Iowa settles athletic discrimination cases for $6.5M
The University of Iowa agreed to pay Tracey Griesbaum $1.5 million Friday to end a legal battle that began nearly three years ago with the firing of the former field hockey coach.
In addition, the school will pay $2.3 million to Griesbaum's partner, Jane Meyer, and $2.7 million to the Des Moines law firm that represented them both, bringing the total payment to $6.5 million in two high-profile discrimination lawsuits. The university announced that the money will come from its athletic department, which does not rely on taxpayer funding.
Jurors found earlier this month that school officials discriminated against Meyer based on her gender and sexual orientation, retaliated against her for speaking out and paid her less than a male counterpart. They awarded $1.4 million in damages in what advocates for women in college athletics called a landmark verdict. Friday's settlement added $900,000 to Meyer's initial payment, including another $500,000 in lost wages.
Griesbaum's settlement includes $300,000 for lost wages and $1.2 million for emotional distress damages.
The settlement avoids a June trial in a lawsuit brought by Griesbaum, whose 2014 firing by athletic director Gary Barta was center to both cases. The university does not admit liability in either case.
"I believe the combination of the overwhelming nature of the verdict, the press, the pressure and, hopefully, because of our positive message that this is about moving forward made them realize" that they should settle, Griesbaum's attorney, Thomas Newkirk, told The Register.
Meyer and Griesbaum alleged that their athletic careers were ended by discrimination based on their gender and sexual orientation, and that their former boss, Gary Barta, retaliated against them when they complained.
Barta fired Griesbaum on Aug. 4, 2014, over what he said were complaints about her abusive behavior toward athletes. A university investigation of Griesbaum had found no policy violations. Assistant coach Lisa Cellucci was elevated to head coach, a position she retains.
Newkirk sent then-Iowa president Sally Mason a six-page letter on Sept. 3, 2014, asking for a meeting to discuss the Griesbaum firing and proposing a “win-win scenario” for both sides short of litigation. That never happened, and Griesbaum eventually filed her lawsuit last spring.
Meyer had been the senior associate athletic director from 2001-14, when she was reassigned after she complained about Griesbaum's termination and other bias in the department.
Neither Meyer nor Griesbaum sought to be reinstated to their jobs as part of settlement talks, said Jill Zwagerman, another attorney who represented them both.
"I don’t know that it would have been a good atmosphere to go back," Zwagerman said,
"with Mr. Barta still being there in charge and the way he testified against Jane and Tracey on the stand."
Meyer challenged Barta on the firing of Griesbaum, who had compiled a 169-107 record in 14 seasons as head coach. On Dec. 4, 2014, Meyer presented Barta with a memo headlined “issues to discuss” in which she laid out her concerns about what she viewed as the mistreatment of women in his department. The next day, she was told she was being reassigned outside of the athletic department because of Griesbaum’s threatened lawsuit. She never returned, eventually losing her $173,000-a-year university job last September.
Meyer’s trial lasted 14 days, four of which were devoted to testimony by Barta. Prominent Iowa coaches, including Kirk Ferentz (football), Tom Brands (wrestling), Lisa Bluder (women’s basketball) and Rick Heller (baseball) were also called to the stand. An eight-person jury was unanimous in finding for Meyer on all five of her claims.
That decision was hailed by many observers as a significant victory for women in college athletics.
Newkirk said Friday he is hopeful that the settlements for his clients will be viewed as evidence that gender disparities in college sports need to be addressed.
“This was never about vilifying one person (or) undermining Iowa. I assure you that all universities face this same problem around the country. That’s why the wake-up call is not just for Iowa. We hope this becomes about more than just a bunch of lawyers winning a bunch of money — it’s more important than that," Newkirk said.
“We need to focus on being sure that gender bias doesn’t happen. Let us all love football or let us all love field hockey and move forward — and it can be done. And I hope that the universities realize that."
On May 5, the day after the Meyer verdict, Iowa president Bruce Harreld announced that he would hire an independent firm to “review university employment practices as defined by the Iowa Civil Rights Act.” Pointedly, Harreld said that review would begin with the university's athletics department.
The university said Friday that phase two of that review will cover its academic and operational units, and a final phase will look at UI Health Care.
The university athletic department is still being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights for alleged Title IX violations. That probe began Oct. 7, 2015, and was the result of a complaint filed by some of Griesbaum's former players.
Brooke Timmer, an attorney at Fiedler and Timmer law firm, described the $1.4 million jury verdict originally awarded to Meyer as a “wake-up call.”
“It certainly highlights that the university has significant problems that they need to address if they want to be a leader in gender equality,” Timmer said Friday. “Other universities across the country need to take heed that women in athletics are no longer going to stand for that type of treatment.”
Timmer said she was relieved the $6.5 million settlements would come from the UI Department of Athletics and not from taxpayers.
“It seems a recognition that this is a problem they created and they should pay, accordingly,” she said.
Timmer said Harreld deserves credit for calling for the review of UI employment practices.
“It certainly is a good first step,” Timmer said. “But it’s hard to believe that, in 2017, we’re still taking ‘first steps’ toward recognizing (and addressing) these problems. … There are more proactive ways to ensure that this type of discrimination is not occurring.”
Barta released a statement Friday, saying:
"We are pleased to have this behind us and looking forward to participating in the external review of our employment practices. As an athletics department, we have tremendous coaches, staff and student-athletes who are succeeding at the highest level, both in competition and academic performance. I am very proud of our department’s commitment to our student-athletes and that our outlook remains strong. We are confident the best is yet to come.”
Barta has been leading Iowa's athletic department for 11 years, and Harreld gave him a five-year extension on his contract in January 2016 that will pay him $4.6 million through June 30, 2021. Some Hawkeye fans are questioning whether Barta's job should be secure.
“I think he brought shame on the university," said Rich Williams, 59, a retired Marine and football season ticket-holder who lives in Yuma, Ariz. "It cost the university $6.5 million, and I'm paying all this money to sit on the sideline and for tickets — I think something is out of kilter.
“I think he should resign. I want more and expect more.”
The Attorney General's office, which defended the university in the lawsuits, declined to comment.
Josh Lehman, a spokesman for the Iowa Board of Regents, which also was a defendant in the cases, told The Register, via email: “The board appreciates that the University of Iowa was able to reach a resolution and is encouraged that President Harreld has initiated a review of the university's employment practices."
Griesbaum’s trial had the potential to be even more damaging to the university’s reputation than Meyer's, as it likely would have included current and former student-athletes and brought into question the coaching methods used throughout the athletic department.
With Friday's settlement, Griesbaum and Meyer relinquished all claims against Iowa, while the university agreed not to appeal Meyer's verdict.
Register Staff Writer Jeff Charis-Carlson contributed to this story.