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Rants & Reason

Hawkeyes settle discrimination cases! Question is, So what?

6/1/2017

After her $1.43 million award from the University of Iowa on five counts dealing with discrimination, former Senior Associate Athletic Director Jane Meyer was asked what the verdict portended for Hawkeye Athletic Director Gary Barta.

“This is bigger than that,” she answered, because the case may have an impact across the male-dominated world of sports administration.

Her answer likely remained the same after the University settled both Meyer’s case, with no appeal, and one pending by her partner, fired field hockey coach Tracy Griesbaum for a total of $6.5 million.

“May” is the operative word about the impact because worse episodes at Penn State, North Carolina and Baylor suggest that — in the eyes of boosters — winning teams will overshadow scandals.

When the unanimous rulings by eight jurors — five women and three men — came down on each count, sportswriters and some covering the trial said they “didn’t see this coming.”

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Perhaps that reaction should be dismissed as coming from folks who often are cheerleaders for coaches and athletic directors. But, Russell Lovell, a retired Drake law professor well versed on discrimination cases and jury trials, differed. After all, he observed, UI has a longstanding, well-deserved reputation as a leader in equality.

He pointed out such cases are tough to win, what with the difficulties and costs in bringing such suits, a 30-year federal trend favoring pre-trial dismissals, and a dearth of attorneys with the expertise and willingness to represent plaintiffs. Consequently, Lovell said, civil rights attorneys who take on such cases deserve recognition because of the years of involvement that might follow with the question of appropriate payment up in the air.

When Meyer and her attorneys — Tom Newkirk and Jill Zwagerman — won, reactions varied.

A news story said Meyer was awarded “more than eight times” her annual salary of $176,000. Others might note that for all her emotional distress and damage to her career, Meyer received less than a third of the annual salary of Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz (reported by The Des Moines Register at $4.825 million as of last June).

Likewise, testimony was that a cloud was lifted over athletic department meetings after Meyer lost her job in 2014 — meetings were again fun. Others might interpret that as the good old boys singing, “Ding Dong, the wicked witch is dead.”

Puzzling was the lack of a paper trail to counter the good reviews Meyer had received from Barta’s predecessor, Bob Bowlsby, when she was his senior associate director from 2001 to 2006.

Regarding working with Meyer, Ferentz did testify, “There was a lot of turbulence;” wrestling coach Tom Brands said, “It was a mess.”

Baseball coach Rick Heller said he wanted the outfield fences to be moved in 8 to 10 feet as part of a new stadium project. He said Meyer shut him out of dealing with architects, however, and the new outfield fence in left-center and right-center fields was built even farther away!

But no coach nor Meyer left a paper trail expressing such concerns as: “We should for the good of the department and the University work together better than we have.”

Hard to figure why highly regarded coaches hadn’t stood up to the Meyer they testified against. Post-trial, a juror told the Cedar Rapids Gazette the coaches’ complaints were “petty” in the context of the case.

Gene Taylor was hired to replace Meyer and also oversee information technology (IT) operations in athletics. He was paid $70,000 more because of those added duties, the university told jurors.

After the trial, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported an audit showed the IT operation had serious accounting woes. (The university did not disclose the February audit at the May trial.) Taylor is now the athletic director at Kansas State.

Like most people, I don’t understand all that went on at Iowa.

But, Lovell said, “It is for jurors to decide issues of credibility…trial judges and lawyers will tell you jurors get it right in the vast majority of cases.”

So while I might not understand, the odds are the jurors did. And perhaps the university will. ♦

strentz21Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants & Reason column for CITYVIEW.

 

 

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