The Gender Discrimination Lawsuit That Could Change College Sports Forever

Members of Iowa's women's field hockey team have brought forth a Title IX suit that could send a shockwave through the NCAA.

by Kevin Trahan
Feb 16 2015, 2:02pm

Image via WikiMedia Commons

This is the age of activism in both collegiate athletics and the fight against gender discrimination, and in Iowa, both issues are coming to a head at the same time.

Four former and current University of Iowa field hockey players have filed a Title IX complaint against their own school—the school providing their scholarships—for what they say are actions of gender discrimination, sparked by the firing of their successful coach, Tracey Griesbaum, last August.

Read More: Meet the Satirist Ruining Berlin's Olympic Bid

Griesbaum initially came under review in July after some players complained of verbally abusive behavior, and after first deciding that the coach would not be let go, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta fired her without cause when, as her lawyer Tom Newkirk said, she refused to change her coaching style.

Many players were outraged with Griesbaum's termination from the beginning, but in February, the four players—sophomores Chandler Ackers and Jessy Silfer, junior Natalie Cafone, and senior Dani Hemeon—took action in a way that's virtually unprecedented in college athletics, attempting to hold their school responsible for Griesbaum's dismissal.

Indeed, this is no ordinary Title IX complaint. While Griesbaum's firing plays a central role in the case, the overall purpose is much bigger, as Newkirk and the four women attempt to take on the systemic inequality faced by women in athletics and the double standard of male and female coaches, who are supposed to be equal under Title IX law.

Tracey Greisbaum. Image via Iowa University

"College athletics remains an old-school and sexist kind of structure," Newkirk said. "What we're trying to do is expose how gender bias causes perception about women, particularly women in college athletics."

The premise of the complaint, Newkirk said, is that at Iowa, female coaches are not given the same ability to discipline their players as male coaches. This, he argues, stems from a mindset where we expect men to be tough and aggressive, particularly in sports, while women are expected to be nurturing and motherly. But that standard isn't fair, and it's not the standard that male coaches are held to when their strategies of discipline and coaching are evaluated.

"Is Tracey Griesbaum permitted to go over and yell at her players?Is she allowed to use foul language? Is she allowed to throw a water bottle?" Newkirk asked, while adding that it is "not likely" Griesbaum participated in that kind of behavior.

That's a strange way to file a complaint—arguing that yes, Griesbaum might be a demanding coach, but it shouldn't matter. Because if she was a man, this likely would have been a non-issue, and because many female athletes believe that if their coach isn't allowed to yell at them, they're not afforded the same opportunities that male athletes are—opportunities that are guaranteed to them under Title IX. Ackers, who came to Iowa all the way from White Haven, Pennsylvania to play field hockey, wanted to be pushed by her coach when she got to Iowa City, and she said the school's firing of Griesbaum denied her that opportunity.

"Just because a woman coach is hard on an athlete doesn't mean that's inappropriate," Ackers said. "We're here for the same reason as men. We want to be pushed beyond our beliefs."

At Iowa, it appears that the line of what is "appropriate" differs between men's and women's sports. While Griesbaum's firing seems to be more due to her refusal to change her ways than any specific actions, the university has not fired male coaches for actions that Newkirk believes would have caused much more alarm had they come from a woman.

Basketball coach Fran McCaffery has routinely displayed aggressive anger on the basketball court—including crushing a chair and kicking the scorer's table—but has not been disciplined for those actions. Barta said that the chair incident crossed the line, but gave McCaffery his complete support. Newkirk does not believe a female coach would be afforded the same support. McCaffery is also known to get in his players' faces, and there's even a fake Twitter account dedicated to his anger.

Perhaps more damning is the handling of football coach Kirk Ferentz. In 2011, 13 Iowa football players were sent to the hospital with rhabdomyolysis after a workout that was too strenuous. A former player is suing the school because of the incident. However, after an internal investigation, the university gave a vote of confidence to Ferentz and strength coach Chris Doyle, who is widely regarded as one of the best and smartest strength coaches in the nation.

"These investigations are definitely different than the investigation done on Tracey," Silfer said.

To be clear, this complaint isn't about holding male coaches accountable for their actions, and it's not saying that Ferentz should be fired or McCaffery should be calmer on the court. Frankly, Newkirk is not interested in setting the line. He just wants the line to be the same for male and female coaches, and he thinks these incidents prove that it is not.

"The hard part of it is breaking through the double standards that we have," he said. "We apply a label that she's mean, that she's a bully, etc.

"The label wouldn't stick," he said, with Kirk Ferentz.

This is not an issue unique to college athletics, and that's part of what makes the complaint so interesting in the first place; it's trying to fix a universal problem within the context of athletics. The same kind of discrimination happens in business, and a recent New York Times article illustrated that male executives are rewarded for speaking up, while female executives are discouraged from doing the same thing.

Male executives who spoke more often than their peers were rewarded with 10 percent higher ratings of competence. When female executives spoke more than their peers, both men and women punished them with 14 percent lower ratings.

This bias can become pervasive in a boys' club like collegiate athletics, just like it is in the business world. It would be a jump to call Barta a sexist for his choices, because Barta might not believe he is out to hurt women at all. However, that doesn't mean there isn't a different set of standards for men and women, both at Iowa and across the country, when those in charge set expectations.

"(The point is) not necessary to believe the man is a sexist," Newkirk said. "You don't have to be a sexist to be harming people because of gender."

That harm can be illustrated by certain patterns in college athletics. The most troubling pattern to Deborah Larkin, the CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, is a trend of very successful female coaches being fired when they reach a certain age, often times when they ask for improved compensation or support. She also believes sexual orientation is often involved.

There is some troubling data regarding women in coaching, particularly that the percentage of women-to-men coaching women's teams has decreased from 90 percent to 43 percent since 1972, according to Larkin. But mostly, the evidence is anecdotal, which makes it more difficult to present, both in the court of public opinion and to the Office of Civil Rights.

"For some people to get their minds wrapped around it, it takes a little bit of time and extra brain input," Ackers said.

The four field hockey players and their supporters believe there is evidence of this pattern at Iowa. In the past five years, five female coaches have been let go. Player reviews were cited as the reason for Griesbaum's dismissal, but Newkirk claims that player reviews in the golf program help make his case: While both the men's and women's golf coaches were given negative reviews, he said, only the female coach was fired.

"There's always a reason," Larkin said, but she doesn't believe it's always a good or consistent reason.

While Barta was not available for an interview due to potential litigation, and the university's Title IX office did not return a request for comment, the athletic department provided a statement about the claims, stating that Barta has not held women to a different standard.

Gary Barta holds all of his staff, student-athletes, and coaches accountable to the values of "Win. Graduate. Do it Right." Six positions as head coach held by women have turned over during Barta's 10 years as director of athletics at the UI; 11 head coach positions held by men have turned over during the same period.

This is where Newkirk, Larkin, and other supporters of the field hockey players argue that the numbers do not tell the whole story. Two of the most recent men's team firings, baseball coach Jack Dahm and basketball coach Todd Lickliter, underachieved in the win column. Had Griesbaum's program been as stagnant as Lickliter's, this wouldn't have been an issue, but her program was on the rise and among the best in the country.

Lickliter was fired for having a poor record, but would he still be at the school if he showed signs of verbal abuse and still won games? Newkirk believes the answer to that question is obvious, especially given the school's treatment of McCaffery and Ferentz.

Making that distinction between performance expectations and expectations relating to gender roles may prove difficult for Newkirk and the players he represents, and he admits the complaint is more abstract than a standard Title IX case where a sexual assault or specific incident is addressed. However, he thinks he has one weapon on his side, despite having to compete with murky data.

"It's [a problem] that can be proved by social science, by common sense," he said.

It remains to be seen whether "common sense" regarding a broad, systemic problem will be enough to make sweeping changes, and no matter what is done, gender bias will continue to be part of college sports, just as it continues to be part of the rest of the world.

But regardless of what happens, four athletes just sued their school over what they believe is an illegal and consistent practice of gender bias. And a moment that unprecedented just might be enough to spark changes and awareness in the male-dominated culture of college athletics.