When a successful University of Iowa field hockey coach was abruptly fired last summer, speculation swirled about gender discrimination. People were on the lookout for a lawsuit, as the coach, Tracey Griesbaum, spoke in the following months about the double standards female coaches face.
Nearly six months later, the legal challenge has arrived -- but not exactly as expected. Griesbaum still hasn’t filed a complaint, but four of her former players did.
The complaint filed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 alleges that Griesbaum was fired because of behavior -- she was demanding of team members -- considered improper based on gender stereotypes. Griesbaum was a winning coach with four Big Ten championships under her belt, and by firing her, the women argue, they are being denied a quality coach for reasons that male athletes wouldn’t be. The complaint was filed with the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights.
Four team members -- sophomores Chandler Ackers and Jessy Silfer, junior Natalie Cafone and senior Dani Hemeon -- are accusing the university of violating the federal sex discrimination law. The Office for Civil Rights hasn’t said yet whether it will investigate the claim and has no strict timeline to make a decision.
The university said in a statement Friday that the decision to fire Griesbaum was unrelated to gender. Athletic Director Gary Barta decided to change the program's leadership after an investigation by the university’s Human Resources Department and Office of Equal Opportunity found that players described a team environment of fear, intimidation or mistreatment by Griesbaum, according to the statement.
The Title IX complaint alleges that the university engages in different practices when investigating female coaches, and that it allows men to engage in different coaching methods and treatment of athletes than it does the coaches of women's teams. Des Moines-based attorney Tom Newkirk is representing Griesbaum and the four players, and his office released the first seven pages of the 27-page complaint last week.
Female coaches are expected to be mothering and nurturing while also coaching, and they have to deal with that bias from both men and women, according to the complaint. That means complaints from a female athlete about a female coach can still be caused by gender bias. The university's investigation into Griesbaum was spurred by some players' complaints that she was a bully.
Title IX "certainly means female student-athletes should not be coddled or dismissed as secondary to male student-athletes based on outdated or patronizing views of the role of women,” the complaint states.
Even if Griesbaum did engage in the behavior that’s alleged by the university, so what, Newkirk asked. Her level of swearing, aggression or intimidation wouldn't rise anywhere near the level of what’s seen daily on the sidelines of men’s programs at Iowa and across the country, the complaint says.
"Tracey wasn’t permitted to coach like a man,” he said.
Title IX complaints always have approached the law from numbers-based arguments, Newkirk said. Complaints stem from unequal scholarships, team opportunities or facilities.
“It’s always dealt with the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It’s never dealt with the iceberg underneath the water that rips the hole in the ship.”
The iceberg in this case, Newkirk said, is that certain gender roles and behaviors are ingrained from a young age, and they influence the ways society thinks female coaches should behave and female athletes should be treated.
The four athletes say in the complaint that they tried on three separate occasions to ask the university to investigate whether gender played a role in Griesbaum’s dismissal. But their inquiries led nowhere, according to the complaint. The university counters that it did take the women's concerns seriously.
Female players frequently file complaints about facilities inequities or program cuts. But in this case, the students are stepping into what’s been a highly public, controversial firing, said Kristine Newhall, cofounder of the Title IX Blog and a lecturer at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “They’ve really stepped up to take a stand in a public way and done something that’s policy related by filing this complaint,” she said.
Newhall said it’s time to re-evaluate all coaching styles, because a lot of coaches bring gendered beliefs into the profession. Men, she thinks, have far more room to maneuver their coaching style when they’re coaching women.
Men can choose the disciplinarian and tough love path, or they can choose to be nurturing. In Newhall’s experience, female head coaches are more boxed in. They can’t be seen as too feminine or too nurturing, and so they predominantly follow the disciplinarian model.
But then there’s a cruel catch-22 familiar to all women who enter a male-dominated profession, Newhall said. If female coaches aren't perceived as feminine enough under society’s gendered beliefs, then that, too, can be harmful to their career, as the Iowa complaint tries to suggest.
Neena Chaudhry, director of equal opportunity in athletics at the National Women’s Law Center, said stereotypes can be the basis of Title IX discrimination cases. Standards should be applied evenly to male and female coaches, and the players can certainly make a case that losing their coach was harmful to their athletic performance, Chaudhry said.
She’s eager to see what happens with the complaint because, she says, there's been a concerning trend in recent years of female head coaches losing their jobs. The number of women coaching women’s teams has dropped significantly over the past few decades.
In fact, aside from Griesbaum’s firing, the players’ Title IX complaint points to what it calls a pattern of removing highly qualified female coaches at Iowa. Six female coaches, including Griesbaum, were fired or left the university (some argue forced out) between December 2008 and August 2014.
In response, the university has pointed out that during that same period, there was a turnover of 11 male coaches.
Griesbaum was replaced by a female coach, her longtime assistant. Of the others female coaches who left, their replacements were split between men and women.
Barta said in e-mails just days before Griesbaum was fired that her behavior (which led to the investigation) hadn’t risen to the level of harassment, per university policies, according to articles by ESPN and The Des Moines Register.
Griesbaum’s contract allowed the university to end her employment without cause, according to the university’s statement. Doing so would require a $200,000 payment to Griesbaum, which the university made. The investigation into her behavior was in response to multiple complaints from athletes over several years.
Following her dismissal, though, several former players and fans came out in support for Griesbaum, starting a still-active Facebook page pushing for her to be reinstated.
Since her firing, many advocates for women’s equality in sports have expressed their surprise and disappointment that the controversy is taking place at the University of Iowa. The university was a leader in supporting a strong women’s athletics program and was home to Christine Grant, a pioneer in women’s athletics, who was an athletic director there for 27 years.
Regardless the merits of the students’ allegations, filing a complaint against their own university, especially as underclassmen, shows a lot of courage, said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. Coaches and players often are hesitant to speak out for fear of hurting their chances of being hired or signed elsewhere.
Part of the players' courage might be explained by the strong history of women's athletics at Iowa. But Kane also thinks their decision to file a complaint is a reflection of the influence of more than four decades of Title IX. Female college athletes today grew up in a period where they feel a sense of entitlement to play sports -- that sports belong to women as much as they do men.
“It’s a Title IX mind-set, if you will, that we will not be second-class citizens in sports,” Kane said. “We deserve to be treated the same way male athletes are. If we are not, we will make an issue of it.”
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