Iowa Hawkeyes

Hawkeye female swimmers, divers file Title IX complaint after University of Iowa cuts sport

Swimmers warm up for the finals session of the men's NCAA swimming championships in March 2015 at the University of Iowa
Swimmers warm up for the finals session of the men’s NCAA swimming championships in March 2015 at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Four female members of the Hawkeye swimming and diving team on Friday filed a Title IX complaint in U.S. District Court challenging the UI’s decision last month to cut their program because of budget shortfalls. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Four female members of the Hawkeye swimming and diving team Friday filed a Title IX complaint in U.S. District Court challenging the University of Iowa’s announcement last month that it’s cutting their program — along with three men’s sports — at the end of this academic year.

“The University of Iowa has postured that the sports team program cuts have been consistent with Title IX,” according to the complaint alleging violations under Title IX of the federal education amendments of 1972, which protects people from discrimination based on their sex.

“However, based on published information, before the decision was made to eliminate these programs, the University of Iowa was not providing women with equal sports opportunities or equal scholarships … placing the institution far out of compliance with Title IX.”

The swimmers filing the federal complaint — Sage Ohlensehlen, Christian Kaufman, Alexa Puccini and Kelsey Drake — are asking for an immediate and permanent reinstatement of their sport, noting time is of the essence as some athletes have left or are looking to leave UI.

“It’s definitely a possibility that a lot of us are going to leave now,” Puccini, a UI freshman from Naperville, told The Gazette.

Puccini said she doesn’t want to leave the UI but also doesn’t want to end her swimming career, having been a 16-time state qualifier, nine-time state medalist and recipient of All-American honors in nine events in high school.

“We entered the transfer portal,” she said of herself and some of her UI teammates. “It doesn't solidify anything, but it does give us the option to talk to other coaches and other schools if we want to.”

Kaufman, in her second year at Iowa, said she grew up a Hawkeye and isn’t looking to leave.

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“But, yes, a lot of other people are looking at other places to go,” she said. “I already had a roommate who, sadly, left a couple weeks ago and already transferred. Then my other two are talking to other schools.”

UI response

Following news of the Title IX complaint Friday, the university released a statement acknowledging the “pain and frustration” from student-athletes.

“Unfortunately, the lawyer for the plaintiffs has omitted some key facts,” according to the statement.

“First, the programs in question are still ongoing at this time so they cannot be ‘reinstated.’”

Second, UI officials said the Office of Civil Rights recently completed a review of Title IX compliance in its athletic department and concluded it “with no findings of any violation in the 13 categories of Title IX.”

The cuts — or men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and mean’s tennis — were announced in August after Athletic Director Gary Barta said his department faced a $75 million deficit in the wake of COVID-19 losses, including tens of millions in football revenue.

The UI said Friday that cutting three men’s sports and one women’s sport will affect 64 male athletes and 38 female athletes and translate to the loss of 20.7 male scholarships and 14 female scholarships.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are important parts of the Iowa Athletics Department’s mission,” according to the UI statement. “In fact, impact on Gender Equity and Title IX compliance was one of the factors used to determine which sports to eliminate due to the fiscal financial crisis created by COVID-19.”

The complaint

The Title IX complaint contends the UI has failed to comply with three aspects of Title IX, including the mandate to provide female athletes with athletic opportunities at a rate “substantially proportionate” to the campus’ undergraduate full-time enrollment.

The swimmers also accuse the university of failing to demonstrate a “history and continuing practice of program expansion responsive to the interests and abilities of the sex that has been historically underrepresented.”

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And they charge that the UI, more generally, has failed to show that the interests and abilities of the underrepresented group have been “fully and effectively accommodated.”

The student-athletes’ demands extend beyond “immediate reinstatement” of the women’s swimming and diving team.”

They also seek orders commanding the UI “to establish additional women’s sports team opportunities for its female undergraduates.”

Alumni rally

When Barta announced the program cuts in August, he said the move would save $5 million.

After a group of athletes and alumni announced raising nearly $1.7 million in one day earlier this week, Barta told the Board of Regents the eliminated sports still were too expensive to keep around beyond this year.

UI President Bruce Harreld told regents the boosters would need to raise tens of millions on the front end to convince him to keep the cut programs.

Barta, when asked why alumni and athletes weren’t allowed more involvement in the decision-making process, said the appropriate people weighed in on identifying the right group of sports to cut — considering Title IX mandates, expenses and revenue.

Title IX past

The Hawkeye athletes behind Friday’s complaint — plus others joining via class-action status — contend the female swimming and diving cut aggravates previous UI Title IX shortcomings and offends its history as the country’s first state university in 1855 to admit men and women on an equal basis.

“From its earliest days … the university offered female students opportunities to obtain a quality education and also engage in athletic endeavors,” according to the complaint.

Citing a soaring athletics budget under Barta’s direction, the complaint cites his heavy capital investments in athletics facilities favoring male sports; few efforts to expand female opportunities; and a disproportionate surge in salaries among male coaches and administrators.

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The average annual head coach salaries soared to more than $998,000 for men in the 2019 budget year, while it lingered around $230,000 for women, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint accuses the UI of misrepresenting female athlete numbers in federal reports by including some who were “actually male students participating on those women’s teams’ practice squads.”

The complaint accuses the UI of stacking rosters with “benchwarmers and not true participants,” allowing the institution to avoid the cost of starting new women’s programs.

In 2014, for example, UI women’s rowing had 89 members — nearly 40 percent more than the NCAA Division I average of 64. Five years later, the women’s rowing team had 94 participants.

A high-profile spat with its former women’s field hockey coach and associate athletics director forced the UI to pay a $6.5 million settlement, submit to a federal civil rights investigation and commit to resolving its many shortcomings.

Earlier this summer, representatives with two nonprofits — Champion Women and the California Women’s Law Center ——delivered letters to Barta and Harreld outlining outstanding Title IX non-compliance.

Neither replied, according to the complaint.

‘We didn’t know’

The female swimmers behind Friday’s complaint said they had a strong season last academic year — despite its abrupt end due to COVID-19 — and they were charging ahead with plans for an even better season this year when they were called in Aug. 21 for a meeting.

None of them knew what was coming but grew concerned when Barta walked into the room.

“I still didn't think it was going to be that bad,” swimmer Drake said. “So we didn't know until that meeting that morning, and then the press found out almost immediately after we found out, so we didn't even have time to tell our parents.”

Ohlensehlen said Barta’s delivery of the news was disrespectful and curt.

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“He only talked to us for a minute and then he left,” she said. “There was no follow-up afterward. And I felt like our mental health was not considered in the process.”

Attorney Jim Larew of Iowa City said his clients have a high bar to reach in achieving an immediate court-ordered halt to the campus’ elimination of women’s swimming and diving. But they believe such drastic action is warranted in this case.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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