UI settles Title IX lawsuit filed by women swimmers, will pay $400,000 and hire expert to make sure it follows the law

Julia DeSpain/Little Village

The University of Iowa has agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging the university has been violating its obligation under Title IX to provide opportunities for female athletes, the Gazette reported on Wednesday afternoon. As part of the settlement, UI will also hire a sports law expert to monitor the Athletics Department’s compliance with Title IX.

The lawsuit was filed in September 2020 by four members of the university’s women’s swimming and diving team (who were later joined by two additional UI students) after UI Athletics cut that program, as well as the men’s swimming and diving team, men’s gymnastics and tennis the previous month.

At the time, UI Athletics Director Gary Barta claimed the programs had to be cut because COVID-19 had reduced departmental revenue. Many were skeptical of that claim and that skepticism grew after Barta refused to reinstate any of the programs when revenue began to recover.

The six plaintiffs in the lawsuit — swimmers Kelsey Drake, Christina Kaufman, Sage Ohlensehlen and Alexa Puccini, as well as Miranda Vermeer and Abbie Lyman — argued the university has failed to comply with three Title IX requirements, including providing female student-athletes with athletic opportunities at a rate that is “substantially proportionate” to their undergraduate full-time enrollment rate.

Title IX is a federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding and requires schools to provide equal opportunities for male and female athletes.

On Dec. 24, a federal judge ruled the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their lawsuit and granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the university from eliminating the women’s swimming and diving team (or any other women’s athletic team) until the case was resolved. Seven weeks after that, Barta announced the women’s swimming and diving team would be fully reinstated. But the lawsuit continued, with the plaintiffs alleging UI has a history of underfunding athletic opportunities for women and is continuing to do so.

“We’re not dropping that lawsuit because even with the addition of a female swim team, we’re still not compliant with Title IX,” UI swimmer Sage Ohlensehlen told Little Village earlier this year. “There’s still quite a few positions that should be given to women that aren’t, and actually, it’s enough positions to add another team. So I am all for the addition of women’s wrestling, women’s lacrosse, whatever it may be. And I’m going to stay on this lawsuit to create as many positions for women in athletics as I can.”

Last month, UI Athletics sent out a news release announcing it was adding a women’s wrestling program. Although the news release did not mention it, the new program is part of the settlement of the Title IX lawsuit.

According to filings reviewed by the Gazette, UI agreed to maintain the women’s swimming and diving team “for not less than seven years,” have a roster of at least 30 for the women’s wrestling team and allocate the maximum number of NCAA scholarships allowed for the new team. The women’s wrestling team is anticipated to be competing in the 2022-23 season, as the agreement states.

Alexa Puccini swims the butterfly (a stroke invented at UI) during a women’s swimming and diving meet. Puccini’s biggest dream when she was growing up was to swim collegiately, and she knew since her sophomore year of high school that she wanted to swim at the University of Iowa. — courtesy of Alexa Puccini

UI has also agreed to hire Gabriel Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University in New Orleans, to serve as a “monitor of UI’s Title IX compliance for the next three years.” Feldman will produce an annual report on Title IX compliance starting next year, which UI will post online no later than Oct. 1 each year.

In the settlement agreement, UI also committed to capping the roster of its women’s rowing team at a “three-year rolling average of 75 total members.” The plaintiffs had contended UI was inflating the numbers for women in rowing, cross country and softball to create the appearance it was complying with Title IX. The university has denied that it has ever engaged in such a practice.

Reporting from Henry Cordes of the Omaha World-Herald published in 2019 found that a number of schools, including many known for college football like UI, report large squads in women’s rowing.

Cordes reported that athlete numbers were inflated primarily by “novice” rowers who are recruited from the general student body to try the sport. If the women are on the roster at the time of the team’s first competition, the university can count them as female athletes.

The national average for a women’s rowing team in 2018 was about 63 rowers. At the start of the 2017-18 season, Iowa reported 91 rowers. Cordes reported it was likely 18 never competed in a race and 18 additional rowers weren’t on the official roster.

On Tuesday, UI Head Rowing Coach Andrew Carter resigned. In a statement, Carter didn’t mention the lawsuit or its settlement, but said he was leaving because it was “the right time for my family and me” to do so.

The $400,000 payment UI agreed to make as part of the settlement will be used to cover the fees of the plaintiffs’ attorneys and other expenses related to the case.

Sage Ohlensehlen and Amy Lenderink pose after a victory over Iowa State in January 2020. — courtesy of Sage Ohlensehlen

Although UI agreed to the six-figure settlement, the hiring of an outside Title IX monitor, the reinstitution of women’s swimming and diving, the creation of a women’s wrestling program and the capping of the number of members of its women’s rowing team, the university did not admit to any wrongdoing.

UI is still facing a federal lawsuit from eight former Hawkeye football players, who alleged they faced discrimination and racially motivated harassment during their time at Iowa, as did other Black players in the program. The players are seeking $20 million, plus changes to the UI football program.

In May, a federal judge rejected UI’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. The case is scheduled to go to trial in 2023.

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