The University of Iowa Athletics Department announced on Thursday morning it is adding a women’s wrestling program. The department anticipates the women wrestlers to begin competing in the 2023-24 season, according to a news release.
UI Athletics said the addition would make it “the first NCAA Division I, Power Five conference institution to offer the sport.”
“This is historic. This needed to happen and it’s appropriate that it is happening first at the University of Iowa,” Tom Brands, UI head wrestling coach, said in the department’s statement. “There is no greater place in the world to wrestle than Iowa City, Iowa, and with our new wrestling facility we are prepared to offer world-class training for both our Hawkeye men and women.”
Women’s wrestling was named as an “emerging sport” by the NCAA last year, which the NCAA defines as “a women’s sport recognized by the NCAA that is intended to help schools provide more athletics opportunities for women and more sport-sponsorship options for the institutions.”
The push to add a women’s wrestling program gained momentum last year with the lawsuit brought by members of the UI women’s swimming and diving team. In August 2020, UI Athletics Director Gary Barta eliminated both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, as well as men’s gymnastics and tennis, claiming that reduced revenue due to COVID-19 made the cuts necessary. Many were skeptical of Barta’s claim that revenue problems were the reason for the cuts; after revenue improved, Barta refused to reinstate any of the programs.
On Sept. 25, 2020 four members of the women’s swimming and diving team (who were later joined by two additional UI students) filed a class-action complaint in U.S. District Court arguing that the university’s decision to cut the women’s program violated Title IX.
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.
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.
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.
On Feb. 15, Barta announced the women’s swimming and diving team would be fully reinstated. But the lawsuit is continuing, with the plaintiffs claiming that UI has a history of underfunding athletic opportunities for women and is continuing to do so. Adding a women’s wrestling team would be one way to improve the situation, according to them.
“We’re not dropping that lawsuit because even with the addition of a female swim team, we’re still not compliant with Title IX,” 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.”
When Barta announced the full reinstatement of women’s swimming and diving in February, he also mentioned the possibility of adding a women’s wrestling program. At that time the athletic director said such a program would cost between $750,000 and $1.5 million a year.
“We have not yet been able to identify how we would finance that,” Barta said.
The news release from UI Athletics on Thursday morning did not include a cost estimate or discuss any funding issue, beyond mentioning the department is currently seeking donations for “a new world-class wrestling training facility” that both men’s and women’s teams will use.
The Gazette reported on Thursday that a potential settlement of the Title IX lawsuit has been reached. According to documents filed on Aug. 28, “It will take some time for the parties to finalize a settlement agreement” but no details of what the agreement covers were included.
James Larew, the attorney representing the women in the lawsuit, told the Gazette, “There is a clear connection between the litigation initiated by our clients and the exciting news today.”
Unsurprisingly, the news release also didn’t mention the Title IX lawsuit, or the women athletes who have been pushing for expanded opportunities.
According to UI Athletics, “A national search for Iowa’s women’s wrestling head coach will begin this fall.”