'A wake-up call': Women's rights advocates hail Jane Meyer ruling

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As afternoon faded to evening last Thursday, Christine Grant was at her desk, making final adjustments to one of the upcoming presentations that keep the longtime women's athletics director busy in retirement.

A phone call from a good friend with news interrupted her: Jane Meyer had just won.

Former University of Iowa senior associate athletic director Jane Meyer, right, gets a hug from her mother, Thelma, after giving a press conference on Thursday, May 4, 2017.  A Polk County jury awarded Meyer a victory in her sexual discrimination lawsuit against the University of Iowa to the tune of $1.43 million.

For nearly three weeks, the wrongful termination lawsuit brought by Meyer, a former University of Iowa associate athletic director, had paraded a Hawkeye sports who's who of witnesses through a Polk County courtroom. On Thursday, all eight jurors sided with her and awarded her $1.43 million in damages.

"I thought immediately," Grant told The Des Moines Register, "'This was a much, much-needed win for women in athletics across the entire country.'

"It’s not that hard to do an analysis and then create a plan to rectify a problem. And I would hope the presidents throughout the country will take note of this case and really do something positive."

Meyer, who was Iowa’s second-highest-ranking athletics official from 2001-14, sued the school over the loss of her job, claiming discrimination due to her gender and sexual orientation and alleging retaliation for alerting the Iowa Board of Regents to the situation. The legal defense for the university had claimed Meyer was a difficult employee who clashed with coaches who worked under her.

Her attorneys called the ruling a landmark win for women in college sports.

Grant, a Title IX trailblazer and Iowa’s director of women’s athletics from 1973-2000, reacted the same way — as did a number of woman’s rights advocacy groups that followed the trial, which took place in downtown Des Moines.

Iowa has yet to say whether it will appeal the jury's decision, although Meyer's lawyers expect it.

"I would just like to tell you how frustrating it’s been for many of us in intercollegiate athletics to watch the never-ending loss of good women from our profession," Grant said. "And I see that verdict as, perhaps, doing something to slow down this loss that we cannot afford."

A lack of female representation can be shown at both the coaching and administrative level in college athletics.

Title IX was enacted in 1972 and bars discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program that receives federal funding. That year, women represented about 90 percent of the head coaches in women's college sports.

But as of November 2016, the percentage of women coaching in major Division I women's conferences had dropped to 41.2 percent, according to a study from the University of Minnesota's Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.

That review found that women made up 46.2 percent of the head coaches of University of Iowa women's sports teams and 36.4 percent at Iowa State.

Men, meanwhile, outnumbered women coaching men's teams in the Big Ten and Big 12 by 243-4 for 2015-16, according to conference figures supplied by the NCAA. The Big Ten had four women coaching men's teams; the Big 12 had zero.

Among athletic directors at Division I schools, men outnumbered women 315 to 37 in 2015-16, NCAA data show.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a three-time Olympic swimming gold-medalist and CEO of Champion Women, an organization focused on supporting girls and women in sports. She said Meyer’s win should be a shock to Iowa’s system.

"This does follow a long list of cases where there is overt sexism going on within an athletic department, and the athletic department can’t see it," Hogshead-Makar said. "They swim in it. But a jury has no problem finding it.

"This is a wake-up call to the University of Iowa to say, 'OK, the outside world sees something that we clearly didn’t see. This is excellent feedback for us to re-evaluate how it is that we treat women.'"

Hogshead-Makar said Meyer’s win will "absolutely help" Meyer’s partner, former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, in her upcoming lawsuit against Iowa, as well as the plaintiffs in a similar discrimination lawsuit at Minnesota-Duluth.

Barta fired Griesbaum after what he said was a pattern of reports of abusive behavior toward her athletes, although a university inquiry had found no policy violations.

Meyer became extremely upset with the decision and protested loudly in a staff meeting. She testified that she maintained her professionalism but wanted to make sure her concerns were heard. Others in the meeting said Meyer crossed the line and could have been fired immediately.

Among the prominent Hawkeye coaches who testified in the university's defense at the trial were football coach Kirk Ferentz, wrestling coach Tom Brands and women's basketball coach Lisa Bluder.

Nicole LaVoi, who authored the study into female representation in women's college sports, said this is among the most important legal wins for women in college sports "to date," especially because Meyer was a high-profile administrator and her case was visible, nationally.

"Here, you’ve got Iowa, who’s been a national leader in terms of gender equity — with very strong female leaders for years," said LaVoi, the co-director at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. "And you have Christine Grant, and you have a really strong cultural women’s studies Ph.D. program down there. And now — in their own backyard — they’ve lost a case on gender discrimination in sport. It’s sad.

"Maybe, for those people that haven’t quite got on the advocacy bandwagon yet, maybe this will be a call to action."

LaVoi said she hopes Meyer’s case encourages more women in similar situations to go to trial rather than settle.

In response to the verdict, Iowa announced Friday it would order an external review of its employment practices — beginning with the athletic department.

"Iowa will hire an independent firm to conduct an external review of university employment practices as defined by the Iowa Civil Rights Act," a university release said.

That review will logically cover athletics director Gary Barta at some point. On paper, Meyer's lawsuit was against Iowa. But much of the trial focused on Meyer's strained relationship with her former boss. 

In her conversation with the Register, Grant said she had faith Iowa would come up with a plan to become more inclusive, diverse and compliant with Title IX. She was also asked if she thought Barta should be involved in that plan, or if Iowa needs a new No. 1.

She paused, then offered: "That’s really not my decision."

Hogshead-Makar and LaVoi said it would be hard for Iowa to attract female coaching or administrative talent with Barta still in charge.

Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at mbain@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.