Leistikow: Jane Meyer's lawsuit vs. Iowa comes down to perception

Chad Leistikow

Gary Barta and Jane Meyer sat virtually face to face for the bulk of three hours inside a downtown Des Moines courtroom Friday afternoon.

It was the latest and most high-stakes confrontation yet involving colleagues who were once the two highest-ranking employees of the University of Iowa athletics department.

“I couldn’t run the athletic department because of her behavior,” Barta, now in his 11th year as Iowa’s athletics director, testified as Meyer sat less than 15 feet away from her former boss. “I had to do something.”

Jane Meyer's case against Iowa largely centered on her strained relationship with Iowa athletic director Gary Barta.

What Barta did was reassign Meyer, with the university’s blessing, to a job outside of athletics on Dec. 5, 2014 — the day after Meyer handed him a letter outlining a long list of what she felt were questionable and unfair decisions.

Meyer said the reassignment, which led to her termination 21 months later, was one example of how Barta ruined her career and aspirations to become a Division I athletics director.

“I can’t get a job,” Meyer testified. “No one will touch me.”

She is suing the university for retaliatory treatment and discrimination based on her gender and sexual orientation.

Barta steadfastly feels he did the right thing in removing Meyer, who he described as exhibiting difficult “behavioral issues,” from athletics.

Meyer, a self-proclaimed “rules follower,” passionately feels she did the right thing by speaking out about what she perceived as unequal treatment of men and women.

Jane Meyer
Jane Meyer

So who is right?

As I thought about that difficult question while watching explosive testimony this past week at the Polk County Courthouse, my eyes kept returning to the 10-person jury.

Five men, five women.

Ordinary Iowans, meticulously selected from a pool of 50 by attorneys on both sides: A nurse, an optometrist, a forklift operator, a salesman, a medical technologist, a custodian and four financial-services employees.

With the hours upon hours of questions and answers, countless names and titles of athletic-department officials being mentioned and binders at least 6 inches thick with potential evidence, there's only so much a juror — who has his/her own everyday life to think about, too — can effectively process.

Yet how they decide to rule in this civil trial, which is expected to last another two weeks, could have a profound impact on how effectively the Iowa athletics department can operate going forward.

Ultimately, eight jurors — two are alternates, but they don’t know who they are — will make the majority-rules verdict.

They seem engaged.

But what are they picking up on?

During jury selection, most who said they followed college sports were weeded out.

So, it’s probably safe to assume few if any of the 10 recognized who Barta or Meyer were before the trial began Tuesday.

To people uninterested in sports, Barta's testimony that longtime football coach Kirk Ferentz "didn’t want Jane Meyer working with the football staff anymore” might not carry the impact it would with those who regularly follow the Hawkeyes.

People uninterested in sports probably wouldn’t have a pre-conceived opinion either way about Barta’s Aug. 4, 2014 firing-without-cause of Tracy Griesbaum, which has become a central topic in this case — even though Griesbaum’s own wrongful-termination suit against the university doesn’t begin until June 5.

People uninterested in sports might see Meyer's contention that the use of profanity by men's coaches like Fran McCaffery and Chris Doyle went undisciplined might see it differently than Barta, who testified Friday that yelling was "a pretty typical part of coaching.”

While neither side’s lawyers have delivered a haymaker through Week 1, perhaps the most important statement of Friday’s testimony was Barta saying, “Even though the university (in 2012) said there was no conflict” of interest in the romantic relationship between Meyer and Griesbaum since 2004, “I believed there was.”

That’s at the heart of the plaintiff’s contention of discrimination.

Barta thinks he did the right thing to remove Meyer on Dec. 5, 2014, considering Meyer’s partner was in the process of filing a civil lawsuit over his August actions.

During hours in the courtroom, I’ve tried to put myself in a juror’s head and forget everything I know about Hawkeye sports.

As a former department head, I understand Barta’s desire and prerogative to alter his staff with the goal of improved communication and teamwork.

As a brother of someone whose repeated complaints about being bullied were ignored for years, I understand Meyer’s perception that her concerns were being brushed away.

As a journalist who has seen some of my dearest co-workers get laid off, I empathize with the pain of job loss while also understanding that employment isn't a lifetime appointment or guarantee.

Meyer, 57, contends that she hasn't had a solid night's sleep since Griesbaum was fired nearly 33 months ago, and that she's experienced a variety of health problems as a result. The specific amount of distress damages that Meyer is seeking should be crystallized this week, but she testified Friday that she was requesting $694,500 for lost wages and to make up for a pay disparity because of her gender.

Barta, who is expected to return to the stand Monday, should get a more friendly line of questioning once the state's attorneys cross-examine him.

Griesbaum, Ferentz and other prominent Iowa personnel like Tom Brands are expected to take the stand.

More rich courtroom drama lies ahead.

And a jury of regular Iowa folks will be doing their best to sort it all out.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.