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IOWA CITY - Although University of Iowa Athletics has reversed its decision to eliminate women's swimming and diving after this season - following a court injunction requiring it do so - the UI hasn't dropped its opposition to the overall court case that could have broader gender equity implications for its student athletes.
The university also hasn't directly responded to a Save Hawkeye Sports group that has spent months raising $2.5 million from over 700 donors to support the women's swimming and diving program and three other sports still set to be cut after this season: men's tennis, men's gymnastics and men's swimming and diving.
'We are in a time where there is a unique combination of technology and urgency among the donors who have pledged to our cause,” according to a Feb. 5 letter the group sent UI Athletics Director Gary Barta and other administrators spelling out a plan to reinstate the programs, including a commitment to raise another $3 million over three years.
'We look forward to hearing from you by close of business Tuesday, February 16, 2021.”
Administrators didn't respond to that letter.
But on Monday, Barta permanently reinstated women's swimming and diving, the sport at the center of a lawsuit accusing the UI of being out of compliance with Title IX, the federal gender equity law requiring female athletes have sports opportunities proportionate to their representation in the student body.
Barta acknowledged the Save Hawkeye Sports group Tuesday during a news conference, insisting its fundraising and planning fall short of addressing a $50 to $60 million coronavirus-created deficit. He said the decision to cut the men's programs to save money 'unfortunately” stands.
'We made it clear from the beginning that we couldn't just come up with a short-term solution,” he said. 'Whatever solution, if it were ever found, would have to address this bigger financial challenge. Fifty to $60 million, we'll be working through this and challenged with this probably for the next decade.”
Citing the September lawsuit, Barta said the UI 'continues to disagree” with its claims and the judge's order compelling the campus to continue offering the women's sport while the case works through court.
He said in a statement the women's program is being reinstated to quell 'uncertainty” about its fate while the matter awaits a final judgment.
‘Stupid policy decision'
Lawyer James Larew - representing the four female Hawkeye swimmers who filed the lawsuit, along with a UI female rugby player and UI female wrestler who joined - said Barta is being disingenuous.
'What caused the uncertainty is an unlawful cutting of the team,” Larew said. 'And the UI's repeated statements, up to the moment of the court's injunctive order, that the decision was final, followed by their appeal of that order. That's what has caused all the uncertainty.”
The women are continuing their lawsuit due to their larger contention that the UI is out of compliance with Title IX, Larew said.
'To cut a viable, venerable women's team was a stupid policy decision, in my clients' opinion, but that's not why they filed this lawsuit,” he said. 'Our brave clients have challenged their university because, in their view, the team-cutting decision was unlawful. Our clients have alleged that at the moment UI administrators made the decision to cut the women's team, the institution was not in compliance with Title IX.”
Larew noted U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose's December order acknowledging the women had a 'fair chance” at winning the overall case in court.
'The numbers do not lie,” she wrote in granting an injunction against eliminating women's swimming and diving. 'Plaintiffs have demonstrated a fair chance that the University of Iowa does not presently provide its female students with intercollegiate athletic opportunities in substantial proportion to their enrollment, and is unlikely to do so after eliminating the women's swimming and diving team for the 2021-22 academic year.”
Larew said he doesn't know whether UI's latest decision to reinstate the women's program would affect the judge's decision on the university's motion to dismiss the case altogether - or its appeal of the injunction.
But he called the UI decision to reinstate the program 'smart.”
'I can only imagine that someone in the bowels of that university might have said, ‘You know, this isn't going to get any better for us,'” Larew said. '‘We're doing great damage to the team. (Coach) Marc Long can't possibly recruit. We've lost some of our very best swimmers already … This team has been badly damaged, and the damage will continue into the long term if Marc Long can't go out and recruit.'”
No audience for Save Hawkeye Sports Supporters of the men's programs still set to be cut said they can't say the same thing - after spending months fundraising and meeting with some members of the UI administration about a new sustainable model for the Hawkeye Olympic sports.
'Gary Barta and (UI President) Bruce Harreld have consistently refused to meet with or have serious discussions with those from Save Hawkeye Sports,” UI alumnus and Save Hawkeye Sports member Mark Kaufman told The Gazette, critiquing Monday's announcement about reinstating the women's program.
'In fact, it is Judge Rose who achieved this. Not the leadership at Iowa,” Kaufman said. 'This can be proven by the fact that he has not withdrawn the request to the judge to dismiss, nor has he promised the women athletes, coaches and other supporting members of the team more than what the judge has required.”
In announcing the program eliminations in August, Barta cited a pandemic-fueled deficit of $75 million, which he lowered after the resurrection of a truncated fall football season and departmental cost cutting.
But Kaufmann said UI officials haven't responded to requests for details.
'It makes no sense to me to continue to stand behind comments of a large deficit while not providing detail around specifics related to the savings incurred from the furlough program or an overall strategy to manage through this all the while we are offering to help financially over the long term.”
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Leah Vann of The Gazette contributed to this report.