University of Iowa faces legal tightrope following allegations of racial bias involving football coaches Chris Doyle, Brian Ferentz
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Three years after paying $6.5 million to settle lawsuits brought by two former employees, University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta must manage another delicate situation that could end up in court.
Barta has placed the football team’s strength and conditioning coach, Chris Doyle, a 21-year employee, on administrative leave after dozens of former players accused him of racist behavior and language. What happens next will be watched closely by the former players, the coach under fire and attorneys waiting to take on the university over any misstep.
“The universities in these moments are trying to thread the needle between two different pressures for lawsuits. One is going to be from the student-athletes, and the other is going to be from the employee,” said Josh Gordon, an attorney who teaches at the University of Oregon and serves on the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
“When universities screw this up, they actually lose both sides of that equation," he said. "They pay a settlement to the student-athletes, and they pay a settlement to the employee, and that happens pretty often.”
Barta is leading a review of Doyle’s behavior while the coach continues to draw an $800,000 annual salary, the highest in the nation for a college strength coach. Barta has provided no details about who else is participating in the review, what its parameters are or how long it will last.
Here are some of Barta's options, and the legal implications of each:
Scenario 1: Doyle is fired
Former Hawkeye players raised objections to their treatment by Doyle on social media on June 5. The next day, Barta and head football coach Kirk Ferentz announced that Doyle was being put on leave. Gordon said that is usually a precursor to dismissing an employee.
“You’re not going to do that based on just one accusation or comment,” he said.
But firing Doyle could trigger a lawsuit, one in which he would argue that the university effectively ended his career and cost him millions of dollars. Doyle would need to demonstrate that he looked for work elsewhere and was considered unhirable, Gordon said.
In that event, the university would need to demonstrate that it wasn’t aware of Doyle’s alleged behavior before the former players came forward and that it hasn’t treated other employees differently in similar circumstances.
That could be difficult for Barta.
In May 2017, the university lost a lawsuit brought by former Associate Athletic Director Jane Meyer, who was able to prove she had been demoted and eventually dismissed based on her gender and sexual orientation. At that trial, Meyer’s lawyers introduced evidence that Iowa men’s gymnastics coach J.D. Reive and former volleyball coach Bond Shymansky were accused of abusive behavior toward athletes but were never subject to university investigations. Instead, Mary Curtis, who was then Iowa’s associate athletic director for human resources, explained that both of those coaches promised to change when confronted with the complaints.
That kind of discrepancy in treatment could be damaging for Iowa, Gordon said.
And there’s one more big twist in Doyle’s situation.
Kirk Ferentz’s son, Brian, is the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator. Several former players have also pointed to him as part of a culture that is unwelcoming to black athletes. Brian Ferentz has not been placed on administrative leave. Kirk Ferentz told reporters Sunday that is because the complaints against his son are not nearly as numerous. Brian Ferentz technically reports to Barta, a requirement of the university's nepotism policy.
"If I were on Doyle’s side of it, that would absolutely be a point of vulnerability for Iowa, making clear that they’re very similar fact patterns for both of them, but they weren’t being treated in similar ways,” Gordon said.
“But at the moment they put the coach’s son on administrative leave, questions would come up about what’s that relationship like with the head coach, and how do you come back from that? I’m sure that’s a very hard situation for them to navigate from a practical standpoint, but from a legal standpoint, any inconsistency is problematic.”
Scenario 2: Doyle resigns
It would be easier on Barta and the university from a legal standpoint if Doyle were to walk away from his job. Both parties could simply tell the public that Doyle’s continued employment was no longer a good fit.
In that case, Gordon said, it’s possible that Doyle could find work elsewhere after sitting out a year or two.
“Certainly, in this past decade, the NCAA has proven to be a pretty forgiving environment for the folks who have transgressions,” Gordon said. “So it depends on Doyle’s relationships. Does he have a safe landing zone somewhere else?”
Doyle might see that step as an admission of guilt, however. And he made it clear in a Twitter message Sunday that he believes he has done nothing that has crossed the line into racist or unethical behavior.
Scenario 3: Doyle keeps his job
Gordon said it’s possible that Iowa is conducting an investigation of Doyle with the goal of clearing his name and letting him stay on the job.
"You might imagine that is a bit of a PR benefit for a university to take strong action, to say that 'We’re taking this very seriously,' " Gordon said.
“That way the university limits its liability and can say, ‘We took immediate action as soon as we became aware. We limited contact of this individual who might be putting people in harm’s way and creating a culture that limits their opportunity. And then, check this out, we did a thorough investigation and we were really confident that there was nothing there.’ ”
That might not satisfy the scores of former players who have spoken out, however, and could even inflame the situation more.
Scenario 4: Former players file lawsuits
Athletes who have left the Iowa football program could seek redress of their own. Gordon said those are difficult cases to prove.
“If they (former players) can demonstrate that somehow (Doyle’s alleged behavior) limited what would have been other opportunities, they can win,” Gordon said of the players. “Just being subjected to uncomfortable racial language or discriminatory language in its own right isn’t quite enough; it has to be so significant and pervasive that it limits your opportunities that you were afforded. Obviously, football is a major opportunity for folks in a variety of ways: It may open up educational opportunities; it may open up other career paths — a potential football career.”
Still, a lawsuit might be the only remedy open to the former players to get the change they say they want to see at Iowa.
“The universities and the NCAA have proven to be quite stubborn to taking action without the pressure of lawsuits,” Gordon said. “If you want to get their attention, you have to have a lawsuit that has at least some viability that can get you past summary judgment, and you can at least get to discovery, where you have to defend on the facts.
“Now, you’re talking significant legal costs, a drawn-out PR hit. And that’s where you generally see a big window for settlement.”
That’s what Meyer did.
Her partner, Tracey Griesbaum, was set to sue the university on similar grounds after she was fired as head field hockey coach. That trial never happened. Once Meyer won her verdict, Iowa agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle both cases without admitting any guilt.
The university, and Barta, may be heading down a similar path, depending on how things play out with Doyle. Gordon is a consultant to schools around the nation, with the goal of helping them avoid just the situation in which Iowa finds itself.
“The really good universities, they are super proactive on this, and every couple of years they do a health check on their culture and see if there are any problems,” Gordon said. “And you’ll never hear about it because they’re constantly turning people over for the right reasons.”
No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.