Iowa Hawkeyes

Parents, athletes rip Hawkeye Athletics for promotion featuring cut programs

'I'm stunned by the lack of compassion'

Swimmers warm up for the finals session of Day 1 at the NCAA men's swimming championships at the University of Iowa Camp
Swimmers warm up for the finals session of Day 1 at the NCAA men’s swimming championships at the University of Iowa Campus Recreation and Wellness Center pool in Iowa City on Thursday, March 26, 2015. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Parents, supporters and University of Iowa athletes who recently learned their sports will be eliminated are outraged over a promotion that began this weekend for “HERkys” female athletics that incorporated images of women’s swimming and diving — two of the four sports cut.

“I’m stunned by the lack of compassion the U of Iowa continues to show its female student athletes,” Michelle Puccini, mother of UI freshman swimmer Alexa Puccini, wrote at 12:02 a.m. Monday to Barbara Burke, deputy director of UI Athletics, senior women’s administrator and HERkys founder.

“Super disappointing that you, a female, would be ok with both a video and an ad campaign showing female athletes just recently cut,” Puccini wrote in her email.

UI Athletics this weekend unveiled a new website for HERkys, pitched as a “community committed to celebrating the tradition of women’s athletics, providing opportunities for female student-athletes & empowering the next generation of leaders.”

HERkys was created two years ago “by women for women,” Burke told The Gazette. Its primary mission is to celebrate the history of women’s athletics at Iowa and to generate opportunities for female student-athletes.

Although fundraising isn’t a main objective, it is a byproduct, Burke said. The initiative has raised $33,425 in private support so far. Near the top of the new website, HERkys issues a prominent call for donations.

A promotional picture for the site — which UI Athletics circulated Sunday on social media — includes a female swimmer. A video widely shared online shows a female diver.

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“But I imagine you knew this before you put it out for everyone to see as you pretend to promote a university that’s ‘committed to providing opportunities for female student athletes,’” Puccini wrote to Burke.

In response to the criticism, Burke told The Gazette, “We included images of our women’s swimming and diving team because they are current student-athletes and will always be Hawkeyes.”

UI Athletics Director Gary Barta stunned hundreds of student athletes and their family members in August by announcing plans to cut after this academic year men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis due to massive COVID-19 losses.

Although Barta tied the need to eliminate sports to the loss of fall football revenue, he and UI President Bruce Harreld rejected calls to reverse the decision after the Big Ten recently changed course to allow a shortened schedule this semester — saying the deficit remains too large.

Supporters of the cut programs raised about $3 million in short order to persuade the university to reconsider, and they’ve developed a plan they say would make UI Olympic sports self-sustaining. But they’ve struggled to get a meeting with UI executives to present it.

“How about the fact that the university; AD Barta, President Harreld, or the Board of Regents can’t spare one minute to listen to the students, or the alum on their ideas for a new funding model?” Puccini wrote. “Yet, you’re going to use their images to promote something the university clearly doesn’t stand for as you ask for donations, in the middle of a Title IX lawsuit. It’s simply disgusting.”

Alexa Puccini — who entered the NCAA transfer pool after learning her program will be cut — is among four members of the women’s swimming and diving team who in September filed a Title IX complaint in U.S. District Court accusing the UI of violating the sex-discrimination law and demanding reinstatement of their sport.

In an email distributed to some in the Hawkeyes community Friday, Burke touted two “exciting projects our HERkys Committee has been working on for the past several months.”

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She highlighted a new website “for everything HERkys” and a new podcast featuring “conversations between special Hawkeye guests and our host, head women’s tennis coach Sasha Schmid, focusing on the stories and people behind Hawkeye Athletics.”

“HERkys was brought to life to celebrate the rich history and tradition of women’s athletics at the University of Iowa,” according to Burke’s email. “Iowa Athletics is proud of the foundation that has been built by generations of Hawkeye women, and we want to continue their legacy by supporting, engaging, and empowering our current student-athletes.”

Burke told The Gazette that UI Athletics spent $183 to create the new website and nothing on the podcast.

Matt Purdy, whose son is on the eliminated Hawkeye swimming team, said the UI’s promotion was tone deaf and its timing was “incredibly poor judgment.”

“It’s just poor timing and bad taste,” he said, though he supports the goals of the initiative.

“The cause is just amazing. It certainly should be done. But why now?” he asked.

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

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