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Kirk Ferentz, UI coaches disagree with state’s $4.2M settlement in racism lawsuit
State Appeal Board questions Barta’s management of UI athletics
The State Appeal Board on Monday OK’d paying $4.2 million to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by former Hawkeye football players against the University of Iowa -- despite opposition from the state auditor and from Iowa’s coaches.
The three-member board’s 2-1 vote to pay the settlement aligned with a recommendation from the Iowa attorney general that $2 million of the total come from the state’s general fund.
But it went against UI football coaches’ wishes, according to a statement from UI’s head football coach Kirk Ferentz.
“The settlement negotiations took place between plaintiff’s counsel and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which represents the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents,” Ferentz said. “These discussions took place entirely without the knowledge or consent of the coaches who were named in the lawsuit.
“In fact, the parties originally named disagree with the decision to settle, fully believing that the case would have been dismissed with prejudice before trial.”
In his statement, Ferentz said the settlement came before a judge could rule on a request for summary judgment outlining "why the case should have been dismissed.“
"We have been told the reason for the settlement is financial,“ he said, noting the settlement does not constitute any admission of wrongdoing.
“For more than two years, our program has been unfairly and negatively impacted by these allegations,” Ferentz said. “Members of the staff had their character and reputation tarnished by former members of our team who said things, then recanted many statements when questioned under oath.”
Today, Ferentz said, “we move forward. My focus is entirely on the players, coaches, and staff as we prepare for the 2023 season.”
UI officials on Monday didn’t respond to The Gazette’s request for comment from UI President Barbara Wilson on the settlement or the appeal board’s discussion around UI Athletics Director Gary Barta and the football coaches.
State Auditor Rob Sand, who opposed the settlement, told The Gazette he hasn’t had a conversation with Wilson on the matter.
Sand, a Democrat, was the sole Board of Appeal member who voted no. State Treasurer Roby Smith and Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen, both Republicans, voted yes.
But Smith, echoing Sand’s sentiments, said he would like the UI to reconsider its relationship with UI Athletics Director Gary Barta and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.
“Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” Smith said. “Given this, I would encourage the university to re-examine its relationship with not only Gary Barta, but Brian Ferentz and others named in recent lawsuits.”
Smith said he voted for the settlement in light of the board's charge to make sound business decisions that make “the most financial sense, given the potential future liabilities Iowans can be on the hook for.”
Although Smith said he’d prefer the UI fund the entire settlement, Iowa Code obliges the state to pay judgments against its departments — like the Board of Regents — and “the state attorney general feels it’s in the best financial interests of the Iowa taxpayers.”
Voting “no” on the proposed settlement, he said, would compel the case to trial and open Iowa taxpayers up to future liabilities “that could far exceed the $4 million settlement.”
“Legal fees alone could exceed this settlement agreement by as much as $2 million if the case plays out,” Smith said. “Therefore, I'm going to do what is prudent and what is in the best interest of Iowa taxpayers.”
Sand, in making his case to reject the deal so long as Barta remains UI’s athletics director, said the board’s role is to consider all terms of an agreement, and he wants to see “that level of personal accountability.”
Specifically, Sand referenced a growing list of discrimination lawsuits against UI Athletics — and related settlements costing millions — like the one UI Athletics signed in September 2021 settling a discrimination lawsuit brought by female athletes accusing the UI of violating their athletic opportunity rights.
“I think it's important that we make sure that people understand that discrimination is not only morally wrong, but discrimination, too, is financially foolish,” Sand said. “You're costing the Athletics Department and costing taxpayers money when you do this kind of thing. And we're going to hold people accountable.
“We're going to prevent additional individuals from becoming victims of discrimination. We're going to protect the taxpayers. We have to, at a certain point, demand more personal responsibility for this kind of thing.”
Sand said the football players’ lawsuit is the fourth discrimination case against UI Athletics in under nine years, resulting in settlements totaling nearly $11 million on Barta’s watch.
“After the largest settlement, Barta asserted no wrong was done,” Sand said. “Now we have a new matter for $4 million more, and for the first time they want part paid from the taxpayers’ general fund, even though they now collect tens of millions annually through the Big Ten TV deal.
“Enough is enough. Clear, personal accountability is necessary.”
‘Public policy question’
Barta’s current contract expires in 2024 after he signed an extension in 2019. Hired in 2006, Barta has worked under five UI presidents — including two interims — and in the 2022 budget year made about $1.2 million after bonuses, according to the state employee salary book.
When asked recently about his future with the Hawkeyes, Barta told The Gazette, “When President (Barbara) Wilson first started, I told her I don’t plan to go anywhere. If she’ll have me, we’ll just keep going.”
Barta said he hasn’t given retirement “any consideration” at this point.
“I’ve been here for 17 years so I’m not too worried about it,” Barta said.
Although Paulsen, like Smith, voted for the proposed settlement, he said it’s worth discussing what part of liability and risk the state’s general fund should accept on behalf of the University of Iowa — including athletics and its health care operation.
“I think it's a public policy question,” he said. “And with the General Assembly in town, that's clearly something that they can address in real time.”
But the question before the appeals board, Paulsen said, was what makes the most financial sense for Iowa taxpayers and a settlement “is the wise decision to make.”
Twelve former Hawkeye players sued the football program and coaches in November 2020 following an outcry and accusations of racism on social media and years of internal and external investigations into allegations.
The lawsuit accused the program and coaches of creating a racially hostile environment, using derogatory terms and discriminating against players.
After years of legal back-and-forth and allegations of stall tactics and harassment, a federal court last week allowed all the lawsuit’s individual defendants — Barta, head coach and assistant coach Kirk and Brian Ferentz, former strength coach Chris Doyle, and linebackers coach Seth Wallace — to be excused from the lawsuit, leaving the UI and the Board of Regents as the remaining defendants.
The settlement made public Monday reveals those claims against the individual defendants had to be dismissed “upon execution of the settlement agreement” — clarifying the coaches and Barta “are not parties to the agreement.”
“Based on the facts of this case, the ongoing nature of the litigation and potential exposure to the state, it was decided to attempt to settle this matter,” according to the agreement. “The parties participated in lengthy negotiations and were able to come to a settlement in which all defendants were dismissed and all claims were released.”
A breakdown of the settlement shows $1.9 million of the $4.2 million payment would go toward attorneys’ fees and costs.
According to the settlement, the university and regents also agreed to “non-monetary” terms:
- The UI will commit $90,000 to support graduate or professional school tuition expenses and fees for the players who sued — including books but excluding housing and meals. The reimbursement is available, according to the settlement, if requests are documented and submitted on or before June 1, 2026. Reimbursements is capped at $20,000 per person.
- The UI will provide the players in the lawsuit with a year of mental health counseling — through March 15, 2024 — via the UI Athletic Department’s Counseling and Psychology Services Office.
- The UI will support registration and travel fees for up to 10 UI student-athletes interested in participating in the annual Black Student Athlete Summit annually through 2026.
- The UI will hire Leonard Moore to help its athletics department “with operationalizing its current five-year diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan.”
Moore is an American history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and former vice president of diversity and community engagement. He will help UI Athletics implement its diversity, equity and inclusion plan beginning this month through May 31, 2024 — with the option to renew his contract —and also will review the department’s structure, programming and initiatives.
Moore will consult quarterly with Athletics Department officials and advise on national opportunities for “student-athlete engagement, speakers and programming.”
At an hourly rate not to exceed a total compensation of $35,000, Moore is to visit the UI campus twice to meet with athletes, coaches and staff.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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