IOWA CITY — The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has signed a voluntary resolution with the University of Iowa over a 2015 complaint about gender discrimination in athletics, despite finding gaps in how men and women are treated in Hawkeye sports.
Federal investigators, who visited the UI in April 2016, said there was insufficient evidence to show the UI favored male student-athletes in six categories, including financial aid, scheduling of games or travel.
But the agency did find disparities in other categories, such as equipment, recruiting and locker rooms.
For example, the Athletic Department in 2015-2016 spent an average $4,249 per male student-athlete on equipment and supplies, but just $2,012 per female student-athlete. Investigators found UI men’s sports teams had more recruiting trips, the softball locker room is “small and unsatisfactory” and football players stay in a hotel the night before competitions.
“No women receive this benefit,” the 32-page report noted. The Gazette received this report, the voluntary resolution agreement and correspondence between the UI and the OCR through a public records request.
The resolution, signed Dec. 29 by UI Athletic Director Gary Barta, requires the UI to prove by Jan. 30 it was in compliance with the Title IX gender equity law for 2016-2017. The UI has to provide additional reports by April 30 and June 30 about specific categories where the agency noted concerns.
The UI framed the resolution as a victory.
“The OCR found no violation of any regulation under Title IX,” the UI said in a statement. “The resolution concludes the OCR’s investigation and was effective January 10, 2018. The university has agreed to provide additional reporting through the spring to substantiate its continued compliance under Title IX.”
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Attorneys who represented the former UI field hockey players who filed the complaint said the resolution is a “slap in the face” of female student-athletes and coaches.
“What the OCR is doing here is finding there are violations and letting the University of Iowa fix them after the fact without holding them accountable,” said Jill Zwagerman, a Des Moines attorney who represented a former UI athletics administrator who, with her partner, won a $6.5 million gender equity settlement with UI Athletics last spring.
Zwagerman’s law partner, Tom Newkirk, likened the resolution to a plea deal in that if the UI can stay out of trouble for another year, there are no repercussions.
Complying with Title IX
There are three ways for universities to comply with Title IX. The first is to show athletic participation rates are substantially proportional to the overall UI student population. The OCR determined the UI did not meet this standard in 2015-2016, with women making up 52 percent of the undergraduate enrollment, but only 49.1 percent of student-athletes.
The OCR found the UI’s gender opportunity gap of 54 was large enough to field another women’s team.
The second prong says a university can demonstrate a continuous expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented gender, usually women. Since the UI hasn’t added a women’s sport since soccer in 1997 and doesn’t have a plan for creating other women’s sports, the OCR determined the university was not compliant on the second prong.
Under the third prong, a university claims to have fully accommodated the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.
The OCR noted the UI has not surveyed students about their athletic interests and abilities, but “before OCR could conclude whether the university is fully and effectively accommodating the athletic abilities and interests of its female students, the university request to further assess and as appropriate resolve this component of its athletic program.”
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The OCR can require that schools found violating Title IX take corrective actions that could include redistributing scholarships, shifting spending or revising policies. Schools that don’t act risk losing federal money, but that step has never been used, according to “Unwinding Madness: What went wrong with college sports and how to fix it,” a 2017 book by collegiate sports experts Gerald Gurney, Donna Lopiano and Andrew Zimbalist.
Complaint from former field hockey players
Four UI field hockey players filed a complaint with the OCR in January 2015, alleging the Athletic Department investigates complaints of male and female student athletes differently and holds female coaches to a higher standard. The student-athletes told The Gazette they filed the complaint only after UI officials refused to look into whether gender played a role in the Aug. 4, 2014, firing of Tracey Griesbaum as head field hockey coach.
The field hockey players followed up with a September 2015 OCR complaint alleging disparities across many categories of athletics, Newkirk said. The voluntary resolution stems from the second complaint, he said.
Griesbaum sued the university, as did her partner, Jane Meyer, who served as a UI athletics administrator for 14 years. Meyer was transferred out of the department in December 2014 when she complained about Griesbaum’s firing. Meyer’s job later was eliminated. A Polk County jury in May awarded Meyer $1.43 million, which later was rolled into a $6.5 million settlement for Meyer and Griesbaum.
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