Report charges sexual harassment by University of Minnesota Duluth women's coach

DULUTH, Minn.--Joanna Warmington announced her resignation as women's cross country and track and field coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth in a fiery statement Monday in which she alleged NCAA and Title IX violations by the school after ...
Joanna Warmington has resigned as women's cross country and track and field coach at Minnesota Duluth. UMD photo

DULUTH, Minn.-Joanna Warmington announced her resignation as women's cross country and track and field coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth in a fiery statement Monday in which she alleged NCAA and Title IX violations by the school after a university investigative report said she displayed a pattern of sexual harassment.

Warmington missed last spring's outdoor track season while on a leave of absence. At the time, a UMD official, who requested anonymity, said that Warmington was being investigated following complaints lodged against her regarding the well-being of athletes.

Earlier this month, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action completed its investigation. According to a summary of the report, the EOAA "found that Ms. Warmington engaged in sexual harassment in violation of university policy."

Specifically, the EOAA "concluded that Ms. Warmington's conduct was unwelcome because it was unsolicited, made multiple student-athletes feel uncomfortable, and taken together, created an unwelcome sexualized environment in which some student-athletes felt compelled to tolerate unwanted conduct of a sexual nature in order to maintain a positive relationship with their coach."

The EOAA also "decided that Ms. Warmington's pervasive conduct of a sexual nature with student-athletes on her team, made from her position of authority as their coach, had the effect of creating a sexualized, hostile and offensive environment in violation of University policy."

The report states that five student-athletes brought concerns about Warmington's conduct to a member of UMD's athletic department early this year. They detailed their frustrations in an initial document to the department in February, and resubmitted it on March 16.

According to the report, the Vogel Law Firm completed the "fact-finding portion of the investigation" and "interviewed the five student-athlete complainants, Ms. Warmington, 19 other current or former track and field student-athletes, and seven athletics staff members." Additionally, "relevant photographs, electronic communications, and other written materials" were reviewed.

Per the report, "Ms. Warmington and the five student-athlete complainants were given the opportunity to respond to the factual information gathered" that "pertained to them." Warmington responded, as did two of the five student-athletes, and those responses factored into the final report.

In her statement Monday, Warmington alleges that UMD committed NCAA and Title IX violations. She said she was placed on leave March 28 "under the pretext that there were complaints by student-athletes regarding my coaching behavior."

However, the Monticello, Minn., native, who was set to begin her ninth season as head coach at the school, says as the investigation unfolded, "it became clear that UMD was coordinating an effort through my supervisor, the men's head coach for cross country and track and field, and our shared assistant coaches (all males) to remove me from my position as head coach."

Paul Nisius coaches the UMD men's cross country and track and field teams.

Warmington contends there was a lack of due process. She said 15 of the 32 witnesses interviewed did not sign their statements "verifying that the information they provided was true and correct." She said witnesses were able to confer and compare stories before and after meeting with the investigator, and if more than one person made a claim "they were determined to be true."

In a follow-up email on Monday night, Warmington said her actions were often misinterpreted. An event would be classified as "sexual in nature, even if it was innocent" - telling an athlete she had beautiful legs, for example.

"Meaning they were toned and powerful and would serve her well as we discussed what types of events were best for her physique and training," Warmington wrote.

Warmington also said that after a run this summer she sent an inspirational text message to her athletes with a picture of herself in her running attire, including a running bra.

"This picture was cited as an example of a 'sexual picture' just because I was wearing my running bra," Warmington wrote. "My student-athletes always run in their running bras in the summer and there is no difference between me doing so and them - this is normal summer running attire for women."

Before going on leave, Warmington had enjoyed abundant success guiding the Bulldogs since being promoted from an assistant in August 2010. In seven of her eight seasons as head coach, UMD qualified for the NCAA Division II cross country championships, placing third in 2014, the program's best finish. There also were Central Region championships in 2013 and 2014, as well as NSIC titles in 2013 and 2015.

Similarly, the track team captured an NSIC indoor title in 2014.

Warmington has helped several athletes garner All-America status, three of whom - Emi Trost, Lexi Williams and Samantha Rivard - won NCAA championships.

UMD's cross country team starts preseason practice today.

The second paragraph of Warmington's statement reads:

"I am in contact with nationally recognized law firms regarding a variety of NCAA violations at UMD, violations of state statute by the University regarding defamation and the handling of my personnel files, and the operation and conduct of the men's and women's cross country and track and field teams at UMD with respect to noncompliance with Title IX."

In March, shortly before being placed on leave, Warmington wrote a "local view" letter to the Duluth News Tribune supporting UMD following a jury's $3.74 million verdict in favor of the school's former women's hockey coach, Shannon Miller.

Warmington wrote then:

"The morning after the verdict in the University of Minnesota Duluth vs. Shannon Miller case I woke up with a pit in my stomach and a feeling of numbness for women. I walked onto campus hearing comments such as, 'It's the year of the woman.' For everything I have fought for and instilled in my female athletes, we are now showing them they can just as easily play victim roles and expect entitlement rather than challenging them to persevere."

Later in the letter, she added: "I will continue to fight for my program and our athletic department here at UMD. This university has always backed our athletic and academic programs and our staff in promoting growth, equality, and inclusiveness. The Duluth and surrounding community has as well."

Monday's statement, though, featured a much different tone, with Warmington saying:

"To Shannon Miller, Annette Wiles, and Jen Banford: I hope you and your supporters now understand why I wrote a letter in the Duluth News Tribune in the aftermath of the Shannon Miller verdict.

"We (UMD coaches and staff) were encouraged to support Josh Berlo and UMD administration in the aftermath of that verdict. I was intimidated while standing in front of other employees and felt I must comply. I was gravely concerned that my student-athletes would lose their ability to compete if my program would have to be cut in order to fund the cost of the jury verdict, and I would also lose the job that I love."

Miller, Wiles, the school's former women's basketball coach, and Banford, the ex-softball coach, have a separate lawsuit pending against UMD on the grounds of sexual-orientation discrimination.

Monday, about two hours after Warmington emailed her statement, UMD issued one of its own. It came from university spokeswoman Lynne Williams and read:

"UMD Athletics respects Coach Warmington's decision to resign. The details of the investigation remain private data. However, we can say that complaints were made to the University, and a thorough investigation was conducted by an outside law firm.

"With respect to the other concerns included in her letter, UMD remains strongly committed to providing athletic programs of excellence in compliance with all Title IX and NCAA requirements. We respect the rights of all concerned in this situation. Therefore, we are not in a position to comment further. UMD Athletics will undertake a search for Warmington's replacement immediately and are exploring options to bring in someone to guide the program until the search is completed."

A public data request in May showed that Warmington had received letters of admonishment from then-athletic director Bob Nielson in February 2012 and current AD Josh Berlo in June 2014 for secondary NCAA violations. More recently, she received a verbal warning on April 26, 2017, from associate athletic director Jay Finnerty "for the reason of inappropriate, non-instructional physical contact with a student-athlete."

That reprimand stemmed from an alleged "grabbing and/or pushing" of an athlete by Warmington at a February 2017 meet. The investigation summary report found Warmington "in violation of the presumptive professional expectation of coaches," though the "alleged act of pushing was inconclusive as there was not enough evidence to confirm or dispute that specific complaint occurred as described."