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Court grants injunction in Title IX case, blocks University of Iowa from dropping women's swim team

A federal judge announced Tuesday she will grant an injunction blocking the University of Iowa from dropping women's swimming, or any other women's sports, for the 2021-2022 school year.

The decision by District Judge Stephanie Rose came at the end of a two-day hearing on a Title IX complaint filed by four female Hawkeye athletes. The four, all members of the swimming team, say in their complaint that the university already is violating Title IX, a law requiring that it offer equal educational opportunities, including in athletics, and that dropping women's swimming and diving will exacerbate that.

'Angry and hurt':Hawkeye athletes make public plea to save their four sports

A university statement issued in response argues the institution is not violating Title IX and cites a 2019 review by the Office of Civil Rights. University officials say the cuts are needed to help balance an estimated athletics department budget hole of $55 million-$65 million caused by losses of ticket sales and other revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The preliminary injunction was needed, according to the plaintiffs, because the team will suffer irreparable harm if the university is allowed to move forward with its plan while the case works its way through the court. Already, four of the team's six coaches and 15 of the 35 members of the women’s swimming team have either taken new jobs or committed to other schools starting next semester or next school year. An additional four are in transfer portals, according to the lawsuit.

After two days of testimony, including from a former University of Texas athletics director brought in to review the university's Title IX compliance, the judge called it "a very difficult case" but said she believes the balance of harms and the public interest weigh in favor of granting the injunction.

"When you’re riding as close to the Title IX compliance line as the university has been ... when a crisis hits, options become pretty limited" for the school to react, Rose said.

Rose's written order, filed Thursday, orders the university to maintain all its women's intercollegiate athletics teams until a full trial can be held on the merits of the case, and to continue to provide the teams with full funding and staffing.

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Filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern Iowa in September, the complaint seeks to have the university reinstate the teams and create additional sports for women.

Freshman Alexa Puccini, sophomore Christina Kaufman and seniors Sage Ohlensehlen and Kelsey Drake are the plaintiffs in the case.

Ohlensehlen and Puccini testified Friday and shared their stories of dreaming of swimming at an institution like Iowa and their heartbreak of seeing their team slowly "falling apart."

The university said there is one more year of competition left; therefore, reinstatement is not possible at this time, according to the statement it released in response to the complaint. 

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced in August that the university would be cutting three men's sports and one women's sport starting after this academic year because of financial losses caused by the pandemic. 

Cutting men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's swimming, in addition to the women's swimming and diving teams, will affect 64 male and 38 female athletes. 

"These decisions can be undone, but only within a certain time period," the plaintiffs wrote in their motion for a preliminary injunction. "Two swimmers already left at the beginning of the year once they heard the termination news."

This story has been updated with additional information from the court's order granting a preliminary injunction against the University of Iowa.

Hillary Ojeda covers breaking news and public safety for the Press-Citizen. Reach her at 319-339-7345, hojeda@press-citizen.com or follow her on Twitter at @hillarymojeda.

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