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Four Hawkeye swimmers file Title IX complaint; university quickly dismisses accusations

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The fight to save four University of Iowa sports on the brink of being eliminated entered the legal realm Friday.

Four female Hawkeye athletes filed a complaint in district court that their university was already in violation of Title IX law requiring it to offer equal educational opportunities, and that cutting the women’s swimming and diving program will only exacerbate that. The complaint seeks reinstatement of women’s swimming and diving, as well as added sports for women at the university. It does not seek monetary damages for the plaintiffs but is intended to be a class-action lawsuit, meaning any current or prospective female athlete at Iowa who believes they have faced unequal treatment can join.

“When these cuts were made, it was really hard for all of us,” freshman swimmer Alexa Puccini said at a news conference after the suit was filed. “And now we have to make a decision about what we’re going to do. I’m 100 percent committed to fighting for equal rights, especially when it comes to athletics.”

In addition to Puccini, sophomore Christina Kaufman, and seniors Sage Ohlensehlen and Kelsey Drake are the plaintiffs in the case. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Iowa.

The University of Iowa responded promptly to the lawsuit, saying it can’t reinstate the swimming program because it hasn’t even been cut yet, with one more year of competition scheduled.

Furthermore, the university statement said the decision to eliminate four sports will impact 64 male and 38 female athletes, resulting in a loss of 20.7 scholarships in men’s sports and 14 in women’s sports.

In addition to women’s swimming and diving, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced Aug. 11 that he was going to shed men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s swimming and diving after this academic year. He pointed to financial losses brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason. It would reduce Iowa’s sports offerings to 20.

Jim Larew, the Iowa City attorney representing the Hawkeye athletes, said he was hopeful that Barta might reverse his decision in light of the fact that the Big Ten Conference is intending to play a limited fall football schedule after all. Barta said at an Iowa Board of Regents meeting Wednesday that the return of football, without fans in attendance, will still leave a shortfall of $40-60 million this fiscal year. He estimates that cutting the four sports will save his department $5 million annually.

Iowa's men's and women's swimming programs are scheduled to be eliminated after this season. But four women on the team filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to stall that decision, alleging the university is violating Title IX law.

Larew sent Barta and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld a letter outlining his position, asking for a response by Thursday afternoon. He got one, from the university’s office of general counsel, and it convinced him that Iowa’s administrators had no interest in discussing his clients’ claims.

Larew filed his complaint Friday morning.

“They may be right. It may be that they’re perfectly compliant with the law and they’re going to do what they want to do,” Larew said of the university administrators. “Or they may be making a mistake in judgment. They may be doing something that’s unlawful. That’s my view. I have to convince a judge of that.”

No date has been set for a court hearing. Larew said his next step will be to file for a temporary injunction forbidding the university from dropping women’s swimming until the case is adjudicated. He admits that may be difficult to obtain, but said there is a need to move quickly on the athletes’ lawsuit.

“Part of the harm caused is these younger classes on the women’s swimming program, they’re already looking for other places to be. And they can’t wait. It causes a deterioration in the program,” Larew said.

“We want people to be able to make their decisions.”

Kaufman said she and her teammates would like to remain as Hawkeyes, just as they signed up to do while being recruited. Both of her parents attended Iowa. Kaufman, an Illinois native, said it was a lifelong dream to swim here.

“To see it cut short, it’s super upsetting,” Kaufman said. “I will do anything I can to reverse it and finish my collegiate years at Iowa. And I want the same opportunities for future swimmers.”

The gist of Larew’s argument is that Iowa’s athletic department has been allotting an unequal number of roster spots on varsity sports to female athletes for years. Title IX requires that opportunities to play sports be proportional to the gender breakdown of the student body. At Iowa, he believes between 51 and 55% percent of undergraduates are women, a percentage that has been increasing.

He said Iowa has been getting around this by counting male practice squad participants on women’s sports teams in its numbers for female athletes. And by inflating the roster size of its women’s rowing team — the newest sport added at Iowa in 2003 — to as high as 94 participants, what he calls “benchwarmers” instead of actual athletes.

In addition, Larew contends that Iowa treats female athletes unequally when it comes to money spent on scholarships, facilities, equipment, coaching salaries, recruiting and a range of other areas.

Iowa, in its Thursday letter, responded that it was found to be in compliance in all 13 areas examined after a 2015 Title IX complaint. The issues raised then were resolved as of last October, the university said.

“They think that they cured it,” Larew said. “In our view, as we measure this, we think they’re out of compliance.”

If the lawsuit is successful, Larew believes Iowa would be required to not only keep women’s swimming and diving but to add more sports for women. He cited rugby or wrestling as “emerging” sports that could be considered.

The lawsuit only asks for Iowa to keep women’s swimming, Larew said, because that is all that his clients are allowed to seek under Title IX. But the athletes are hoping to bring back all four sports, he said.

“We’d love to see reinstatement of the three men’s programs,” Larew said. “The way out of this unfortunate place that the University of Iowa really has boxed itself into is not to diminish opportunities for student-athletes, but to expand them.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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