Why The Iowa Field Hockey Title IX Complaint Is A Huge Deal

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta is at the center of a recent Title IX claim against the school for its treatment of former coach Tracey Griesbaum. Matthew Holst/Getty Images

In what may be an unprecedented discrimination claim, four Iowa field hockey players have filed a Title IX complaint against the school.

Two things make this case unique. Three of the four student-athletes -- sophomore Chandler Ackers, sophomore Jessy Silfer, junior Natalie Cafone -- are active players on the team; senior Dani Hemeon just finished her Hawkeyes career. Rarely will active student-athletes file a claim against the school still paying for their education for fear of jeopardizing their scholarship status. The players' attorney, Tom Newkirk, isn't sure if there has ever been a similar case, and national research on Title IX complaints is hard to find.

Also, the complaint hinges on a nuanced interpretation of gender discrimination, one not frequently discussed -- at least publicly -- in college athletics. The players claim that their former coach, Tracey Griesbaum, was fired for using the exact same coaching methods employed by male coaches at Iowa, and that by firing her, the school compromised their ability to win and robbed them of the opportunity to be challenged by a demanding coach. The women go on to assert that this alleged gender discrimination "creates harm to the female coach, of course, but it undermines the right of female student athletes to receive a similar experience to male student athletes simply because of their sex and/or the sex of their coach."

Ackers, Silfer, Cafone and Hemeon are arguing that male coaches are offered more freedom to test players physically and emotionally. When reached for comment about the Title IX complaint, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta and a representative of Iowa's general counsel said in a joint statement that the school "has not received any notice of such a complaint nor its contents," which was filed on Jan. 28 to the U.S. Department of Education as well as the Chicago branch of the Office of Civil Rights.

The school has repeatedly asserted there was no wrongdoing in the termination of Griesbaum, and declined multiple requests from espnW for comment on Griesbaum.

All of the women said they understand that it's unlikely Griesbaum will be reinstated, even if the Office of Civil Rights decides their claim has merit and opens an investigation.

So, then, why? Why start down this path, pitting themselves against the very school they still represent every day on the field?

"Because the issue is larger than just us," Ackers said.

Hemeon graduates in May and said she plans on entering the coaching field. "And seeing how these female coaches are being treated and held to a different standard, it's daunting for me as I try to start my career," she said. "It's really hard to see."

The Iowa players said they believe that the protection offered by Title IX should cover their claim -- even if it's unprecedented. "Just because we're women doesn't mean we don't want to be coached just as hard as the men," Silfer said. "Tracey was as hard as any of the male coaches, and that's what we were here for: to be pushed as hard we could be pushed, to have someone get everything out of us."

Iowa fired Griesbaum on Aug. 4, just days before the start of what would have been her 15th season with the program. The details surrounding Griesbaum's firing are still mysterious. Just two weeks before abruptly terminating the successful coach, Barta had held several meetings with university staff, saying Griesbaum would remain the head coach after an internal inquiry -- sparked by student-athletes claims of verbal abuse -- revealed she hadn't violated university policy.

Griesbaum had won 169 games in 14 seasons, with six trips to the NCAA tournament. She was 42-20 from 2011 to 2013.

The complaint also takes aim at the Iowa athletic department for what the players say is a pattern of firing female head coaches. Griesbaum was the fifth female head coach to be let go in the past five years.

The field hockey players make the following five assertions about how sex and gender stereotypes have harmed student-athletes at Iowa:

• That the school treats complaints by female athletes differently than complaints by male athletes;

• That the school investigates female coaches differently than male coaches;

• That the school uses different practices and standards when investigating female coaches;

• That the school permits male coaches to use coaching methods that female coaches are not permitted;

• That the school "generally holds female coaches to a higher or different standard than male coaches."

The complaint dives into complicated questions about what has happened at Iowa -- and the mere asking of them, so publicly, could cause a ripple effect in athletic departments far outside of Iowa City. Questions such as: How can gender discrimination exist if female student-athletes make the initial complaints? Or if another woman replaces the fired female coach? Or if female administrators are part of the decision-making process?

On the first issue, the student-athletes write in their complaint: "The University's stereotype-motivated reaction to a minority group of females on the team who are emotionally upset by the methods of the female coach also harms the females who complained. It enables stereotypes about them as well as the coach and completely undermines the experience of the entire team. It also does nothing to protect the females from actual abuse or harm. Finally, it also harms the male student-athletes who may desire to report actual abuse or harm, but are dismissed because of gender stereotypes that associate their reporting with being more like women than men."

And on how gender bias can be present even though Griesbaum was replaced by a female assistant coach, the players write: "We all should know that stereotypes can easily result in one type of female being preferred over another and indeed, that the concept is at the very heart of a stereotype or double standard. One minute the 'softer' female is preferred and/or the 'harder' female is no longer welcome, but in each case the opposite can be true. The point is that the administration is making choices about the type of women they require, rather than the type of person."

The four student-athletes said blaming the two teammates who made the initial complaint would be a simple solution to feeling better, but it wouldn't address the overarching problem that they believe exists for female coaches in the NCAA. "I think it's easy to pit women against women and be upset at each other," Silfer said. "But we feel that if a male student-athlete brought this complaint, it wouldn't have been listened to."

The next step will be determined by the Chicago branch of the Office of Civil Rights, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. The OCR will decide whether to launch an investigation; no specific timetable exists for that decision.

"We had no choice but to go this far," Silfer said. "Because nobody else was listening or taking us seriously."

Well, they're going to have to listen now. And so is a nation of female athletes and coaches.