By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – At least Gary Barta didn’t try to sugar coat it or provide spin.
Iowa’s Athletic Director looked directly at the media on Thursday and admitted what seemed obvious:
The University of Iowa will become the first Power Five school to have women’s wrestling mostly because it had no other choice.
If Iowa hadn’t agreed to add women’s wrestling, it would’ve faced an ongoing Title IX lawsuit that was filed by four female members of the UI swimming and diving team, accusing UI of violating Title IX by not offering equal athletic opportunities for men and women.
The lawsuit was field after Iowa had announced the elimination of four sports, including women’s swimming and diving, due to financial shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The women’s swimming and diving team has since been reinstated, while the three men’s sports that were eliminated – tennis, gymnastics and swimming and diving – appear to have no chance of being reinstated.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette also reported on Thursday that Iowa had reached a settlement with the female student-athletes, and that agreement was among the reasons UI Athletics announced it’s adding a women’s wrestling team.
Some will say that Iowa is doing the right thing by being at the forefront of the push for gender equity in college athletics, while others will say that Iowa is only taking this historic step as a way to avoid losing another costly lawsuit.
Barta, more or less, said that during Thursday’s press conference in which he and Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands addressed the media.
“I’ll just tell you, this is the bottom line, were it not for COVID we wouldn’t have cut sports,” Barta said. “Were it not for the Title IX lawsuit, I wasn’t ready to add women’s wrestling yet. 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.”
The argument against cutting the three men’s sports is that Iowa panicked and acted too swiftly instead of trying to figure a way for those sports to survive.
Fair or not, the decision to add women’s wrestling will fuel the belief with some that Iowa acted prematurely and hastily in cutting any sports.
But it also makes sense that Iowa would be the first Power Five school to offer women’s wrestling due to Iowa’s rich tradition in men’s wrestling.
The sport of women’s wrestling has been growing in popularity in certain parts of the country, including Iowa.
Combine that with Iowa’s new wrestling facilities, and with data that says more women are attending college than men these days, and Iowa has a nice and convenient way to deliver its historic message.
“Before COVID we had been watching the explosive growth of girls and women’s wrestling,” Barta said. “We had been keeping an eye on it. Frankly, Tom was in my ear three, four, five years ago saying, C’mon, boss, let’s go. Let’s get women’s wrestling added. We were not ready to do that yet, but we were watching it.
“The other trend we were watching, I just got back from a national meeting yesterday, last night, but the other trend we were watching three, four, five years ago was the trend where more women are going to college than men. That’s a national trend. We were seeing it on our own campus.”
Tom Brands emphasized Iowa’s position of being a trailblazer for women’s wrestling. He compared Thursday’s announcement to when former Hawkeye Simon Roberts became the first black wrestler to win a national title in 1957.
“There is a lot of reasons why you do it,” Brands said. “Those reasons are because they’re just as hungry as these guys are to win championships. There is no separation. The hunger, desire and drive, now you get to do it at an institution where other big-time institutions are going to follow and we’re the trailblazer. We’ve been the trailblazer before. We have the first black national champion, Simon Roberts. That’s important.
“It’s not, Oh, they get their chance now. It’s, they are going to be going to school to enjoy the goods of college life, which is the do it right part. They’re going to be going to a big-time college to get a degree, that’s the graduate part. They’re going to be going to a program that is going to have the best facilities, the best coaching and the best environment, the best fan base. That’s the win part.”
Brands is right in saying there is a lot of reasons to add women’s wrestling at Iowa, the biggest reason being that women should have the same opportunities to compete in athletics as men.
To believe otherwise is just being stubborn, outdated and narrow-minded.
But again, the biggest factor behind Iowa’s decision to add women’s wrestling is the fear of losing yet another costly and embarrassing discrimination lawsuit. Iowa did what many feel is the right thing, but acted mostly to protect its image and financial standing.
And while it’s reasonable to think that Iowa would’ve added women’s wrestling at some point, the only reason it’s happening now is out of fear of losing another potentially costly lawsuit, and concern with the public relationship damage that would come from it.
Remember, this is the same Iowa Athletic Department that in 2017 had to pay $6.5 million to end a legal battle with former UI administrator Jane Meyer and former Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, both of whom had filed discrimination lawsuits.
You feel for the student-athletes whose sports were eliminated at Iowa because imagine how they, and their parents, must feel today.
This was a historic day for Iowa athletics, but sometimes, history is made more from fear than from being noble and fair.