Student-athletes voice concerns in University of Iowa surveys
How the Athletics Department followed up was questioned in Jane Meyer trial
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IOWA CITY — Nearly 8 percent of University of Iowa student-athletes surveyed last year said they witnessed or were subject to bullying or hazing by their coach, and nearly one-quarter said they would not approach their coach with concerns about the team.
Summaries of student-athlete surveys, obtained by The Gazette through an open records request, shed light on an athletics department that in May paid $6.5 million to settle legal cases that included court testimony about how Hawkeye coaches treat their players.
“This survey is very important to us athletes because it’s one of the moments in which we are asked of/allowed to voice our opinion,” said Alyssa Klostermann, a Dubuque native who was a senior UI volleyball player last year.
Of about 650 UI student-athletes in 2016-17, 248 took the anonymous survey that let them rate athletics staff, services, facilities and culture. Three years of exit survey summaries show UI student-athletes are. on average, pretty happy with their athletic experiences, providing median scores in nearly all categories of at least a 4 on a scale of 1 to 5.
But not all student-athlete responses were good news for the athletics department. And a big question is how the UI addresses concerns that arise in the survey.
“It can be a useful tool to say, ‘How are we doing as an athletics department? How are certain departments and units doing?’” said Liz Tovar, UI associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services. “If there’s a problem, we try to address it as effectively as possible.”
Reporting a problem
About 19 students, or 7.73 percent of 2016-17 survey respondents, said they witnessed or were subject to bullying or hazing by a member of the coaching staff. About 14 students, or 5.58 percent of respondents, reported bullying or hazing on their teams. Those percentages were consistent with the 2015-16 survey results.
“We really want student-athletes to understand when they put that down on their survey we take that very seriously,” Tovar said.
If students say on the survey they’ve experienced bullying, hazing or discrimination in UI athletics, the answer triggers an automated email from the system providing a list of resources to address their concerns and an invitation to talk with a sport administrator, Tovar said.
“If a student is reporting a problem, we want that student to come and talk to our athletic administration about those concerns,” she said.
Sport-specific survey summaries go to athletics officials who oversee particular sports, while athletic department units, such as Academic Services, get results dealing with their programs. The student well-being subcommittee of the Presidential Committee on Athletics also reviews survey summaries, Tovar said.
UI Athletics Director Gary Barta was grilled about student surveys in the April trial of a lawsuit brought by Jane Meyer, a former UI athletics administrator who said the university discriminated against her based on gender and sexual orientation.
Meyer asserted the UI retaliated against her after she complained when her longtime partner, Tracey Griesbaum, was fired in August 2014 as the UI’s head field hockey coach.
Barta said he fired Griesbaum because several current and former student-athletes said the coach was verbally abusive and pressured student-athletes to play injured.
Surveys from 2013-14 showed 27 student-athletes, or 6 percent of respondents, reported verbal abuse “while a student-athlete at the UI.” Three students, or 1 percent of respondents, said they had been sexually abused and three students said they had been physically abused.
“There were some student-athletes in other (non field hockey) sports alleging physical and even sexual abuse, right?” Meyer’s attorney, Tom Newkirk, asked Barta during the trial.
“Yes,” Barta said.
“Did you investigate whether in any of the allegations there may be something beyond verbal abuse?” Newkirk asked.
“No,” Barta said, adding that the survey was anonymous, which made it hard to investigate.
A Polk County jury awarded Meyer $1.4 million, which was ultimately included in a $6.5 million settlement with Meyer and Griesbaum.
Little time for academics, activities
Tovar, who came to the UI in 2013, coordinates the surveys, reviews the results and shares summaries with other athletics officials. She revised the survey after 2013-14, removing questions — including those about assault — and adding other topics.
“We didn’t want to eliminate some very important questions, but we wanted to increase the likelihood of students completing the survey,” she said.
The new survey is less focused on the athletics department and includes more questions about the student’s overall experience on campus.
About 60 percent of those surveyed in 2015-16 and 2016-17 said sports prevented them from participating in other campus activities.
“You don’t have time to be an athlete and be in an organization,” one student responded in the 2015-16 survey.
“Don’t have time,” another said.
These responses mirror a national dialogue in college sports.
“It’s about owning your time,” said former Oklahoma football player Ty Darlington, according to a January NCAA report. “Coaches need to understand that student-athletes aren’t on call at all times.”
The nation’s five most powerful athletic conferences, including the Big Ten and Big 12, in January approved plans to give student-athletes more time off.
Athletic programs now must carve out sports-free days and prohibit team activities during an eight-hour stretch at night. Schools also must create a time-management plan for each sport that gives players a heads up on what will be required and when.
The UI will be implementing these changes for the 2017-18 sports seasons, Tovar said.
“I always want student-athletes to have more time to dedicate to academics and resume-building activities,” she said, adding UI student-athletes spent 15,000 hours last year on community service, programming and personal development.
Several questions on the UI survey deal with players’ relationships with their coaches.
About 60 student-athletes, or 24 percent of 2016-17 respondents, said they would not approach their coach with a concern related to the team. This was down from 29 percent in the 2015-16 survey. Communication by head coaches also scored relatively low, with a median score of 3.68 in 2016-17.
But Tovar noted student-athletes gave higher scores to assistant or position coaches, with whom they often spend more time at practice.
The UI athletics department has made changes because of past survey results, Tovar said. In 2015-16, student-athletes’ median scores for “refueling stations,” or student-athlete healthy snack hubs, were 4.09 for quality, 3.88 for selection and 3.73 for locations.
Last September, the UI Athletics Department hired Nicole White as sports nutrition director. White has expanded refueling stations in at least seven campus locations, including the Gerdin Athletic Learning Center, the Carver-Hawkeye Arena and the Jacobson Football Operations Building. The stations have expanded offerings including salads, Greek yogurt, cheese sticks, fruit, jerky and granola.
White also does team talks, cooking demonstrations and one-on-one consultations on topics that include food allergies, eating disorders or intentional weight gain.
This year’s survey scores for nutrition were all well over 4.
“Our refueling stations are incredible,” said former volleyball player Klostermann, now doing a communications internship with UI athletics. “My freshmen and sophomore year at Iowa, refueling stations did not even exist. Now I see where they are and it makes me excited/jealous of what they will be in the future.”
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