IOWA CITY, Iowa — More than 1,000 days of drama between University of Iowa athletic director Gary Barta and former women’s field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum ended with a settlement rather than another bruising courtroom slugfest.
Friday, the athletic department agreed to pay Griesbaum $1.5 million in back pay and emotional distress after she was fired without cause in August 2014. Additionally, it settled with former senior associate athletic director Jane Meyer for $2.33 million after losing a court battle two weeks ago. Griesbaum and Meyer’s law firm of Newkirk and Zwagerman receives $2.865 million in fees.
That’s $6.5 million to end the uphill battle the athletics department waged against Griesbaum and Meyer. Both women end all current or potential litigation against Iowa athletics and no longer seek reinstatement. The department admits no wrongdoing, but it will pay just the same.
It’s also the right thing to do.
Barta and Iowa’s athletic department were found liable in civil court two weeks ago of discriminating against Meyer based on gender and sexual orientation plus retaliation and unequal pay. Meyer was the second in charge of the athletic department from 2001 through 2014. After a deputy athletic director position was created, Meyer was told not to apply. The new hire was Gene Taylor, who had similar tasks but earned a salary $70,000 more than Meyer.
Griesbaum and Meyer have had a long-standing relationship. Griesbaum, one of the school’s most successful coaches in any sport, was fired in 2014 after an investigation into her coaching practices. It resulted in no university violations, but she was fired without cause and paid $200,000 per her contract. Meyer, who allegedly was insubordinate in the weeks that followed, was transferred out of the department four months later and eventually dismissed from the university.
No matter if Barta’s actions were warranted, they appeared punitive. The paper trail to both firings was circumstantial. The testimony was weak. That’s what a Polk County jury unanimously declared two weeks ago.
Encounters with Meyer often were unpleasant. Griesbaum wasn’t perfect, either. Taylor, who now is Kansas State’s athletic director, was the best athletic administrator Iowa has had. Those issues are irrelevant. Griesbaum and Meyer won this fight, and they’d win the rematch. Even if Griesbaum lost her courtroom battle against Barta that was scheduled to begin June 5, the best for which Barta could hope is a public relations draw. That’s still a loss.
The potential for another courtroom defeat with Griesbaum and ensuing legal battles with Meyer could only serve to further tarnish Iowa’s reputation. Major private companies deal with these situations. None of them requires the transparency of the state’s flagship university or its high-profile athletic department. Consider it as cutting your losses, and Iowa did so without another pulverizing three weeks on the witness stand.
Although this portion of Iowa’s saga has ended, others are lurking. In the aftermath of Griesbaum’s firing, four field hockey players filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education based on unfair treatment of men’s and women’s coaches at Iowa. That investigation is ongoing. Also, the university will hire independent firms to conduct external reviews of university employment practices. That investigation starts with athletics.
None of it is good news. The percentage chance the DOE comes back and said Iowa was in perfect standing for gender equity is somewhere between zero and, well, less than zero. The university investigation will net issues as well. Are they survivable for Barta? That depends on the findings. In the short term, he remains employed at Iowa, which says UI President Bruce Harreld and the state Board of Regents stand behind him.
Going forward, there are lingering issues for Iowa. Barta’s record on firing coaches is inconsistent among men and women. Even if the results merit a dismissal, would he risk firing a female coach no matter her sexual orientation? If he kept a coach on staff despite such results, would it be held against him? How can he even walk that line?
Regardless, while this is a bitter defeat for Barta and the athletic department, the settlement was the right call. The cumulative effect of another trial — and likely loss — would damage both entities beyond repair. That’s a risk not worth taking.