IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa is fully reinstating its women’s swimming and diving team after a federal judge in December found athletes had a “fair chance” of winning a lawsuit accusing the UI of violating Title IX — a failure aggravated by its earlier decision to drop the women’s program to help save money.
According to an announcement Monday from UI Athletic Director Gary Barta, the women’s swimming and diving team — originally slated to be cut at the end of this year “due to financial challenges created by the pandemic” — will be reinstated as an NCAA and Big Ten Conference program.
“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 in a statement. “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 women’s program was among four the university planned to cut at the end of this academic year — along with men’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis.
“Every student-athlete in all 24 sports at Iowa has experienced challenges and uncertainty since the pandemic began,” Barta said. “This has been especially true for the men and women in the four sports we announced would be discontinued after this season.”
Despite its decision to reverse cutting women’s swimming and diving, Barta’s message said “the financial challenge remains significant and the decision to discontinue the three men’s sports identified will remain in place.”
UI Athletics in August estimated its COVID-19 compelled deficit would reach $75 million, prompting administrators to develop a plan for budget cuts, salary reductions, position eliminations and discontinuation of the four sports after this season.
Those mitigation steps, plus some semblance of a fall football season, reduced the deficit to between $50 and $60 million. UI officials told the Board of Regents its athletics program will be recovering from pandemic losses for years.
Even as donors and supporters promised millions to restore the cut Olympic sports and inundated regents with pleas to change the university’s mind, UI administrators had refused — although they committed to honoring cut student-athlete scholarships “if they choose to remain at Iowa and provide academic, medical, and mental health support as requested.”
Women’s swimming and diving athletes in September sued the UI for discontinuing their program — accusing the university of being out of compliance with Title IX, the federal gender equity law, by failing to provide “its female athletes athletic participation opportunities substantially proportionate to their representation in the student body.”
“The numbers do not lie,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose wrote in a December order, “Plaintiffs have demonstrated a fair chance that the University of Iowa does not presently provide its female student 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.”
For schools found in violation of Title IX, federal authorities can take corrective actions like redistributing scholarships, shifting spending or revising policies. Schools that don’t act risk losing federal money, although that step has never been used.
Rose said “injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy that is not issued lightly” but found reason to believe the female athletes suing the campus could win the suit.
In the UI Athletics statement Monday, Barta said the university “continues to disagree with the claims made in the lawsuit, and the subsequent preliminary injunction” to keep the sport while the overall lawsuit proceeds.
“The Iowa Athletics Department is committed to gender equity and has a rich history in the success of its women’s sports programs,” the UI’s statement said. “The university has been, and is committed to continuing to be, in compliance with Title IX.”
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