IOWA CITY — After listening to days of testimony — including from tearful female athletes staring down uncertain futures after the University of Iowa blindsided them in August with news it’s eliminating the swimming and diving for which they were recruited — a federal judge Tuesday effectively blocked the UI closure.
At least for now.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose granted a preliminary injunction six UI female athletes brought against the school it accused not only of causing irreparable harm to their academic and swimming careers but of falling further out of compliance with Title IX of the federal education amendments of 1972 — which protects people from discrimination based on their sex.
“It feels like the team is slowly crumbling and falling apart,” UI senior Sage Ohlensehlen, captain of the women’s swimming and diving team, testified of the mass exodus from the once nationally-esteemed UI swimming and diving program.
During a hearing on the athletes’ request for an injunction that started last week and continued Tuesday, Ohlensehlen said of 35 female swimmers on the squad when UI Athletics announced in August it’s cutting men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis at the end of this year, a vast majority plan to leave.
“About the only people who are staying is the seniors, obviously, and then a few people who decided they’re not going to continue their swimming career,” she said. “I believe over 20 have committed to go somewhere else. Four are going to leave right now after Christmas break. And then the rest are going to leave at the end of the year.”
Should UI reverse its decision, Ohlensehlen said, she believes most would do the same — and stay.
“Nobody wants to leave,” she said. “They’re being forced … They were sobbing when they were leaving. They don’t want to go.”
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But coaches are leaving too, depriving those left of any chance at a meaningful last season the UI promised.
“This is my very last year, and I don’t feel like I’m going to have a good season because we hardly have any coaches,” Ohlensehlen said. “Not to mention I’m watching all my teammates leave. My best event is the 200 medley relay, and of all the people who are supposed to be on my relay, I’m the only one left.”
UI Athletics Director Gary Barta four months ago announced the program closures in a somber room with socially distanced chairs — staying for only a short time after delivering the blow, leaving coaches to comfort weeping players and field many unanswered questions.
“Sitting in that chair, in that room with my coaches and my teammates and the other teams that were cut on that day was heartbreaking,” Ohlensehlen said. “I literally thought I was going to be sick in the chair.”
Barta said massive COVID-compelled losses in the tens of millions gave him no other choice — citing continuing revenue losses from a truncated fall football season without fans and ongoing unknowns about other moneymaking sports.
In an affidavit, UI Assistant Athletic Director and Chief Financial Officer Greg Davies told the court the self-supporting UI Athletics is likely to lose between $55 million and $65 million this budget year from the pandemic.
“Agreements between the Big Ten Conference and television networks are being negotiated due to the decrease in televised events caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to Davies affidavit. “Revenue distributions for televised events are still undetermined, but is anticipated to be significantly less than last year.”
When faced with Board of Regents questions about whether UI can find another way to resolve its budget woes, retiring UI President Bruce Harreld in September said no.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “These sports are closed.”
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But the students’ Title IX lawsuit argues UI was non-compliant with federal mandates for female athletic opportunities before this fall’s announced cut.
“The announced elimination of this women’s team, made at a time during which the university is already out of compliance with Title IX, constitutes further unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex,” according to the athletes’ motion for court relief.
At the time the suit was filed, UI issued a statement defending itself — while also acknowledging the “pain and frustration” from student-athletes. For starters, the university urged, “the programs in question are still ongoing at this time so they cannot be ‘reinstated.’”
It also urged the U.S. Office of Civil Rights recently completed a review of Title IX compliance in its athletic department and ended with “no findings of any violation in the 13 categories of Title IX.”
UI attorneys have yet to answer the original lawsuit — although they have filed a motion to dismiss the case, on which the judge has yet to rule. The athletes sought the injection while the larger lawsuit winds its way through court — halting the irreparable harm happening to the team and their swimming careers in the meantime.
Separate from the legal fight to reverse the university cuts, a group of alumni and parents are fighting to establish a new sustainability model for all the eliminated programs — possibly moving UI Olympic sports out from under the Athletics Department and into a different campus department, like the Division of Student Life.
Those discussions and efforts are ongoing.
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