Leistikow: Meyer ruling could spell end for Gary Barta

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Parked in the back row of Room 308 in the Polk County Courthouse for chunks of three weeks, I listened as the civil trial of Jane Meyer vs. the University of Iowa unfolded.

I didn’t see this coming.

But Thursday, it came.

A unanimous ruling from an eight-person jury to award Meyer $1.43 million for the university’s “willful” discrimination. Unanimous on all five counts: gender and sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation and whisteblower violations, and unequal pay.

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta — Meyer’s former boss and the primary target of hours upon hours of testimony — couldn’t have seen this coming, either.

But it came.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta took the stand for parts of four days in the Jane Meyer trial.

And now he’s in big, big trouble.

While the case was officially Meyer vs. the UI, it was really always about Meyer vs. Barta.

The university’s top-ranking athletics official losing a case about civil rights isn’t something that should be casually brushed aside.

“A jury of Iowans said he violated Iowa law,” Thomas Newkirk, one of Meyer’s attorneys, said Thursday, a little more than an hour after the verdict broke. “He fired women for potentially having conflicts of interest. … And he testified in his deposition that if he violated the law, then he possibly should be disciplined or removed from his position.

“So will they actually follow through on Mr. Barta’s own admissions? I guess we’ll soon find out.”

Meyer’s attorneys expect that the university will appeal what they’re calling a landmark ruling.

Beyond a generic, eight-word statement — “The university is disappointed by the jury’s decision” — the school did not respond to a question about whether Barta would be disciplined in the wake of Thursday's bombshell.

Some are celebrating the result as a victory for equal treatment between men and women in athletics, not just in Iowa but across the nation.

Some are upset, trying to comprehend how a former No. 2 athletics administrator who — according to multiple testimonies, including from Kirk Ferentz and Tom Brands — had lost the confidence of high-profile athletics programs was able to emerge from court with more than eight times her previous annual salary.

But whether you agree with the ruling or not, this fact is indisputable: Barta suffered a severe blow Thursday.

This is a serious question in the coming days: Will he survive it professionally? Should he survive?

As I indicated in the opening, there was no smoking-gun piece of evidence to directly incriminate him or anyone within the athletic department of discrimination. No hand-written notes or email disparaging women or Meyer’s sexual preference. Not someone relaying a conversation in which any epithets were uttered.

“This was much subtler than that,” Meyer’s other attorney, Jill Zwagerman, said. “These kinds of cases are difficult to win.”

I asked Meyer straight-up Thursday: What would she like to see happen with Barta?

“This is bigger than that,” Meyer said. “It could’ve stopped with Mr. Barta, by simply doing an investigation. But that’s not what happened.”

From my back-row seat with a note pad and laptop during trial in downtown Des Moines, Barta’s biggest misstep wasn’t the August 2014 firing of Meyer’s partner, field hockey coach Tracy Griesbaum. It wasn’t Meyer’s reassignment in December 2014 a day after she handed him a long list of complaints.

It was telling Meyer in the summer of 2013 that she would not be considered for the newly crafted deputy director job that was ultimately filled by Gene Taylor and then Barbara Burke.

If Meyer had lost confidence of key programs and she was such dead weight in the department, why didn’t Barta fire or demote her then? He could have. She was an at-will employee. Instead, in a weak-kneed decision, Barta kept her around for another 18 months before reassigning her across campus, where she testified she had so little to do at times that she took walks and did Sudoku puzzles for $176,000-plus a year.

Barta was painted in this trial to be a careful, cautious decision-maker. That’s consistent with one of his mottos: “Observe daily, evaluate annually.”

It’s an admirable approach, in general. But a strong leader doesn’t kick the can down the road and wait for issues to go away.

And, as a result, his days in court and the damage to the university didn't end with Thursday's ruling.

Meyer’s attorneys are going to ask for around $2 million more from the university, in part to cover attorney’s fees, while also asking for an investigation into the Hawkeye athletics department over treatment of men vs. women.

Oh, and there’s the matter of the wrongful-termination lawsuit of Griesbaum. That trial is scheduled to begin in Polk County on June 5.

“The jury says you did it. So now act like you did it,” Newkirk said Thursday. “Take ownership and responsibility, and decide what you’re going to do.”

So, yes: What to do?

Perhaps the university could view this as an unwelcome bump in the road and choose to take its punishment by writing a few seven-figure checks and move on.

After all, multiple defendants — including coaches and administrators — testified that it was “like a cloud had lifted” after Barta reassigned Meyer.

Without Meyer, senior-staff meetings were fun again, one person testified.

Tracey Griesbaum

Let’s say the total reaches $5 million between this and the Griesbaum case. That’s not an amount that would crush an athletics department with an annual budget of over $110 million.

But it’s possible that Barta’s most important role as athletic director — attracting and keeping top men’s and women’s coaches — has been irreparably harmed with Thursday’s outcome.

Iowa law was violated. Discrimination was proven unanimously to a jury.

University leadership — including president Bruce Harreld, who last year gave Barta a whopping raise and contract extension that guaranteed him $4.6 million through 2021 — has a big decision ahead.

Much of this Meyer trial revolved around whether she was deserving of being passed over in the search for the department's No. 2.

The question after Thursday is, is it time for Iowa to find a new No. 1?

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.