrote that Hart’s December ultimatum that she must retire by the end of the school year “shocked Debby beyond belief and she replied that she would not abandon her coach, Pat Summitt.… She later learned that same day Mr. Hart made the same ‘request’ to (men’s SID) Bud Ford.”

“Most recently, on March 16, 2012,” Burkhalter wrote, “Debby protested other discriminatory action by Mr. Hart regarding a colleague. I am sure you are aware of this.”

“I have advised Debby that she has the basis to pursue a discrimination/retaliation case against U.T., but… Debby has instructed me to first see if this unfortunate matter can be resolved on an amicable basis.… If we fail to hear from you [within 10 days], we will proceed forward without further notice,” Burkhalter’s letter said.

Jennings’ relationship with UT women’s athletics and Pat Summitt began in the mid-’70s when she was a student sports reporter with The Daily Beacon. She worked on both the men’s and the women’s side in the early days of her career, and much as Summitt is known for her “coaching tree” of former players and assistants now thriving in the profession, Jennings has launched scores of student interns and assistants into media relations careers of their own.

Burkhalter’s letter says that Hart’s May 15 actions “made her feel as if she was being treated as a common criminal.”

At 3:28 p.m. on May 16, Jimmy Stanton, UT’s Associate Athletics Director, Communications, hit the send button on a bland, three-paragraph press release announcing Jennings’ retirement. The third paragraph quoted Hart:

“She has been a part of our eight national championships in women’s basketball, and we wish her well.”

The retirement announcement was met with confusion, suspicion, and anger from fans and boosters, some of whom started letter-writing campaigns and petition drives. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, Pat Summitt’s biographer and author of best-selling biographies of Lance Armstrong and Dean Smith, took to Twitter:

“The forced retirement of #Ladyvols Debby Jennings is a dirty rotten piece of business. Office politics wins over professionalism.”

Award-winning ESPN columnist Mechelle Voepel: “It’s sad and alarming to see someone who has given her entire adult life to her alma mater be cut loose. Those of us who’ve seen Tennessee so long at the apex of women’s athletics never imagined this would happen there.”

Women’s basketball pioneer Mel Greenberg, a former Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter who founded the first weekly women’s college poll (eventually taken over by AP), and for whom one of the awards Jennings won is named, now covers the sport in a blog called Women’s Hoops Guru. He said in a telephone interview that when he was forced into retirement due to downsizing in the newsroom, he nevertheless left with much fanfare.

“I got a farewell party and a military salute, not a three-paragraph kiss-off. But she’ll land on her feet because she’s Debby, and I’ll tell you what she’s got—she’s got legacy—the 70-something people she mentored. I don’t think a single one of them ever messed up.”

Cheek, Hart, and Stanton did not return requests for comment by press time.

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 9

realtallshorty writes:

UNBELIEVABLE! Enjoy your football team, Hart

TomB writes:

Another clueless move by UT that started with the disgraceful way they pushed out Phil Fulmer...you would think they would let her stay until 62 when she could qualify for Medicare.

primadonnanot writes:

So concerned about the future of the Lady Vols Program(s) since Hart arrived...pitiful decision-making so far from Hart regarding an elite, outstanding program that took Pat Summitt/Joan Cronan/Debby Jennings 30-40 yrs to build...Is ANYONE supervising this man's poor decisions? We know his male-oriented intentions - how many dedicated lives/careers is he gonna ruin along his path? How many fans is he gonna lose along the way, refusing to contribute to his program/paycheck? I know of several already!!!!!!!!! Keep firing, Hart, that million you save in the budget will amount to nothing in the long run...

Sunsetsam writes:

Hart has no idea who he is messing with..we are a family at
the Lady Vols. This is a personal attack on all of us. This is
how perfection is rewarded!!

LincolnMKS writes:

Maybe it could have been handled another way, who knows. But I am sick of these entitled state workers that have been on the public teet for years and think they are owed a job for life. I work in the private sector, and If my services are no longer needed or I dont bring value to the company, my job will be eliminated. Your employer will tell you when to retire, not you Debby. I am sure she done a great job, but that doesnt guarantee you a job as long as she would like. To say that she dedicated her entire adult life to UT like she wasnt compensated with great benefits is irresponsible. Face it folks, the women's department does not produce any revenue. Pat was great enough of a coach and ambassador of the women's game to at least make it break even. Life is not fair and you are not entitled to a job until you decide you want to retire. Welcome to the real world state workers!

NewEnglander writes:

in response to LincolnMKS:

Maybe it could have been handled another way, who knows. But I am sick of these entitled state workers that have been on the public teet for years and think they are owed a job for life. I work in the private sector, and If my services are no longer needed or I dont bring value to the company, my job will be eliminated. Your employer will tell you when to retire, not you Debby. I am sure she done a great job, but that doesnt guarantee you a job as long as she would like. To say that she dedicated her entire adult life to UT like she wasnt compensated with great benefits is irresponsible. Face it folks, the women's department does not produce any revenue. Pat was great enough of a coach and ambassador of the women's game to at least make it break even. Life is not fair and you are not entitled to a job until you decide you want to retire. Welcome to the real world state workers!

LincolnMKS: The point is not the retirement. The problem is that she was forced into retirement due to discrimination, which is against the law. And to suggest that she no longer brought value to the company (university) is silly, considering the amount of awards she's received over the years and the type of program she helped build next to Summitt. Summitt, of course, deserves the credit for that, but Jennings was right there the whole time dealing with the media, no small feat with such a high-profile team. She was not just some state worker, she held a position with influence and did an exceptional job.

LincolnMKS writes:

in response to NewEnglander:

LincolnMKS: The point is not the retirement. The problem is that she was forced into retirement due to discrimination, which is against the law. And to suggest that she no longer brought value to the company (university) is silly, considering the amount of awards she's received over the years and the type of program she helped build next to Summitt. Summitt, of course, deserves the credit for that, but Jennings was right there the whole time dealing with the media, no small feat with such a high-profile team. She was not just some state worker, she held a position with influence and did an exceptional job.

Can it be proven she was forced to retire because of gender? I doubt it. I do not doubt she done her job well based on the recognition she received, but at the end of the day does the department make money? If not a decision can be made to eliminate the position. Tennessee is the only University in the country with separate Athletic departments. Hello! Its time to trim the fat, we do not 50 AD's with duties overlapping.

NewEnglander writes:

in response to LincolnMKS:

Can it be proven she was forced to retire because of gender? I doubt it. I do not doubt she done her job well based on the recognition she received, but at the end of the day does the department make money? If not a decision can be made to eliminate the position. Tennessee is the only University in the country with separate Athletic departments. Hello! Its time to trim the fat, we do not 50 AD's with duties overlapping.

As a former SID, who did the same job as her, I can assure you her job responsibilities did not overlap anyone elses, certainly not any AD. SID departments are notorious for being understaffed, overworked and undervalued at any level. And no, I can't prove it was based on gender but it sounds like there will be an investigation. It also sounds like there was a lot of things behind the scenes that were only alluded to in this article. She had voiced concerns and was then fired for it, or so it seems. It also sounds like there were others concerned too. I guess the one thing we can agree on is that it was poorly handled by Hart and co.

RJP11 writes:

It's astonishing how entitled & greedy all the Lady Vol staffers have become over the years. I thought it was all about molding the lives of the student-athletes. Oh wait, it wasn't? How about "thanks, UT, for putting more resources into & more emphasis on women's athletics than any other coed institution in America"?! I guarantee you they were all compensated considerably more at UT than they would have been anywhere else in the country for women's athletics jobs. Hello, if it was soooo discriminatory & awful, why the hell didn't they all bail out long ago instead of hanging around for 20-40 years?! Answer: the grass wasn't greener anywhere ... they all would have made significantly less & been treated worse at virtually any other university in the nation. Well, the free ride is over. Non-revenue producing sports don't get to spend money like they are revenue producers anymore. Sorry ... money, unlike no-competition women's basketball championships, doesn't grow on trees ...

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