UI field hockey lawsuit highlights gender inequality in coaching

field hockey
The 1986 field hockey team is the only UI women’s team with a national championship — photo from 1987 Hawkeye yearbook.

The story of Tracey Griesbaum, the University of Iowa field hockey coach who was fired in 2014 after a 90-day internal investigation found no policy violations, is one that can be heard across the country.

This year, at the University of Northern Florida, Mary Tappmeyer was awarded $1.25 million after winning her case against the school where she’d started coaching basketball in 1993. Women soccer players sued U.S. Soccer for equal pay. In May, the players’ union went to court and are threatening a strike ahead of the Rio Olympics. In Duluth, Minn., Shannon Miller, an ice hockey coach with five national championships, and two other coaches filed a discrimination lawsuit against the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

Griesbaum’s lawyer thinks he knows the reason for the recent wave of gender bias cases. Before being hired to represent her in court, Des Moines lawyer Tom Newkirk said he’d already found a systemic problem and pattern in how female coaches were treated across the country: “Almost all the [female] coaches have some issue with a player, a student-athlete making a complaint … or a parent making a complaint and having administration overreact to it or undermine them or, in Tracey’s case: [an] investigation, exonerate her and then fire her anyway.”

In Griesbaum’s case, a player complained about the treatment she got from her coach. The official UI statement is that Griesbaum’s termination “had nothing to do with her gender.”

Newkirk said many of Griesbaum’s former and current players like her, respect her as a coach and wouldn’t say much to corroborate the complaint, but some players described a “team environment of fear and intimidation and/or mistreatment” by Griesbaum, according to investigators.

In fact, four UI players filed a 2015 complaint with the Office of Civil Rights about Title IX that supports Griesbaum’s case. Two current UI field hockey players, Chandler Ackers and Natalie Cafone, joined former players Jessy Silfer and Dani Hemeon to file a Title IX complaint alleging gender bias in the school. They listed several claims, including allegations of double standards in how coaches are evaluated and how complaints from male and female student-athletes are investigated and processed.

“There’s a complete double standard in how the University of Iowa allows its females and males to coach their team,” Newkirk said. “Females are effectively required to coddle their players and treat them like mommy and the male coaches are allowed to be coaches.”

In 2011, for example, an extreme strength and conditioning football workout hospitalized 13 football players with exertional rhabdomyolysis, a condition that can lead to renal failure. Three years later the UI assistant coach who led the dangerous workout, Chris Doyle, was given a $99,000 raise.

Newkirk said he thinks Griesbaum’s case “will finally expose double standards that exist for female coaches around the country.” He receives frequent reports of gender bias from female college coaches around the U.S. “There is a systemic problem. Women are not permitted — across the country — to coach like men. They’re not permitted. We hold them to a double standard … We second-guess them. We undermine them. We apply double standards to them … And this case is going to expose it. It already has done a lot to expose it,” he said.

In 1971, before Title IX was passed, the percentage of women coaching women at the collegiate level was at its all-time high; 90 percent of women’s sports head coaches at colleges and universities were women.

Today, only 43 percent of women are coached by women at the college level, according to a recent 37-year study by Acosta/Carpenter on intercollegiate sports. Meanwhile, only three percent of men’s sports at the college level are being coached by women.

In 1971, women’s programs were underfunded; often, the coaches drove the bus to matches.

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Coaches of women’s sports have seen increased pay and exposure, and that’s made it into a lucrative career for either sex.

Title IX guarantees equality for not only college athletes at federally-funded institutions, but any student or professor of any subject at a federally-funded institution. Disparities in sports still persist, just as they do for students and professors in STEM fields where women are also outnumbered and literally out-manned in higher education.

But some progress has been made since 1971. There are about 10,000 women’s NCAA teams today and women receive almost 43 percent of college athletic scholarships, up from near to nothing in 1970. The number of high school girls participating in sports has grown tenfold since the early 1970s to more than 3 million in 2014.

At the University of Iowa, after the departure of Women’s Athletic Director Dr. Christine Grant in 2000, the male and female athletic departments were joined. Hired in 1973, Grant’s program had thrived, with dozens of UI Big 10 conference championships and an expansion of women’s sports at Iowa.

In 2000, a memo written by then-president Mary Sue Coleman outlined how the school planned to maintain their commitment to women’s sports. One glaring departure from that plan is the recent creation of a new position, Deputy Director, who’s number two in charge of Iowa athletics. If the Athletic Director (A.D.) is male, according to the memo, his number two is to be the Senior Women’s Administrator (SWA).

In 2014, Gary Barta, the A.D. at Iowa since replacing Bob Bowlsby in 2006, hired Gene Taylor, the A.D. from his alma mater, North Dakota State University (where Barta quarterbacked the Bison football team to three Div. II championships in the 1980s) into the freshly-created Deputy Director role.

Taylor started work on Aug. 4, the same day Griesbaum was fired. By December, under the threat of lawsuit, Griesbaum’s partner, Jane Mayer, the UI’s SWA, was transferred out of the department to facility management. Mayer filed her lawsuit in November 2015.

Griesbaum and Mayer had reported their relationship to UI Human Resources years earlier, and it was not considered to be a hinderance to the operation of the field hockey program.

Although they had similar administrative experience, Deputy Director Taylor was hired at a salary of $245,000, nearly $72,000 more than that of Paula Jantz, who replaced Mayer as SWA. Jantz, hired at $173,154, is scheduled to retire in January of 2017.

At Iowa, the average annual salary for male head coaches is $750,180 while female head coaches make less than a third of that amount, $214,783.

Another former UI field hockey coach, Beth Beglin, now an attorney from North Liberty, has compiled a comprehensive record of questionable administrative decisions in the aftermath of Griesbaum’s dismissal. From 2007-14, she found that “83 percent of female head coaches were fired compared with the firing of just 18 percent of male head coaches.” Iowa fired five of six women coaches who left during that time frame; one retired early. 11 men’s head coaches were lost in the same period — just two were fired, six resigned and found work elsewhere and three retired.

In 27 years under Grant’s leadership, Hawkeye women’s teams in all sports won a total of 27 Big Ten titles. After a decade with Barta as A.D., UI women have won only four Big Ten titles and Griesbaum’s field hockey teams claim three of the four.

Under Title IX, to receive federal funding, Iowa’s ratio of men and women student-athletes must reflect the student body, so women’s sports can sometimes carry large rosters, even for sports that aren’t offered at the high school level in the state.

Coach Beglin (who was a three-time Olympian in her sport) said that the practice of keeping a large roster of female athletes to balance the large roster of football is called “roster packing.”

The largest women’s team at Iowa is also one of the cheapest to run per athlete: rowing. There are 89 rowers on the Iowa roster, making it the largest UI women’s team.

Rosters are counted at the first day of competition. Roster packing, Beglin said, is “a really common tactic for institutions to try to get around Title IX … instead of adding a women’s sport, which would add more scholarship opportunities for women, and it’s done across the country, you just basically pack a roster of a supposed members of a team in order to try to comply with Title IX.”

Newkirk said, “The rowing team is really important because … it makes it look like [UI women’s sports] have a huge roster so it covers up the participation gap between men and women.”

Coach Beglin’s predecessor, Judith Davidson, is still regarded as one of the top coaches of any sport in Iowa history, with a record of 185-50-16. Later, she was an athletic director at two other universities.

Davidson wrote about her radical coaching style of the time in an email to Little Village, and speculated that, because student athletes and their parents are different today, she wouldn’t be allowed to coach the way she did.

“One year in particular, the team was not responding to any coaching, so I made the decision to turn the practices over to the captains,” she writes.

Coaches sat on the sidelines as the players put themselves through the paces, even assigning fellow players push ups and laps for mistakes. After two days, players begged their coaches to come back.

Something worked and the Hawkeyes narrowly missed winning the national championship game that year. Two years later they beat the University of New Hampshire, 2–1, to become the first field hockey team from the midwest to win the national championship. They remain the only UI women’s team in any sport to win a championship.

judith davidson
Judith Davidson, pictured in 1978 at the start of her Iowa career. — photo from the Frederick W. Kent Collection, UI Libraries.

Davidson said she “was fortunate enough to coach at Iowa at the very beginning of Title IX.”

Starting in the fall of 1978, when the impact of Title IX was first being felt, in her first year as coach, the field hockey team shared uniforms with the women’s track team.

“I doubt any of the men’s teams had that pleasure,” she said.

By the second year, they had their own uniforms. Davidson noted that scholarship money that came into her program also changed recruiting; she was able to go after the best players in the country and build in earnest.

By 1982, the team went 21–2 and had a perfect conference record. During her ten years at Iowa, Hawkeye hockey teams won five conference titles. Davidson credited Grant’s leadership as key to the women’s teams’ successes before 2000.

After Iowa, Judith Davidson was an athletic director at Central Connecticut State and California State Sacramento. She was the first woman selected in a national search to be the A.D. of a joined men’s and women’s athletic program.

She said part of her thinks it was a mistake to combine Iowa’s athletic programs after Grant’s retirement, but “the practical and former A.D. side of me says that combining the programs was inevitable given the cost of intercollegiate athletics today.” She added later that she feared “the escalating cost of intercollegiate athletics is ultimately going to cause the entire enterprise to implode.”

On June 1, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) released a report, “Beyond X’s and O’s: Gender Bias and Coaches of Women’s College Sports” (available in full online), that bolsters Newkirk’s case.

WSF President Deborah Slaner Larkin said her group recommends “the university itself, the president, the chancellor, the commissioners, the provost, to recognize that this is a campus-wide issue and not to separate it as being just part of athletics.”

Larkin said the fact that UI field hockey players stood up to complain about sports at Iowa was “extraordinary.”

“The risk is very great; it’s very hard for coaches to stand up … and the fear of an athlete is that she could lose her scholarship,” Larkin said. “They didn’t have this problem at Iowa when Christine Grant was there.”

UI field hockey is played at Dr. Christine H.B. Grant Field, named in 1989 and considered one of the finest facilities in the country for field hockey. Grant still lives in Iowa City but was visiting Scotland (where she was born) this summer. She said via email that she thought the situation at Iowa was “very distressing.”

“I am very concerned about the loss of so many female head coaches [at Iowa] in the last few years,” she said.

Little Village sent a version of this article to UI’s director of athletic communications Steve Roe who said, ”The University is disappointed that the article focuses on the termination of a coach, which the court will evaluate, rather than on the welfare of the student athletes. The article ignores the student athletes who came forward to reveal the problems that her coaching presented and led to the investigation describing a team environment of fear, intimidation and/or mistreatment by Coach Griesbaum and students who felt pressured to play injured.”

We asked him if any other UI teams use “fear, intimidation or mistreatment” in their coaching methods or to motivate players and then we asked to confirm this with visits to practices and player interviews. We did not receive a response by press time.

As for replacing Jantz, Roe said some applicants are already inquiring about her job, “[W]e will launch a search for her replacement this summer, but we cannot limit candidates for Paula’s [primary] job to just female; the position is open to all qualified candidates … The re-organization and structure of the Senior Staff that has been in process the past three years will remain the same.”

Once the position is filled, he said, a female member of the senior staff who meets NCAA requirements will be appointed as UI’s SWA. Roe did not respond to our question about following former UI President Coleman’s 2000 memo on the merger of the athletic departments.

Newkirk and Griesbaum will have their day in court in June 2017.

Adam Burke was a swimmer at Macalester College.This article was originally published in Little Village issue 201.