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The men’s gymnastics, tennis and swimming and diving teams at the University of Iowa had their last competitions in the spring. They’re gone now, probably forever.
What remains in some circles is doubt the cutting of the sports by the UI was necessary or if the university made any effort to prevent it.
Iowa’s women’s swimming and diving program was cut with the other three programs last year, but was reinstated in February. That was two months after a federal judge found that four UI women’s swimmers had a “fair chance” of winning a lawsuit accusing the university of being in violation of Title IX.
In a joint open letter last August, UI athletics director Gary Barta and president Bruce Harreld announced plans to discontinue the four programs at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
It was a response to a presumed budget shortfall of up to $75 million caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the expected loss of TV money from televised football games in 2020. The Big Ten reversed its football decision in September, and nine weeks of football were played, plus bowl games.
Last Sept. 23, Barta said “The great news didn’t fix the problem.”
“These sports are closed,” said Harreld, whose last day as UI president was May 16.
Nonetheless, a group of alumni, athletes’ parents and other athletic supporters formed Save Hawkeye Sports, with the goal to come up with funding for the cut programs and a plan to stabilize them into the future.
In an email to swimming parent and former Iowa football player Matt Purdy, Harreld noted that Stanford planned to cut 11 sports at the end of the school year and Minnesota was cutting three men’s athletic programs.
“Many other announcements will soon follow,” Harreld told Purdy.
While many smaller NCAA Division I schools cut sports last year during the pandemic, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State are the only ones that did among the 65 schools from the five major D-I conferences.
Stanford, a private institution, reinstated all its cut sports. Minnesota did not. Michigan State cut men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Clemson dropped men’s track and field only to later reinstate it and add two women’s sports.
Thus, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State are the only programs that cut sports among the 65 schools of the five major Division I conferences.
So what was so different at Iowa than almost every other Power Five program?
“I think a very small group of people starting with the president and athletic director at Iowa made a decision in a silo. I don’t know who else was involved with that, but it was a smaller group than it should have been. And they were reactionary in the way it was done.”
That was said by Mark Kaufman, a Save Hawkeye Sports leader and the founder and executive chairman of Athletico Physical Therapy, based in Oak Brook, Ill. Athletico offers physical and occupational therapy, athletic training and personal fitness services at over 545 locations in the U.S., including several in Eastern Iowa.
Kaufman was raised in Olds, 38 miles south of Iowa City. He graduated from the UI in 1986 with a degree in athletic training and physical education. He opened his first Chicago clinic in 1991.
One of his daughters, Christina Kaufman, was a sophomore walk-on on the Iowa women’s swimming team in 2020-21. She and three teammates filed a Title IX complaint last September.
In December, District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled in their favor. That stopped Iowa from cutting the women’s team until there was a full hearing on the case’s merits. The team was reinstated in February.
The three men’s sports teams, however, have perished.
“I’ve heard Barta say that he’d met with us several times,” Kaufman said. “I had one discussion with him the Wednesday after the announcement. He told us at the beginning of the conversation, as did President Harreld to me and the other two people on the call, that these decisions were final and there was nothing to discuss.
“That’s how the conversation started. That’s the open-mindedness that we were working with. They paid our group lip service by engaging with us, but there was no true leaning in by Barta’s staff who were part of those discussions.”
Over six months after cutting the sports, the UI announced it would move $50 million from its cash reserves to its normally self-sufficient athletics department in the form of a loan to be repaid within the next 15 years.
Unquestionably, Iowa athletics faced financial hardships after a year of less TV money and no ticket sales because of the pandemic. Barta trimmed the athletics department staff, had employees take mandatory furloughs, and nearly all Iowa head coaches took a voluntary one-year pay-cut.
“I think the work that Barta did with his furloughs or his salary-management or his cuts should be looked at with a high level of scrutiny,” Kaufman said.
“My bet is, he got rid of some folks he wanted to get rid of a long time ago and he played a little bit of a shell game with temporary layoffs and furloughs that really didn’t amount to much, though he did hang his hat on significant furloughs, significant cuts.
“I would welcome a forensic accounting of the approach Iowa took compared to other schools.”
Last Aug. 21, Barta gave the news to the members of the four teams Iowa was planning to cut in a brief address to them.
“What kind of university, what kind of athletic director, what kind of leader does that to these kids without any preparation,” Kaufman asked, “without going to alumni like myself or going to coaches and saying ‘Hey, we’re in a pickle, we have serious work to do, we need your help, we need to find ways not only to cut long-term costs, but short-term. Let’s figure this out together. And if we can’t get there in nine months, six months, we may have to cut sports.’
“That challenges and empowers the head coaches to go out and get to work versus bringing four in and just cutting them.”
When college athletics was halted last March because of the pandemic, Barta said “The health, safety, and wellness of our student-athletes and staff members is the top priority.” Five months later, many of those student-athletes and staffers were deemed expendable.
“It’s just very interesting that Iowa didn’t have the wherewithal, the leadership or the preparation going into the pandemic to allow for something to protect the athletes,” Kaufman said, “which was my comment early on, including in a video conference with Barta and Harreld.
“I said the last thing an athletic department should do would be to cut sports programs. Why does an athletic department or an athletic director exist? It seemed to me that the most-significant thing they did was race to announce the cutting of these sports.”
Asked what he would have done in Barta’s position, Kaufman replied “I, like any other person, I’m not perfect and I’ve made my share of mistakes.
“I would have gathered people from the university, from fundraising, from alumni, from coaching. I would have gotten a lot of people in the room, had a lot of discussions, been as transparent as possible with the information I had, and tried to create a path forward that I knew would change.
“You wouldn’t get every action correct. No one’s perfect. I’d do my best to honor my commitment to the athletes, to the parents and coaches, the department and the university to support all those groups and move in the future of Iowa athletics and future Hawkeyes in the state and out of the state, because they all become ambassadors for the universities.
“When I look at the tenure controversies, the case settlements, and negotiated contracts and settlements with pending cases, I just can’t understand why somebody is in (Barta’s) role. I can’t understand why somebody hasn’t taken a long look at this, and I’m hopeful that the new president will.”
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