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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has reached a settlement with the female athletes who sued it alleging violations of the federal Title IX gender equity law, and that agreement is among the reasons UI Athletics announced Thursday it’s adding a Hawkeye women’s wrestling team.
“As part of the Title IX lawsuit settlement, we agreed to add a women's sport,” UI Athletics Director Gary Barta said Thursday during a news conference. “And our decision was to add the sport of women's wrestling.”
Hawkeye Athletics had been considering the idea for years, Barta said, noting growing national interest in the sport while more women are attending colleges.
“We always have been committed to Title IX, we continue to be committed to Title IX, and as we were looking ahead at those two trends — the emergence of women's wrestling and the growing trend of more women enrolling in college — this just looked like, at that time pre-COVID, like this was something that we would be doing at some time in the future.”
But the pandemic and the financial challenges it brought put that on hold, Barta said. “At that time, we just we halted all conversations about adding women's wrestling and we went into crisis mode,” he said.
‘Were it not for COVID’
That “crisis mode” included cutting four Hawkeye sports — three men’s programs and women’s swimming and diving.
The UI announcement that it was eliminating the sports prompted four female members of the swimming and diving team to file a lawsuit accusing it of violating the Title IX requirements by not offering athletic opportunities to men and women equal to their representation on campus.
Two more women joined the lawsuit a month later, demanding the UI not only reinstate women’s swimming and diving but add more women’s sports teams — naming wrestling and rubgy specifically.
After a federal judge in December found the women had a “fair chance” of winning the lawsuit, Hawkeye Athletics in February reversed its decision to cut women’s swimming and diving.
“The women's swimming lawsuit brought forward last September, combined with the recent court order mandating the continuation of the sport during the legal process, has created additional uncertainty that could last several months or even years,” Barta said at the time. “We made the decision the right thing to do was to reinstate the women's swimming and diving program and remove any uncertainty moving forward for our current student-athletes as well as high school swimmers considering attending the University of Iowa.”
The university didn’t reinstate the men’s programs it cut: swimming and diving, tennis and gymnastics.
Barta said Thursday he stands by his assertion his department is in compliance with Title IX. But he but also noted the UI had to make decisions as part of its legal defense against the allegations.
“I'll just tell you, and this is the bottom line, were it not for COVID, we wouldn't have cut sports,” he said. “Were it not for the Title IX lawsuit, I wasn't ready to add women's wrestling yet. But I can tell you that while the timing may be challenging, the decision is awesome. We're excited about it, and we're ready to go forward.”
Title IX, among its many provisions, requires institutions to provide equality in athletic scholarships or financial aid, and the female athletes’ lawsuit accused the UI of failing to do so. Barta during Thursday’s news conference said the sport of women’s wrestling allows for 10 scholarships.
“We’ll fund whatever the maximum of the NCAA is,” he told The Gazette. “It’ll ramp up over time.”
He didn’t share other details about the settlement, which court documents show have been in the works for weeks but aren’t yet final.
“It will take some time for the parties to finalize a settlement agreement,” according to court documents filed Aug. 20. “Given that the parties have agreed to the material terms of a settlement of all claims, and do not want either to increase attorneys’ fees and costs unnecessarily or to burden unnecessarily the parties or witnesses, they are seeking a stay of the litigation.”
Attorney James Larew — representing the female athletes who sued — told reporters the settlement also includes a cap on the size of the women’s rowing team, which his clients accused the UI of inflating in the past to meet Title IX requirements.
UI data reported through the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act in 2018-19 showed 94 women on its rowing team, according to the lawsuit, which characterized that as an “extraordinary and likely-inflated number.”
A full roster for the new UI women’s wrestling team will have 30 female athletes, according to Larew, who said the university also will work with a Title IX monitor over the next three years “to conduct annual audits of all aspects of Title IX compliance.”
The women who sued — several of whom left Iowa after the initial announcement that their swimming program would be cut — “are delighted that the University of Iowa has made a commitment to establish a world-class women’s intercollegiate wrestling program,” Larew said.
“They have maintained that women undergraduates at the University of Iowa were entitled under Title IX to additional varsity sports opportunities, and this exciting new development will assure that such additional opportunities will be available,” he said, adding, “Our brave clients have done a very effective job of serving as advocates for women athletes.”
The news, he said, is great not only for UI women undergraduates, but for "high school girls in Iowa who aspire to participate in this emerging sport and for women athletes across the nation who hopefully will push their own colleges and universities to expand opportunities for women athletes in women’s wrestling and other emerging sports.“
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