Iowa athletic director Gary Barta calls reinstatement of women's swimming permanent
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said Tuesday his decision to reinstate his women’s swimming and diving team is permanent, even though he hesitated to use that word when making the announcement Monday.
“It’s permanent like every other Olympic sport we have,” Barta told reporters in his first public comments since a university news release went out Monday afternoon. “They are fully reinstated as full members of the athletic department. And then I have zero plans to cut any sports, including women’s swimming, beyond this point.”
Barta said it was the “uncertainty” caused by ongoing litigation over the future of women’s swimming that prompted him to reverse course. He said that attorneys could spend months or years working out a resolution, but that he wasn’t going to be involved in those discussions. He painted his latest decision as an altruistic one, saying he wanted current and future Hawkeye swimmers and coaches to know that the sport is safe no matter the result of a Title IX lawsuit filed in September.
In December, District Judge Stephanie Rose ruled that Iowa must maintain its women’s swimming program until the case was resolved. Iowa has appealed that, leaving open the question of how committed the university is to keeping women’s swimming. Jim Larew, the lawyer representing four current Hawkeye swimmers and two other female students who are interested in starting a varsity women’s wrestling or rugby team, told the Register on Monday that he is going to keep pressing for the school to add a women's sport. That’s how far how out of compliance with the federal law requiring equal athletic opportunities for women that he believes Iowa is.
“Is that forever?” Barta continued, when talking about reinstating women’s swimming. “I can’t predict what happens with name, image and likeness and other things that are happening in college sports. But, yes, it is a full-fledged, no-look-back, fully reinstated, moving-forward decision. Irregardless of what happens in the legal process, women’s swimming remains at Iowa.”
Barta chose to eliminate four of his 24 sports — men’s gymnastics, swimming and diving, and tennis are the others — in August, citing financial losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. He estimated an annual savings of $5 million for his department. He said Tuesday he still believes that was the correct decision, given the information he had then. He also said bringing one of the sports back now was the proper course of action, even though he claims his department will still be short $50-60 million this fiscal year.
How can he have been right to both initially cut a sport and then change his mind six months later? Barta explained it this way:
“The (legal) disagreements still exist and so the reinstatement is based on that. Because it doesn’t look like a resolution is coming any time soon.”
Barta reiterated that the three men’s sports remain on the chopping block.
He met with swimming coach Marc Long and his staff Monday morning to deliver the news. Barta said he would meet again with the coaches after this season to discuss whether they want to lead a women’s-only team next year. That team will have two swimming coaches and one diving coach. Long has been in charge of both the men’s and women’s teams. He declined to comment Tuesday on his interest level in remaining at Iowa, which is his alma mater.
Barta next met with the entire women’s swimming and diving team Monday afternoon. Sage Ohlensehlen, a senior swimmer who is one of the plaintiffs in the Title IX lawsuit, said the meeting — Barta’s first with the team — lasted 90 minutes and included many pointed questions. She said Barta didn’t apologize for trying to eliminate the sport.
Ohlensehlen left the meeting believing that it was the lawsuit that forced Barta to change course. She called it a victory for the athletes. Kelsey Drake, Christina Kaufman and Alexa Puccini are the other swimmers backing the lawsuit. They put up a $360,000 bond required by Judge Rose to show how strongly they believed in their case, and will remain attached to it until it is either determined that Iowa is in compliance with Title IX or an additional women’s sport is deemed necessary.
“It didn’t really seem like we reached an agreement,” Ohlensehlen said of the discussion with Barta. “But it was nice to have an open communication with the athletic department.”
In what may have been a foreshadowing of how the court case will be resolved, Barta spoke of Iowa’s interest in adding women’s wrestling. That sport is now sanctioned by the NCAA and has a rich history in the state. Iowa has the facilities, and men’s wresting coach Tom Brands is on record as saying he would welcome a women’s team as well, calling it good for the growth of the sport.
“We have not yet been able to identify how we would finance that,” Barta said, estimating women’s wrestling would add between $750,000 to $1.5 million a year to his budget. Women’s swimming operates at a cost of $1.5 million.
If a judge orders a women’s sport added, however, it will be up to Barta to figure out how to pay for it.
Barta said at the outset of his remarks that Iowa uses methodology approved by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights when counting roster spots for male and female athletes. He took offense at Larew’s suggestion that Iowa is inflating its roster sizes for some women’s sports in order to skirt the true intent of Title IX.
But he declined to say whether he’d be comfortable opening Iowa’s roster numbers to scrutiny in open court, if it came to that. That will be up to Iowa’s office of general counsel, Barta said.
“We believe what we believe. The plaintiffs’ attorney believes what he believes. I don’t know where that will go,” Barta said.
A group of alumni called "Save Iowa Sports" has come forward with ideas of how to retain the men’s programs that are scheduled to end after this season. It has $3 million in pledges and plans to continue that fund-raising annually. Barta has dismissed those overtures, saying it wasn’t a permanent solution. He does hope that the swimming community and alumni will help with support for the women’s team.
“We’ve engaged in numerous conversations” with Save Iowa Sports, Barta said. “We made it clear from the beginning that we couldn’t just come up with a short-term solution.”
Mark Kaufman, the father of swimmer Christina Kaufman and a leading member of Save Iowa Sports, said Tuesday that the group had only one meeting, via Zoom, at which Barta and Iowa president Bruce Harreld were present. That was Aug. 26. He termed it “a superficial brush-off at best.”
Since then, assistant athletic director Barbara Burke has been the senior Hawkeye staff member at the meetings.
“There was no sincere efforts by Iowa to provide leadership and thought-provocation. We came up with all the ideas. We came up with all the discussion. A lot of it was refuted, and they just played along,” Kaufman told the Register.
“(Barta) just continues to hide behind the deficit as an excuse to cut the sports.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.