The University of Iowa athletics community is still processing the consequences of a $1.4 million verdict handed down by a Polk County jury last week to Jane Meyer, a former athletics official and partner of ousted field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, for gender and sexual orientation discrimination. We've examined the decision, but what happens next?
The UI will appeal the decision, first through post-trial motions in the next two weeks, then through the formal appeals process for a civil lawsuit. The University is likely to ask for a new trial -- a catch-all motion designed to broaden the potential scope of an appeal -- and a remittitur to reduce the damages awarded. Meyer's attorneys have already promised to move for additional damages and attorney fees that could add up to $2 million to the judgment. Regardless of what happens with those motions, an appeal is inevitable.
Generally, appealing a jury verdict is difficult; neither the district court nor the appellate courts want to disrupt a jury verdict absent a finding of error by the judge or inconsistency in the judgment itself. In talking with employment attorneys since the judgment was entered, one issue was raised repeatedly: Meyer's attorney has told reporters that the jury found that the University's actions were "willful," raising the possibility that the award of "back pay" -- lost wages -- could be tripled. But a finding of "willful" conduct generally requires a finding of intent, and finding intentional acts by a corporation or organization -- remember, Gary Barta himself is not a defendant in this case; it's the UI, the Board of Regents, and the State of Iowa as defendants -- is always difficult.
At best, an appeal buys the UI time to try to settle with Meyer, even though such a settlement looks awfully remote at the moment. At worst, it's delaying the inevitable. Either way, it's going to happen.
This is hardly the end. Iowa athletics is embroiled in at least two more lawsuits stemming from the firing of Tracey Griesbaum and reassingment of Meyer. For one, Meyer still has a federal case pending against the UI for violations of Title IX and her First Amendment right to freely associate with her partner. For another, there's Griesbaum's case starting June 5 in the same courthouse as this disaster.
Griesbaum's case, stemming from her sudden termination in August 2014 for what Barta claimed to be the results of a "comprehensive review of the [field hockey] program," is when things will truly get ugly. By all accounts, Griesbaum was a model coach, following Barta's "win, graduate, do it right" mantra, through about July 2014. The entire process leading to her termination -- a review of the field hockey program following player complaints that came back largely clean, a sudden reversal in Barta's thinking on the subject, the decision to fire Griesbaum "without cause" and keep whatever motivated the decision private, Barta's testimony regarding his knowledge of Griesbaum's relationship with Meyer -- was tangential to the Meyer case. It is the entirety of the case in June, along with player allegations and double standards and most of what we've already heard about the athletics department during the Meyer case. Expect video footage of Fran McCaffery slamming a chair. Expect the return of rhabdomyolisis to your vocabulary. It's going to be an airing of grievances the likes of which we will never see again.
Of course, all of this is taking place while federal investigators are looking into Title IX complaints initially made by field hockey players that have since spread to the UI athletics department at large. Can there be equality in facilities when the football program has its own $55 million practice facility that is so dominated by men that the head coach allegedly was upset over an artist's rendering that had women on the practice field? Can there be equality in opportunity when Iowa stashes away 62 female athletes on the rowing team to make its numbers? Do those obvious double standards cited by Griesbaum come into play? Does the Meyer decision?
All of that falls at the feet of Gary Barta, and it may well be too much. University president Bruce Harreld has clearly adapted to his surroundings quickly and has started the process of pinning all of this on an unrelated underling:
Just a day after landmark ruling, University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld will now seek an external review of all UI employment practices— Justin Surrency (@JustinSurrency) May 5, 2017
The "external review" is to start with Iowa athletics, but what the review entails or why it's necessary given what a jury just told him about Iowa's employment practices remains murky. The last time a university president and athletic director were drowning and asked for an "external review," the problem somehow ended up with the UI counsel's office and the Vice President of Student Services.
But Title IX ain't nothing to mess with, and for a University already proposing a 3.8 percent tuition increase to meet reduced state funding, any risk to federal funds is cataclysmic. Having a jury tell the University that its athletic department engages in gender discrimination, then leaving the head of that department in place while the federal government determines whether that jury was right with the sword of Damocles hanging above, would be borderline stupid. This is to say nothing for the fact that, even before any additional damages are added to Meyer's award, Barta has now paid out settlements or judgment topping $2 million to settle scandals ranging from poorly-supervised player workouts to, ironically enough, reverse discrimination, and those don't include the tutor who was trading tickets for adult photos or the staffer who "lost" $66,000 in revenue from football parking.
Performance never much mattered to Barta's continued employment; his programs never really won much, but Barta always had his purpose as a shield to President Mason. He likely can't shield Harreld from the thermonuclear blast coming from Washington D.C., though, and so he's no longer of use. Whether at the end of the "external review" or before, Barta has to be gone, and it has to be for cause. And yes, that probably means another lawsuit.
Aside from procedural and logical certainties, we can't be sure what happens from here. If Iowa wins on appeal or quietly disposes of its remaining problems, this could be a much-needed reset of the athletics department and little else. If Griesbaum lights Iowa athletics up next month and/or significant Title IX violations are found, all hell breaks loose. The Meyer decision is the first full-scale conflagration, but Iowa athletics has been on fire for almost three years now over these issues. This probably won't be the final inferno.