One verdict rendered, UI braces for another discrimination trial

Mark Emmert

Two years ago, Tracey Griesbaum and Shannon Miller shared a stage and an unwanted bond.

Both were successful Division I coaches who suddenly found themselves out of work and ready to fight a university hierarchy that they believe discriminates against gay women.

Griesbaum and Miller drew inspiration from each other that day, speaking together at an Alliance of Women Coaches conference. Their message: “It was just about who we are, what happened to us and that it’s an injustice to all of us,” Miller recalled.

Former University of Iowa senior associate athletic director Jane Meyer, left, and her partner, Tracey Griesbaum, hug after giving a press conference on Thursday, May 4, 2017.  Griesbaum, who was fired as the Iowa women's field hockey coach in 2014, reached a settlement with Iowa on Friday, two weeks after Meyer won a case against the university for $1.43 million

They will soon reunite in the Polk County Courthouse, where Griesbaum’s discrimination trial against the University of Iowa is set to begin June 5. Miller plans to drive from her California home to attend part of the proceedings, as a show of support as well as preparation for her own upcoming trial against the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which dismissed her in 2015 despite the five national championships on her resume as its women’s hockey coach.

Griesbaum’s trial comes on the heels of Thursday’s emphatic victory for her partner, Jane Meyer, in her own discrimination case against Iowa. A Polk County jury awarded Meyer $1.43 million over the loss of her job as the university’s senior associate athletic director, finding in her favor on all five of her claims.

That ruling has emboldened gender-equity advocates across the country, and shined an unfavorable light on Iowa’s treatment of women in its athletic department, which was once seen as a beacon of fairness under longtime administrator Christine Grant.

“I was at the NCAA inclusion forum a couple of weekends ago … and I can’t tell you the number of people who stopped me to ask about the case," Grant told the Register on Friday. "I was inundated with questions. … The topic of conversation was actually overwhelming at times from people that I knew and people I didn’t know.”

There may now be a one-month lull in the attention focused on Iowa, but all indications are that the Griesbaum trial has the potential to be even more explosive and far-reaching.

For one, the Meyer victory sparked national interest in a situation that had languished beyond the headlines during long months of legal proceedings. Griesbaum was fired as field hockey coach by Iowa athletic director Gary Barta in August 2014. Meyer was reassigned outside of athletics that December. Both sued over gender and sexual orientation discrimination, and claims of retaliation when their requests for investigations of unequal treatment of men and women in the athletic department went unheeded.

Thursday’s surprisingly one-sided verdict put them back in the news. 

“This verdict should make athletic directors think twice before they fire someone, before they decide to pay a woman tens of thousands of dollars less than a man, before they decide to impose a double standard,” said Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, one of many who took notice of what the eight-member jury decided in Polk County.

The Griesbaum trial also figures to involve former Hawkeye athletes, something Meyer’s did not. Barta said he fired Griesbaum, who had led her team to six NCAA tournaments in 14 seasons, after a series of complaints about mistreatment of athletes. Names of the players and parents who lodged the complaints were redacted during testimony in the Meyer trial.

But will they be called to testify this time?

Griesbaum has many supporters among her former players, four of whom initiated a Title IX investigation of the university after her firing. There also is an active Facebook page devoted to getting her reinstated as coach. It’s likely that the jury will hear from those athletes as well.

The Meyer trial exposed the probable strategy attorneys Thomas Newkirk and Jill Zwagerman — who also represent Griesbaum — will employ. They repeatedly pointed to behavior of male coaches at Iowa — notably Fran McCaffery in men’s basketball — as being worse than anything Griesbaum did. McCaffery is on the witness list.

Newkirk and Zwagerman also introduced evidence that men’s gymnastics coach J.D. Reive and volleyball coach Bond Shymansky were accused of abusive behavior toward athletes in recent years, but neither were subject to the university investigation that Griesbaum was. Mary Curtis, Iowa’s associate athletic director for human resources, explained that both of those coaches promised to change when confronted with the complaints. Barta testified that Griesbaum said she wouldn’t alter her coaching methods. Griesbaum denied this.

Look for the Griesbaum trial to explore all of those issues in more depth.

Newkirk called the Meyer and Griesbaum lawsuits “companion cases.” But Griesbaum’s may resonate more because of the number of her colleagues facing a similar dilemma, he said.

“There are hundreds of female coaches being taken down around the country because of exaggerated student-athlete complaints and double standards in athletic departments,” Newkirk said.

Proving those double standards is a tricky matter, Farrell said. It requires lawyers to sift through years of student-athlete exit interviews to try to prove a pattern of women in coaching being judged more harshly over accusations of poor behavior. Newkirk and Zwagerman did show jurors one year of surveys of Iowa athletes that indicated 27 complained of suffering some form of abuse. Barta said he never explored those because the surveys were anonymous.

Filing a lawsuit against a university is a difficult decision, said Miller, the former UMD ice hockey coach.

“Many people said, ‘If you do this, a.) it’s the right thing to do and good for you, but b.) you need to know it will be very difficult to get another coaching job after this.’ And that was painful to hear, because you’ve already been hurt badly by what happened. I can tell you the only feeling that I can compare that to is your heart breaking,” said Miller, who co-owns a “pedal pub” company in California with her partner, Jen Banford.

Banford, formerly the softball coach at UMD, is also suing over civil rights violations.

“I can tell you that I have applied for jobs and nobody calls me back. I can’t get an interview,” Miller added.

Farrell said lawsuits like Griesbaum’s and Miller’s are occurring against a backdrop of declining opportunities for women in college athletic leadership. In 2014, the year Griesbaum was fired, 43 percent of female college teams were coached by women. That figure was 90 percent in 1972, according to research by Brooklyn College.

“I think that’s so contrary to the spirit of Title IX. It’s a trend that will continue until more of these cases are brought and universities are put on notice,” Farrell said.

“It would be wonderful after this case to see several universities embrace these leaders. I think that would send a very strong message that these women are really champions. Jurors are getting what leaders of universities are not yet and should. You can’t just allow women to play and not allow them to lead.”

Griesbaum said Thursday that she would relish the opportunity to coach again. Meyer was hopeful that her victory in court might rekindle her career in athletics administration as well. But first there is the matter of Griesbaum’s civil trial, which awkwardly will likely begin while the legal maneuvering in Meyer’s case continues. There are post-trial motions to be heard, after which UI may file an appeal of that verdict.

“I never thought that my career was ended. I never thought that the way I carried myself or anything I did day in and day out would ever lead to this,” Griesbaum said Thursday, still basking in the glow of her partner’s big moment. “For me, this case is powerful because Jane and I always wanted to teach and educate. … I want this to be heard by presidents. I want this to be heard by any stakeholder at any state university. 

“It’s just very powerful and I just hope it makes the playing field more equal and level for men and women throughout athletics, not just coaches.”