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University of Iowa reaches settlement with female athletes in Title IX lawsuit

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL)- Four female athletes at the University of Iowa who sued the university over alleged Title IX violations have reached a settlement agreement with the university.

Sage Ohlensehlen, Christina Kaufman, Alexa Puccini, and Kelsey Drake filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the University of committing Title IX violations after it cut the swimming and diving program last August. At the time, the Iowa Athletics Department estimated a financial deficit of $75 million brought on by the COVID pandemic.

"It was hard enough when the team was first cut. That was the worst day of my life," former Swimming and Dive team captain Sage Ohlensehlen said. "Then it just spiraled from there. You thought that was the worst, but then it just keeps getting worse."

The lawsuit challenged the University's failure to provide equitable athletic opportunities for female students and fair treatment of female student-athletes, including eliminating the women's swimming and diving program. In October 2020, athletes Miranda Vermeer and Abbie Lyman joined the lawsuit.

For Ohlensehlen, adding her name to the lawsuit wasn't an easy decision.

"Being somebody who has grown up, loving Iowa and wanting nothing more but to swim for Iowa to compete for that school, making the decision to sue was just life-changing," she said. "Being somebody who has so many close friends who are Hawkeye fans, I lost a lot of friends, and I had relatives say rude things to me. I had a lot of support, but it was obvious that there were people in my life who did not support me."

Ohlensehlen said she knew what she needed to do despite the pushback and added her name to the lawsuit with little hesitation. She did not even call her parents first.

"I knew that there was a cause that needed fighting for, and I have always prided myself in being somebody who steps up when something is challenging to do," she said. "There was never that question in my head like should I do this?"

The plaintiffs said the University of Iowa has engaged in a continuing pattern and practice of discrimination against women based on sex in intercollegiate athletics in violation of Title IX. They also asked the University to provide their team with funding and staffing benefits in proportion to their intercollegiate team status.

The lawsuit specifically cited three Title IX violations:

  1. First, that the University has failed to meet any of the three criteria for compliance with Title IX's equal participation requirement.
  2. Secondly, that the University's failure to treat female athletes substantially equally with respect to athletic financial assistance, equipment and supplies, tutoring, locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities, housing and dining, and recruitment violates Title IX's equal treatment requirement.
  3. Lastly, that the University of Iowa, according to data from 2018-19, provided $6,709,299 in athletic-related aid to men's athletic programs and $6,399,154 to women's athletic programs, a ratio of 51% for men and 49% for women, which also violates Title IX's equal treatment requirement.

"Prior to discontinuing the sports, when it comes to Title IX, we’ve been engaging with experts all along the way. Many of you might recall we had the Office of Civil Rights on our campus for about four years. Their findings were non-conclusive. They didn’t find anything where we were in violation," University of Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said on Thursday. "As we were considering cutting sports, we brought in a Title IX expert. That expert confirmed we were in compliance with Title IX before we made the decision to cut the sports, and that Title IX expert confirmed (with) the sports we were cutting, we would be in compliance with Title IX."

In December 2020, a federal judge granted a temporary injunction to prevent the University of Iowa from dropping the women's swimming and diving team in the 2021-2022 school year.

"Particularly once the court issued the injunction, that was pretty clear we thought that both the University of Iowa's view of the law and ours could not both be right," Jim Larew, the attorney representing the female athletes, said. "At least, this judge felt that pledges have a strong case. If it went to trial, we would have likely prevailed."

On Thursday, as part of the settlement, the University of Iowa became the first NCAA Division I, Power Five conference institution to add a women's wrestling.

"Were it not for the Title IX lawsuit, I wasn’t ready to add women’s wrestling yet," Barta said. "But I can tell you that why the timing may be challenging, the decision is awesome. We’re excited about it. We’re ready to go forward."

In February, the University of Iowa reinstated its women's swimming and diving team.

While the University of Iowa disputed the claims made in the lawsuit but decided to reinstate the program regardless of the lawsuit's outcome voluntarily, university leaders said it was because it was in the best interests of students, coaches, and the school. While the swim team is currently a shell of what it once was, Ohlensehlen says she is confident the team will rebound stronger.

"The girls that are on the team right now are awesome people and they are some of my my best friends," she said. "I know that they're going to they're going to do really well and they're going to help take this team and bring it back to what it once was."

Larew said negotiations between the two sides have been ongoing for months. The settlement terms were not finalized until "shortly before" Barta's press conference on Thursday announcing the addition of women's wrestling.

According to Larew, the settlement terms require the University to commit to the program's long-term success beyond restoring it.

The University also agreed to decrease the number of varsity spots on its rowing team. It will put a cap at 75 women for Title Nine compliance counting purposes. In the past, Larew said it has been as high as 90 or 104.

"We have contended that, given the limitations on the number of boats that can race, and there is only a reasonable size of members on the team," Larew said. "In recent years, it has grown so large that there are a lot of women weren't getting a genuine varsity women's athletic experience."

By decreasing the number of positions on the rowing team, there will be more spots for other women's sports like wrestling.

"There ought to be the creation of one or more new teams of people who are benefiting from the coaching relationship," Larew said. "If you only have four coaches on the team, you want to have only a limited number of members of the team so they might not get the coaching experience and camaraderie with their peers."

The final part of the agreement required the University to hire an independent monitor to oversee Title IX compliance. The University will pay for the monitor, but that person will work outside the school and produce an annual public report on compliance.

"The actions they've taken to resolve the issues shows it has been resolved the way that's in the interest of both the parties and themselves," Larew said. "I think it bodes well for the University of Iowa, which by this action has re-established itself as a cutting edge leader in women's sports."

Some of the girls who filed the lawsuit have now left the University of Iowa. It was a big reason why Ohlensehlen packed up and moved south to study law at Southern Methodist University.

"As a lawyer future lawyer, I'm gonna say I won my first case," she said.

Ohlensehlen said she could not have pictured a better outcome from the lawsuit and described it as a "true win" for all involved.

"I'm really glad that through the efforts I went through this year and, no matter how hard it was, I was able to make a difference in the world make a difference for young women in the state of Iowa and beyond and give them an opportunity that I had to compete for a division one school, which was life-altering, life-changing and has had such a positive impact on my life," she said. "I'm so glad I was able to get the opportunity to other people who deserve it."