Iowa reverses decision to cut women's swimming and diving but still faces Title IX challenge

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

The Iowa women's swimming and diving program is not going away after all, but that doesn't mean the legal battle is over. 

In the face of a legal challenge claiming gender discrimination, the university announced Monday it is backing off its decision to cut women's swimming. But the lawyer for the four women suing the university on Title IX grounds told the Register on Monday that is only a first step. Jim Larew maintains that the university is so out of balance with the amount of varsity roster spots afforded to women that he will continue to press for it to add a sport. Larew has mentioned women's wrestling or rugby as viable sports that Iowa should consider sponsoring even after it brings back swimming.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta had said his decision last August to end the women's swimming program was based on cost-saving measures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and he contended that the school was Title IX-compliant in doing so. However, Title IX experts disagreed with that reasoning in a recent Register story that detailed the legal troubles ahead for Hawkeye athletics. 

Barta said in a news release that he is still moving ahead with plans to cut his men's gymnastics, men's swimming and diving, and men's tennis programs.

"It's a major victory," Larew said of Monday's decision by Iowa. "But the way Iowa has been counting its varsity participants, particularly the female ones, has concealed other opportunities for women's sport teams."

Larew wants to press the university to show in open court how it counts roster spots for its sports. He believes numbers for women athletes are inflated, particularly in rowing, cross country and softball. The university has declined to make the names of all its athletes public, citing federal educational privacy law. 

Sage Ohlensehlen, a senior swimmer at Iowa who is one of the four original plaintiffs in the Title IX lawsuit, said she was ecstatic when Barta delivered the news in a meeting with the entire team Monday. Barta told the athletes that swimming has been preserved "indefinitely," Ohlensehlen said, offering no apology or admission that he had been wrong to put the sport in jeopardy in the first place.

"I'm so grateful that we were reinstated," Ohlensehlen told the Register on Monday evening. "My hopes are that it would be permanent, but I do have a trust issue going on with the university right now. I'm a little apprehensive moving forward. I will always have that fear in my mind."

Still, Ohlensehlen believes that Barta's reversal vindicated the decision to file a lawsuit. It wouldn't have happened otherwise.

"It's going to take a long time to see the full repercussions of what happened (Monday). But we showed that the little guy can win. The little guy can stand up to an organization like the University of Iowa and come away a winner," Ohlensehlen said. "And I think this is a huge bonus point for women in athletics."

She intends to keep her name on the lawsuit until it is resolved whether Iowa is meeting its Title IX obligation or a judge orders the university to create more opportunities for women athletes.

"I'm 100 percent for the addition of another female sport, and I will stay in this lawsuit, stand by this lawsuit, until it happens," said Ohlensehlen, who plans to go to law school in the fall.

Barta, who will address the media at 1 p.m. Tuesday to talk about his decision, said in a news release that he chose to bring back women's swimming in order to avoid a drawn-out lawsuit.

"The women’s swimming lawsuit brought forward last September, combined with the recent court order mandating the continuation of the sport during the legal process, has created additional uncertainty that could last several months or even years," Barta said.

“We made the decision the right thing to do was to re-instate the women’s swimming and diving program and remove any uncertainty moving forward for our current student-athletes as well as high school swimmers considering attending the University of Iowa.”

Mark Kaufman, whose daughter, Christina, is a Hawkeye swimmer, said he felt the university was merely belatedly doing what was inevitable, given that a federal judge had issued an injunction in December requiring Iowa to keep the women's swimming team until a final ruling in the lawsuit. Kaufman, who has been active in a group called Save Iowa Sports, was bitter that it took so long.

Iowa's Kelsey Drake competes in the 200-yard butterfly on Jan. 16 at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.

"The team has been decimated. Athletes have left. Coaches have left. And the team is still competing. They're doing what they can," Kaufman told the Register. "But Iowa slow-played this to the point where their backs were against the wall. But what does it do now? It's a completely different challenge."

Earlier:Trying week for Hawkeye swimming: Athletes try to cope, alumni try to fight decision to cut sport

Christina Kaufman is one of four Hawkeye swimmers who initiated the Title IX lawsuit in September. Kelsey Drake, Sage Ohlensehlen and Alexa Puccini are the others. The suit claims that Iowa was already well out of balance with the federal requirement to provide equal athletic opportunities for men and women.

The university had appealed District Judge Stephanie Rose's injunction that it maintain the sport, but appeared to relent Monday. However, Larew said he had not been informed that that challenge had been dropped by Iowa.

Across the nation, there has been a wave of schools backing off of plans to cut women's sports amid the pandemic once they face legal challenges. Michigan State still faces a Title IX lawsuit over its plans to discontinue women's swimming.

Vickie Nauman, an all-American swimmer at Iowa in the 1980s, said she was "absolutely thrilled" to hear Monday's news. But she questions the sincerity of the decision, noting the university offered no admission of any wrongdoing or a pledge that the sport was going to be preserved long-term.

"They haven't accepted the findings" of Judge Rose, Nauman said.

"It's extremely difficult to build a pipeline of students that want to come and swim at the University of Iowa when the program is under so much uncertainty. If you were a sophomore star swimmer, would you be setting your sights on Iowa if you don't know whether or not the program will be alive for four years?"

Kaufman, an Iowa alumnus who now lives in Illinois, said reinstating women's swimming was "an obvious step that had to happen." But he's still upset that university leadership, including President Bruce Harreld and Barta, have not been willing to negotiate on plans to bring back the men's sports. He said Save Iowa Sports raised $3 million from hundreds of donors willing to help pay for the sports programs. He is skeptical Iowa's decisions were really based on finances.

"We've sent over multiple proposals that were met with silence," Kaufman said. "We're sitting there with our checkbooks and our pens ready to go and we can't even get a discussion. That doesn't make any sense to me."

Barta has estimated that he is facing a $50-60 million budget shortfall this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The women's swimming team costs his department $1.5 million a year.