Iowa Facing Unique Title IX Challenge over Coach’s Firing, Expert Weighs In

Feb 20, 2015

The impact of Title IX on the collegiate athletics landscape is changing on a near-daily basis.
Further proof of that was on display earlier this month when four female field hockey players at the University of Iowa filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and the Chicago branch of the Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the school exhibited gender discrimination when it fired their former field hockey coach.
The coach, Tracey Griesbaum, was let go by Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta in August of 2014 after complaints had surfaced within the team of alleged bullying, verbal harassment and intimidation by the coach and her staff, as well as, reportedly, an inappropriate relationship between Griesbaum and another athletic department official. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs claimed she was fired for coaching methods, the same methods that are used by male coaches at the school.
The question of why Griesbaum, who was reasonably successful as a coach, was fired will go a long way toward determining whether Title IX is the proper grounds or some other area of law, or whether a complaint should be filed at all.
In their complaint, plaintiffs Dani Hemeon, Natalie Cafone, Jessy Silfer, and Chandler Ackers alleged that after hearing the aforementioned complaints over the summer, Barta was still firmly in the coach’s corner. Furthermore, the plaintiffs claimed that the final internal investigation report concluded there was “insufficient evidence presented to substantiate a violation of university policy.” Nevertheless, a few days later she was fired.
The plaintiffs claimed that she was fired for her “coaching methods,” which were “exactly the same as methods used by male coaches.” This, they alleged in the complaint, “undermines the right of female student athletes to receive a similar experience to male student athletes simply because of their sex and/or the sex of their coach.”
The plaintiffs, who are represented by attorney Tom Newkirk, go on to claim that Iowa “uses different standards for investigating female coaches and holds female coaches to higher standards.”
They also try to defuse what some might consider a potentially valid argument by Iowa that it replaced Griesbaum with a female assistant coach, demonstrating its commitment to hiring qualified women.
“We all should know that stereotypes can easily result in one type of female being preferred over another and indeed, that the concept is at the very heart of a stereotype or double standard,” they alleged in the complaint. “One minute the ‘softer’ female is preferred and/or the ‘harder’ female is no longer welcome, but in each case the opposite can be true. The point is that the administration is making choices about the type of women they require, rather than the type of person.”
Of course, it is not unusual for ADs to hire coaches based on their coaching philosophy, irrespective of gender.
The more interesting aspect of this controversy is the relationship between Griesbaum and her longtime partner, former senior associate AD Jane Meyer, and what role that may have played, if any, in the coach’s firing. In December, Meyer was transferred out of the athletic department in anticipation of potential litigation.
Another question may center on whether the relationship played a role in the initial complaints by student athletes as well as the plaintiffs in the Title IX lawsuit.
Elizabeth Altmaier, an Iowa psychology professor who served as a faculty adviser to athletics from 2001 to 2011, told The Gazette, a paper in Cedar Rapids, that the student athletes who first complained “were reluctant to raise concerns because of Griesbaum’s long-term relationship with Meyer.”
And what of the four plaintiffs? Are they filling a complaint because they believe the firing was a Title IX violation, or because they believed she was fired because she was a Lesbian, and was discriminated against on the basis of her sexual preference?
To see the complaint, visit:
Expert Weighs In
“The U.S. Department of Education does allow any type of complaint alleging gender discrimination, defined as treating male and female athletes differently,” said Barbara Osborne, J.D., Associate Professor in the Exercise and Sport Science department at the University of North Carolina. “Whereas the coach might have had a valid employment discrimination claim under Title VII, only the female athletes would be able to make the claim that they were treated unfairly because of the firing under Title IX.”
Osborne wrote about this topic in 2001 — “Pay equity for coaches and administrators in college athletics: an element of Title IX?”, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, 34(1) (p. 231-251.)
“The female athletes would not have a valid claim under Title IX alleging that the coach was fired because of her sexual orientation,” she added. “The coach might have a valid claim under Title IX and/or Title VII as long as the discrimination was based on failure to conform to gender stereotypes, a distinction legally different than sexual orientation.”


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