Iowa State University Settles for $100K in Civil Rights Discrimination Claim

Nov 23, 2018

On May 14, 2018, Erin Freeman, a women’s tennis student-athlete at Iowa State University (ISU) filed a civil rights discrimination claim with the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR report alleged sexual and racial discrimination against Iowa State University (ISU).
 
The report included detailed allegations of Title IX and Title VI violations. In addition, Freeman supplied supporting documentation highlighting her suspension and reinstatement to the ISU women’s tennis team. She also provided text messages from ISU athletic coaches and trainers to corroborate her claims of negligence and harassment.
 
At the time of the complaint, the ISU women’s tennis team only had two African-American players on its roster, Erin Freeman and Liera Bender. The report alleged that both student-athletes were subjected to racial discrimination orchestrated by the women’s tennis coaching staff.
 
In August 2018, ISU settled the OCR compliant with Freeman for $100,000 (Rohlfing, 2018).
 
Title IX and Title VI Violations
 
The Office of Civil Rights serves to enforce federal civil rights laws in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the Department of Education. Iowa State University is subjected to this law because the institution receives federal funding.
 
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in part states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal assistance”.
 
In addition, Title VI, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq., prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.
 
The allegations underlying Freeman’s OCR complaint depicted a hostile educational environment supposedly formed by the ISU tennis coaches and ISU athletic leaders. Moreover, Freeman ascertained that Jaime Pollard the ISU Director of Athletics and Calli Sanders, Senior Associate Athletic Director both declined to intervene on her behalf which led to further acts of bullying and harassment from the women’s tennis coaching staff. According to Freeman this violated Title IX.
 
Although in violation of Title VI, the claim alleged the ISU women’s tennis coaching staff developed a hostile environment for Freeman and Bender solely due to race.
 
In the OCR complaint, Freeman sought relief from emotional distress due to alleged civil rights violations she suffered while being a member of the ISU women’s tennis team. The claims of sexual and racial discrimination were commingled with allegations of bullying and harassment.
 
On April 11, 2018 Freeman was suspended indefinitely from the women’s tennis team. During her suspension, Freeman’s athletic scholarship was honored, however, she did not have access to the ISU tennis center and was omitted from all tennis team activities.
 
Included in Freeman’s OCR report was the suspension letter written by Dr. Calli Sanders which cited Freeman’s behavior as a key factor in her suspension. More specifically, Sanders reported that six members of the women’s tennis team contacted her in reference to Freeman’s behavior towards them and the coaches. Explicitly, the letter states “your teammates allege that you are disrespectful to the coaching staff and that your behavior when you are around the tennis team is negative and so detrimental to their experiences as student-athletes at Iowa State University that they took it upon themselves to reach out to the administration to seek our help.” In response, to her suspension, Donald M. Jackson, Esq was retained on behalf of Erin Freeman on April 26, 2018.
 
Closely after this date, ISU conducted an internal investigation of Freeman’s claims against the team’s coaching staff. Freeman was not interviewed by ISU, however, student-athletes on the team were questioned regarding the claim. On May 8, 2018 Erin Freeman was reinstated to the ISU women’s tennis team.
 
Claims of Negligence Against Olga Elkin
 
The OCR claim also identified coach Olga Elkin as a key aggressor in the racially hostile environment. In fact, Freeman claimed that Elkin’s bullying behavior was typically geared toward herself and the other African-American student-athlete, Liera Bender.
 
In addition, Freeman accused Elkin of negligence when the coach breached a duty of care during a trip to Daytona Beach, Florida in which Freeman was left by the coach in an unknown area. According to the claim, during the Florida trip Freeman had an academic assignment which required her to visit the campus of Bethune Cookman College, a Historically Black College (HBCU). She asserted that while traveling with Elkin, the coach refused to take her to the HBCU campus and instead dropped her off at a location one mile away from the campus. Freeman alleged this incident subjected her to harm and deprived her an educational opportunity. Moreover, the incident supported Freeman’s claims of negligence against Elkin who exhibited a failure to exercise reasonable care in fulfilling her duties as an athletic coach.
 
A breach of duty occurs when a person acts in a negligent manner. For example, leaving a student-athlete unattended in an unfamiliar environment. In reference to this report, negligence is a failure to provide standard duty of care. Athletic coaches have a duty to provide standard care to their student-athletes. Hypothetically, if Freeman was injured while left unattended by Elkin and her injury was directly related to the coach’s breach of duty, Elkin could have been held liable for negligence.
 
Moreover, the OCR compliant also outlines subjective treatment Freeman received due to a chronic knee injury. According to Freeman she was subjected to harsh criticism for this injury from the women’s tennis coaching staff as well as the ISU Training staff.
 
Collusion to Remove Freeman from the Tennis Team
 
The OCR complaint also addresses allegations of collusion amongst the ISU athletic leadership, women’s tennis coaching staff, and student-athletes to remove Freeman from the team. Allegedly a “secret meeting” was orchestrated by coach Elkin and a member of the ISU training staff with a goal of getting Freeman removed from the team. According to Freeman, she learned of the “secret meeting” through inadvertently receiving the group text messages which she provided in her OCR compliant.
 
Further Freeman stated the “secret meeting” opposed Sanders’ declaration of the women’s tennis student-athletes meeting with her on their own accord and contrarily supports her allegation of collusion amongst the ISU athletic leadership and women’s tennis team, to have her removed from the team.
 
Moreover, Freeman stated the racially motivated conspiracy to have her removed from the team was supported by Bender’s absence from the “secret meeting”. Hence since both African- American tennis players were excluded from the meeting, Freeman reported her racial discrimination claim was substantiated.
 
Further, Freeman claimed her removal from the team was aligned to a meeting between her parents and Elkin in which Freeman’s parents questioned the coach for leaving Freeman unattended during the team’s trip to Florida. It was claimed that the “secret meeting” happened after Elkin’s meeting with Freeman’s parents.
 
Settlement
 
In August 2018, ISU paid Freeman a lump sum of $66,666.67 and $33,333.33 in legal fees for her attorney. Further, the settlement outlined an agreement between ISU and Freeman which restricts the former ISU tennis player from seeking press coverage in reference to the settlement. In addition, the settlement absolved ISU and the state of Iowa of liability and dismissed the Office of Civil Rights complaint (Rohlfing, 2018).
 
In addition, Freeman agreed to voluntarily withdraw from participation on the ISU women’s tennis team (Rohlfing, 2018).
 
As of November 2018, Liera Bender remains a member of the ISU women’s tennis team. In addition, Jaime Pollard and Calli Sanders have retained their leadership positions with the ISU athletic department. However, the tennis staff, including Olga Elkin, no longer holds its coaching positions with the team.
 
Other Student-Athlete Claims of Racial Discrimination Against ISU
 
In 2016, another African-American, female student-athlete Nikki Moody alleged racial discrimination against ISU. In the Moody claim, the former women’s basketball student-athletes alleged racial discrimination in a lawsuit against the Cyclones head women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly and the state of Iowa.
 
Similar to the Freeman complaint, Moody also accused her ISU coaches of fostering a racially hostile environment which hindered her academic and athletic performance (Flowers, 2016). In 2017, the Moody case was settled for $60,000 (Peterson, 2017).
 
References
 
Flowers, C.L. (2016). Former Women’s Basketball Star Files Civil Rights Law Suit Against Iowa State University. Sport Litigation Alert. Volume 13, Issue 12. Hackney Publications 
 
Peterson, R. (2017, June 1). Nikki Moody, attorneys to get $60K in settlement with Iowa State. Retrieved from, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/sports/college/iowa-state/cyclone-insider/2017/06/01/nikki-moody-bill-fennelly-iowa-state-settlement/363711001/
 
Rohlfing, N. (2018, September 30). ISU reaches $100,000 settlement with former tennis player. Retrieved from, http://www.iowastatedaily.com/sports/tennis/iowa-state-erin-freeman-settlement-lawsuit/article_f00a3e24-c502-11e8-8da9-8fa7c3c63fb0.html
 
Courtney L. Flowers, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Texas Southern University. Her research examines the racial and gendered barriers that embody Title IX policies and practices in the interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic systems. 
 
Dwalah Fisher, Ed.D. is the Chair of the Health, Kinesiology, & Sport Studies department and the Assistant Athletic Director/ Senior Woman Administrator for Texas Southern University. Dr. Fisher also serves as the Title IX Deputy Coordinator for Athletics at Texas Southern University.