Higher education

Women short on sports opportunities at University of Iowa, Northern Iowa

Jane Meyer's discrimination case against UI raised issue of how player rosters are managed

The University of Iowa rowing team practices March 2, 2016, on the Iowa River in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
The University of Iowa rowing team practices March 2, 2016, on the Iowa River in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

The University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa fell short last year of providing equal sports opportunities for women — a standard at the heart of federal gender equity law and an issue raised in the civil trial of a former UI athletics administrator.

Jane Meyer, who won $1.4 million from the UI in an employment discrimination case earlier this month, testified during her trial in Polk County that UI Head Wrestling Coach Tom Brands became mad when she told him his team would lose spots on its roster to football.

“Your athletic participation should reflect your undergraduate full-time enrollment,” said Meyer, who was transferred out of the athletics department in 2014 and later terminated.

Sports Participation Chart

Erin Jordan / The Gazette

Roster management has become a big deal in NCAA Division I athletics programs trying to maintain large football programs without adding more women’s sports, which can be expensive. Sometimes, smaller men’s teams get squeezed while women’s rosters are stretched to increase the overall number of female participants reported.

“Roster inflation shenanigans abound,” according to “Unwinding Madness: What went wrong with college sports and how to fix it,” a new book by collegiate sports experts Gerald Gurney, Donna Lopiano and Andrew Zimbalist.

Title IX, a landmark gender equity law passed in 1972, requires a university athletics department to have sports participation numbers “substantially proportionate” to the percentage of male and female students in the undergraduate population of that institution.

For example, 52 percent of the UI’s undergraduate population was female in 2015-16, which means about 52 percent of the participants in all athletics programs should be women.


Data the UI reported to the NCAA showed 46.9 percent of UI student-athletes were women that year. Data the UI turned in to the U.S. Department of Education, which has slightly different reporting rules, showed a higher percentage of female student-athletes, at 49.5 percent.

Those female numbers included 19 men who practiced with women’s basketball, soccer and volleyball, as well as 29 female rowers not in the NCAA report.

The UI considers its gender breakdown to be in line with Title IX, said Steve Roe, director of athletic communications.

UNI’s undergraduate student population was 57.9 percent female in 2015-16, which isn’t a surprise with UNI’s focus on teacher education. Women, however, made up only 46.9 percent of UNI student-athletes that year, according to the NCAA data, and 48 percent according to the numbers UNI filed with the federal government.

“It is out of compliance and we’re working on a plan to close that gap,” said Christina Roybal, UNI’s new senior associate athletics director and senior woman administrator.

Iowa State University is the only public university in Iowa where women have a greater opportunity to play sports than their male peers. ISU’s undergraduate population — which has more men because of its engineering offerings — was 43.4 percent women in 2015-16. Women made up 46 percent of ISU student-athletes, the NCAA reported, or 47.4 percent, the U.S. Education Department reported.

“Because we do have a lot of males on campus, there’s more leeway than at Iowa or UNI,” said Steve Malchow, senior associate athletics director. “Iowa State has always benefited from that.”


Nationwide, more than 486,000 student-athletes participated in sports in 2015-16 for which the NCAA holds championships, the NCAA reported.


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Overall, 56.5 percent of those students were male — which means a lot of universities aren’t meeting the primary test of Title IX.

There are two other ways for universities to comply with the law.

The second prong says a university can demonstrate a continuous expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented gender, usually women. Since few universities can afford to often start new sports, this pillar isn’t frequently cited.

Under the third prong, a university claims to have fully accommodated the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex — which Gurney, Lopiano and Zimbalist, in “Unwinding Madness,” say is a frequently-exploited loophole.

“There are institutions that maintain that the reason why they can’t add a new women’s sport is that there aren’t enough women’s teams in their normal competitive region to put together a regular season schedule,” the book notes. “It appears that neither the OCR nor any other entity is checking whether that contention is true.”

The OCR is the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is tasked with enforcing Title IX.

“The problem is the OCR is notoriously understaffed and underfunded,” said Nicole LaVoi, co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “If there’s a violation, it’s under their purview, but that doesn’t leave room for general enforcement. There’s no hammer. There’s no teeth.”

OCR investigation

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 hammer is “so significant that it has never been used,” according to “Unwinding Madness.”

The OCR sent investigators to Iowa City in April 2016 to interview coaches, student-athletes, athletic trainers and equipment managers about two complaints filed against the UI since early 2015. The ongoing investigation centers on allegations the UI fails to provide equal athletic opportunities to men and women in 13 areas, including facilities, practice times, travel budgets and equipment.


Four UI field hockey players filed a federal complaint in January 2015, alleging the Athletics Department violated their Title IX rights by firing Head Field Hockey Coach Tracey Griesbaum in 2014 after several student-athletes said she was verbally abusive.

“To fire female coaches for using coaching methods that are exactly the same as methods used by male coaches is gender discrimination,” stated the complaint by Dani Hemeon, Natalie Cafone, Jessy Silfer and Chandler Ackers.

Jane Meyer Video Clip

Silfer told The Gazette last week the UI’s response to her team’s concerns led to her decision to transfer to Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she played field hockey. She will graduate with honors Monday and plans to go to medical school.

“As a team, we were not receiving the support we should have been,” Silfer said of Iowa.

A second complaint, filed Sept. 2, 2015, has remained largely confidential, although Tom Newkirk, a Des Moines lawyer who advised the field hockey players and is representing Griesbaum in a lawsuit against the UI, has said the filing relates to concerns the UI is inflating women’s rowing rosters.

Meyer trial

Roster management came up in the civil trial when Brands testified against Meyer, then an associate athletics director with whom he had butted heads.

“Roster management is a Title IX issue,” Brands said April 28. “Wrestling does not have a cap or limit on a roster, (but) because of Title IX issues, we had to fall under a cap.”

Division I wrestling is allowed 9.9 scholarships that can be divided among multiple wrestlers. However, Meyer told Brands his team would be losing spots, according to testimony.


“I went and did the research about what NCAA numbers were and talked with every coach about their proposed roster number,” Meyer testified May 2, during rebuttal. “I showed them to each coach. You had to be very close within that percentage.”

“If wrestling was losing players, where were they going?” asked Meyer’s attorney, Jill Zwagerman.

“Football went to 118, per Mr. Barta, so we made that change,” Meyer said about UI Athletics Director Gary Barta. “I was instructed that would be the number for football.”

Brands wasn’t happy about the news.

“When you look at our competition — Penn State, Oklahoma State, Ohio State — they have no roster cap,” Brands testified.

He said Meyer wasn’t open to discussion. “The way the issue was treated, it was a mandate. It was just, ‘Do it.’ No dialogue.”

It’s not always easy to break bad news to coaches, said UNI’s Roybal, who came there last summer from Fresno State University, where she worked 10 years in athletics. She knows she may have to do this as part of UNI’s five-year roster management plan to bring the gender breakdown of sports in line with that of the student population.

“It does require some difficult conversations with coaches on the men’s side if that requires some kind of reduction,” she said.

For Division I football, ISU had the state’s largest football team in 2015-16 at 135, compared with 117 for the UI and 96 for UNI. Of ISU’s 135 players, 50 were walk-ons and 56 didn’t play in a game, Malchow said.


“In Big 12 in football, you can take 65 on the travel roster,” Malchow said. “This is 55 guys who play and a couple of red shirts and walk-ons.”

Division I football is a head-count sport, which means there are 85 full scholarships given to 85 players.


In some circles, roster management has become synonymous with manipulating rosters so universities appear to meet Title IX requirements.

One sport under scrutiny is women’s rowing, which races four-person and eight-person boats against teams from across the country.

A Seattle Times investigation in March showed the University of Washington had listed at least eight women on the rowing rosters in 2013 and 2014 who had never rowed for the team.

The UI, the only state university in Iowa with rowing, reported to the NCAA there were 73 participants for 2015-16, which was slightly larger than the 64.2 average squad size for all NCAA Division I rowing programs. However, the UI’s report to the U.S. Department of Education put the rowing roster at 102.

The University of Michigan reported 108 that year; the University of Minnesota 86.

The UI’s Big Ten roster is about 50 rowers, UI Head Rowing Coach Andrew Carter told The Gazette last year.

Rowing teams also have a novice division for freshmen, most of whom have never rowed.

Critics say this is one way athletics departments try to balance having large football teams without adding new women’s sports.


Roybal said she has heard about padding of women’s team rosters, and won’t have it at UNI.

“It’s important to make sure the opportunities we’re providing to the underrepresented sex — and in our case it’s women — are real opportunities,” Roybal said. “That padding really hurts the underrepresented sex.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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