IOWA CITY — A federal court judge has rejected a request from six female student athletes seeking an immediate restraining order that would halt the University of Iowa’s efforts to dismantle its women’s swimming and diving program.
“Because plaintiffs have not established the threat of irreparable injury ‘of such imminence that there is a clear and present need for equitable relief to prevent irreparable harm,’ … they have not established a need for such immediate emergency relief,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose wrote in an order Dec. 4 — one day after the students, through their attorney, formally made the request.
“However, the court appreciates the time-sensitive nature of plaintiffs’ dilemma as a general matter, and finds expedited briefing to be appropriate,” Rose added, setting a hearing for Dec. 18.
The UI female athletes officially sought their restraining order against UI actions set into motion in August when Athletic Director Gary Barta announced plans to cut men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis after this academic year in response to massive financial losses from COVID-19.
The women filed a Title IX complaint in September arguing UI — by cutting the women’s swimming and diving program — exacerbated existing violations of Title IX of the federal education amendments of 1972, which protects people from discrimination based on sex.
“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,” according to the complaint.
Athletes named in the complaint — including swimmers Sage Ohlensehlen, Christian Kaufman, Alexa Puccini and Kelsey Drake — asked for immediate and permanent reinstatement of their sport, noting short time as athletes are leaving or planning to leave.
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And they reiterated those arguments of urgency last week in documents supporting their request for a restraining order.
“Accomplished student-athletes, including some of the plaintiffs, have already put their names in the NCAA transfer portal and are considering moving to and enrolling at other universities that continue to sponsor intercollegiate women’s swimming and diving teams,” according to the students’ motion. “Indeed, 15 of the 35 swimmers and divers, in direct response to the termination decision, have already committed to swim elsewhere next semester or next year.”
They reported the decisions “can be undone, but only within a certain time period.”
Still, two swimmers left already as a result of the UI changes.
“Such actions pose immediate, time-limited and difficult decisions by team members whether: on the one hand to stay at the university, where they have built their lives socially, have invested themselves academically, and have obtained all their credits to be a part of the UI swimming and diving team — but to forego that sport in the future; or, on the other hand, to start all over again by transferring to other colleges or universities where they can at least continue to participate in a sport to which they have committed years of training.”
Team integrity also is slipping away, according to the motion arguing for an immediate resolution.
“Recruiting qualified women-athletes to participate in future UI women’s swimming and diving teams has crashed to a halt,” according to court documents. “With the program’s announced termination, incoming students who were set to swim at UI have changed plans and will not attend the UI after all.
“Further, the swimming and diving team stands to be permanently damaged as coaches are faced with critical career decisions given the finality with which the UI’s termination decision was voiced by defendants (UI President) Bruce Harreld and Gary Barta,” they argued. “Without temporary and preliminary relief, irreparable harm will result on each of these fronts.”
Advocates for the cut programs have been working behind the scenes to coordinate a solution — including moving UI’s Olympic sports out from under the Athletic Department umbrella into a different department or division, where they could become self-sufficient and independently supported.
Although those efforts continue, immediate attempts to resolve the matter “have been unavailing,” according to the female athletes.
Additionally, they argued, the university would suffer “minimal” harm from a temporary restraining order.
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“It is difficult to conceive of a single temporary harm if the court were to issue a preliminary injunction, ordering the University of Iowa to rescind its termination decision and to continue with its full support of the women’s swimming and diving team until such time as the full trial of this matter has been completed,” according to their motion. “The cost of maintaining the women’s swimming and diving team, during that time period, is already committed, as the termination does not occur until the next academic year.”
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