On a spring afternoon in 2014, University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta called field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum into his office. She arrived early as always and settled into a black swivel chair at the conference table.
The way Griesbaum remembers it, one of Barta’s associates slid a stapled packet across the table that read: “University of Iowa Anti-Harassment Policy.” A player had come forward, Barta told her, and accused Griesbaum of being verbally abusive. The university was launching an investigation.
Over three meetings in a windowless conference room, investigators asked Griesbaum questions such as, “Did you ever drop the F-bomb in front of your athletes?” and “Did you ever tell a student athlete: ‘Watching you play field hockey makes me physically ill?’”
The accusations shocked the campus. Griesbaum had been the head coach at Iowa for 14 years and spent another eight years as assistant. During her years as head coach, Griesbaum led the team to four Big Ten titles and 12 winning seasons. The claims didn’t match her spotless reputation. This was a woman, after all, who had earned the nickname “Tidy” because of her PG language and sobriety.
Rather listen to the story?
Subscribe to the Reveal podcast to get this and other stories.
In the course of the probe, investigators gathered more accusations. Among them: Griesbaum called a player stupid, pressured a student to play injured and once told a team member, “If I were you, I would kill myself.” Players said they had to go to therapy after playing field hockey under her, according to the investigators’ report.
In the end, the investigators said, “It is very concerning that several (student athletes) consistently described a team environment of fear, intimidation, and/or mistreatment by Coach Griesbaum.” But the report concluded: “There was insufficient evidence presented to substantiate a violation of university policy.”
Griesbaum was relieved. She met with Barta to discuss plans moving forward, and she returned to preparing for the season, which was just weeks away.
Three days later, Barta called Griesbaum back into his office. She was fired. Griesbaum says she never got an explanation. The university dismissed her without cause and paid her $200,000 for the termination of her contract. A university spokesman later said on Iowa Public Radio that Barta fired Griesbaum to protect the students.
In response, the field hockey team published an open letter to the university asking for Griesbaum’s reinstatement. The team printed T-shirts that read, “We support our coach.” Alumni showed up to games with signs that read: “We apologize for Barta’s behavior! Help us reinstate #TG.”
Fueling this outcry was a growing concern that at Iowa, female coaches were losing ground. Barta had forced out five female coaches in six years. The place that was once a model for gender equity was starting to look a lot like the rest of the country.
Female coaches used to dominate women’s college sports. In 1972, women coached 90 percent of women’s college teams, according to a Brooklyn College study that’s been ongoing since 1977. Most colleges put women in charge of separate women’s athletics departments. The coaching positions often were unpaid, and teams were small, without scholarships or money for travel.
Then Congress passed the landmark civil rights law known as Title IX, seeking to eradicate gender discrimination from education. The 1972 law made it illegal for any educational institution to discriminate based on gender. And while it was not specifically intended for sports, Title IX radically changed collegiate athletics.
For the first time, colleges had to devote real money to women’s athletics. Female athletes finally received scholarships. Teams got to stay in hotel rooms when they traveled, rather than sleeping on arena floors. Women’s sports began to flourish. The law is credited with unleashing the potential of generations of female athletes across the country.
But while Title IX expanded opportunities for female athletes, it did not protect female coaches.
With new attention paid to women’s athletics, the number of coaching jobs on women’s teams more than doubled. While female athletic directors previously would have filled these positions, colleges around the country abolished separate women’s athletics departments, and most colleges put male athletic directors in charge of women’s sports. Statistically, male athletic directors are more likely to hire other men, according to the Brooklyn College study. And now that coaching women’s sports was a paying profession, male coaches were interested.
Within a few years, the percentage of female coaches plummeted. Today, women coach 43 percent of women’s teams, the study showed, a proportion that shows few signs of budging.
The University of Iowa long had managed to resist this trend. After Title IX, Iowa was one of five schools to maintain a separate women’s athletics department, and it kept a woman in charge of those teams. Women’s athletics had its own budget, its own press team, even its own logo. Most importantly, the female athletic director, Christine Grant, hired and fired the coaches of the women’s teams.
“And that’s what made Iowa very, very different,” Grant said.
That changed when Grant retired in the summer of 2000. Iowa finally joined the crowd and merged the men’s and women’s athletics departments, putting the male athletic director in charge.
Today, that athletic director is Gary Barta. This past year, he has experienced a rise in popularity, with the surprise success of the Iowa football team. In the 2015 regular season, the team was undefeated for the first time in a century and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1990s.
“It has never been a better time to be a student athlete at Iowa,” Barta said in his office on the University of Iowa campus. In the past fiscal year, he increased the operating budget for every team at the university – both men’s and women’s.
But behind the public success of the football team, Iowa’s women’s sports are reeling.
Barta replaced two of the five female coaches he ousted with men – and paid those men 25 percent more than their female predecessors. For the three he replaced with other women, he paid those women 13 percent less, according to public salary data. By comparison, when Barta replaced male coaches with other men, he paid the new male coaches 10 percent more.
The Iowa women’s teams have not enjoyed much success under Barta’s administration. While women’s teams earned 27 Big Ten titles during Grant’s 27-year tenure, they have earned only four in the 10 years since Barta took over – three of the four from the field hockey team under Tracey Griesbaum.
Under Grant, women coached an average of nearly 80 percent of the women’s teams. Under Barta, women coach six of the 12 teams, the lowest in Iowa’s history.
“Are we nationally concerned that there aren’t enough women coaching women’s sports? The answer is yes,” Barta said. “But 50 percent is higher than the state average, it’s higher than the Big Ten average and it’s higher than the national average.”
On why he has replaced female coaches with men, he said, “It’s a national phenomena, not just a problem at Iowa.”
Iowa long remained an outlier, impervious to the decline in female coaches nationwide after Title IX. Under Barta, it quickly has played catch-up. Now Iowa provides a modern example of how female coaches have lost control of college sports.
When the men’s and women’s athletics departments merged at Iowa, the changes were subtle but significant. The high-level marketing and publicity efforts that used to go into field hockey shifted toward the bigger fall sport, football, coaches said. Two sports that historically had separate men’s and women’s coaches – cross-country and swimming and diving – merged, and the head coach of the men’s teams became head coach of the women’s as well.
The tension became acute under Gary Barta, who took over in 2006. The local newspaper detailed how female coaches with losing records got fired, while male coaches who weren’t winning retained their jobs. The women’s gymnastics coach spoke out about the lack of resources for her program, and she said Barta told her to “not do that again” or risk being fired, according to a lawsuit against the school. When female coaches wanted to bring up concerns about equal facilities, media resources and coaching opportunities, they went to Tracey Griesbaum.
“She fought the fight for all of us,” said former volleyball coach Sharon Dingman, who now is with The University of Chicago. “She was the only one with the courage to broach those subjects with Gary.”
Barta hired Dingman in 2008 but didn’t renew her contract after six losing seasons and a record of 66-125. He replaced Dingman with a male coach, Bond Shymansky, in 2014. His starting salary was $168,000, about $42,000 higher than Dingman’s final salary, public salary data shows.
Rowing coach Mandi Kowal says she was forced to resign in 2012. Barta replaced her with Steve Pritzker, whose starting salary was $11,500 higher.
Not all the female coaches believe that Barta has treated them unfairly.
“Since I’ve been at Iowa, everything has been very positive,” said Megan Menzel, the women’s golf coach since 2011. “Any time that I’ve had any issues that I need to bring forward, my voice has been heard.”
But the coaches Barta forced out said they looked to Griesbaum because she had some security: She had earned the most Big Ten titles of any women’s team coach and had a long history at the university. Her willingness to speak out, Griesbaum and her supporters say, is what really led to her ouster.
Over the last three months, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reached out to 60 of Griesbaum’s players, hoping to find one who complained or thought the allegations of verbal abuse or forcing athletes to play injured were justified. Twenty-four agreed to speak, but none had anything negative to say about Griesbaum.
“She would have never said anything like that,” said Caroline Blaum, who played for Griesbaum from 2004 to 2008. “I was completely blindsided.”
Players acknowledged that Griesbaum was tough. Field hockey players couldn’t drink during the season. They had to abide by “Tracey Time” – if they didn’t show up six minutes early, they were late. They had a curfew and a strict workout regimen.
“There were many days where I woke up feeling so sore,” Blaum said. “I felt like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ ”
It was clear to Blaum, though, that Griesbaum’s toughness made her stronger. It’s the reason the team loved her. “She was so concerned with who we were as young women,” she said. “More than anything, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without her.”
Like many of Griesbaum’s players, Blaum chose to become a coach herself. She coaches a high school team in Maryland.
None of the team members Reveal interviewed said Griesbaum had pressured them to play with an injury, as the anonymous complaints alleged. The athletic trainer responsible for field hockey, Faye Thompson, agreed with the players. On site for every practice and home and away games, Thompson said she witnessed hundreds of Griesbaum’s interactions with players.
“Tracey never pressured anyone to play injured,” Thompson said. “But no one – not Gary or anyone else – ever asked me about that.”
Griesbaum’s unexpected firing led Thompson to quit in protest after 33 years as an athletic trainer at Iowa.
Even the woman who took over for Griesbaum, her former assistant, Lisa Cellucci, said she doesn’t understand it.
“I made it very clear that I would be running the same program, because Tracey taught me everything I know,” Cellucci said. She says people keep asking her: “ ‘If things were so bad, why would he (Barta) keep you around?’ I still don’t have an answer for that, except for I was told we were different people.”
“I definitely don’t challenge as much as she does. It’s just not in my nature,” she added.
Griesbaum filed a lawsuit against the university in March, claiming that Barta fired her in retaliation for speaking up. The lawsuit alleges that Barta and the athletics department discriminate against women in their hiring, firing and evaluation of coaches. The university has denied all of Griesbaum’s allegations.
In the past decade, at least 29 female coaches and eight female sports administrators have filed retaliation lawsuits against their universities, according to a review of news archives.
These lawsuits follow a similar storyline. A woman witnesses discrimination in the athletics department. She speaks up to a superior.
“Then maybe that coach gets fired. Or she receives a negative performance evaluation for the first time, so that it looks like they have a neutral reason for firing her,” said Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University who tracks Title IX retaliation cases.
But there’s another trend: Almost half of the coaches in these retaliation cases – 13 in all – claim they were accused of mistreating or verbally abusing their players. Their stories are similar to Tracey Griesbaum’s. They see themselves as whistleblowers and complain to the administration on behalf of the women’s teams. Then they get hit with abuse allegations, either as the primary reason for their firing or as the university’s defense during the lawsuit.
Nine of these 13 women won their cases or settled out of court (three others lost, and one case is pending), court records show. In one case from 2007, the court required Fresno State to pay $9.1 million to basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein. She said she spoke up after noticing large discrepancies in pay, facilities and contract length along gender lines. Soon after, a university investigation accused her of unprofessional conduct and being verbally abusive to players.
Several of these women claim their universities drummed up the complaints against them.
Brenda Webb, a Central Connecticut State University track and field coach who filed a lawsuit in 2011, claimed that an administrator “repeatedly encouraged a student to complain about Coach Webb even though the student had no such complaints.” She eventually settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
Buzuvis, the law professor, said accusing female coaches of being abusive is a common tactic.
“But that’s a hard thing to unpack,” she said. “On the one hand, there ought to be zero tolerance for abuse. But on the other hand, this might be behavior that’s tolerated when it’s exhibited by male coaches and punished when exhibited by female coaches.”
Three of the 13 women accused of verbal abuse lost their lawsuits. In the case of Montana State University basketball coach Robin Potera-Haskins, students testified that she was emotionally abusive, called players fat and slow, and lied to players. In a 2010 court order, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon criticized the “extremely serious and harmful consequences of her conduct as head women’s basketball coach.”
“Not only was the University justified in terminating (Potera-Haskins),” he wrote, but the only justified criticism “would be that action should have been taken sooner than it was.”
The decline in the proportion of female coaches isn’t abating. Between 2000 and 2014, NCAA schools created more than 2,000 new head coaching jobs in women’s sports. They went to men 65 percent of the time, the Brooklyn College study found.
The University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport created a report card based on the percentage of teams coached by women at colleges in the seven biggest Division I conferences. Only two schools got an A: the University of Central Florida, where 89 percent of women’s teams are coached by women, and the University of Cincinnati, at 80 percent. F grades went to 10 schools. Syracuse, West Virginia and Oklahoma State universities each had only one female coach. More schools get D’s than A’s and B’s combined.
Iowa sits in the middle of the pack, earning a C.
It had a protection in place against this, though. When the men’s and women’s athletics departments merged in 2000, the university president made an important pledge to the community: If the athletic director were male, then the No. 2 in the department should be female. That woman had always been Jane Meyer.
About a month before Tracey Griesbaum was fired, Gary Barta announced that he was creating a new No. 2 position. He hired a man, Gene Taylor, paying him $245,000, over $70,000 more than Meyer. Taylor was the athletic director at North Dakota State University, where Barta had played football as an undergraduate.
Meyer alleged that Barta told her that she would not get the job if she applied. “That was sort of my last straw of things that I had raised with regards to gender equity with regards to how certain coaches were being treated – how I was being treated,” she said.
In a statement, the university claimed that hiring Taylor was motivated not by gender, but by the desire “to hire the absolute very best, most qualified person available.”
Meyer filed a written complaint to Barta alleging discrimination. The next day, he put her on administrative leave. She then was reassigned as a project manager in one of the dean’s offices, where she’s paid roughly the same salary as she was as senior associate athletic director, $176,000. Others on her level in the office’s organizational chart make between $90,000 and $132,000.
To make things more complicated, there was a connection between Griesbaum and Meyer: They were longtime partners. They had not officially disclosed their relationship at work, but over the years, it became apparent to many of their colleagues and students.
A spokesman for the university said on Iowa Public Radio that Barta removed Meyer because he believed Griesbaum would file a lawsuit. Meyer filed one, too. In her suit, Meyer claims that speaking up for gender equity got her pushed out of the athletics department.
And there’s a complaint from the other side: Former assistant track coach Michael Scott found an email that showed the athletics department was not considering men for an assistant coaching position. When Scott’s application was rejected, he filed a lawsuit against the university for gender discrimination. Iowa recently settled that case for $200,000.
At the first practice after Tracey Griesbaum was fired in summer 2014, new head coach Lisa Cellucci remembers pulling up to Grant Field, named for former Women’s Athletic Director Christine Grant. She shifted her white Jeep to park and sat for a moment in the August sun. She wiped her eyes, swung open the door, and a gust of humid 90-degree air met her face.
It was the first practice without Griesbaum, but Cellucci followed her usual path around the turf and into the press box on the 50-yard line. Griesbaum usually would be standing there when she arrived, her eyes glued to a clipboard outlining the day’s practice. Together, they’d grab their hockey sticks and head onto the field to set up drills.
Cellucci stood alone in the doorway. It should’ve been the biggest day in her career, her first day as a head coach. Her eyes fell on the hooks lining the wall to her right. As always, Griesbaum’s hockey stick with its black grip and gold-and-white body hung next to Cellucci’s. She broke down.
“She didn’t even get a chance to come get her stick and say goodbye to the team,” Cellucci said.
Outside, the players were on the field, strapping on shin guards and waiting for their coach to arrive.
“It was so weird being on the field without Tracey,” said Chandler Ackers, a sophomore at the time. “I couldn’t even hold my stick in my hand. I mean, Tracey was so integral to our team. She was the face of Iowa field hockey. How are we going to get through this season?”
After the first season without Griesbaum, four of the 21 players transferred. Ackers said the rest of the team felt cheated.
“Our coach was taken away from us,” she said. “It’s just what no other male team has had to deal with at this university.”
In 2011, Griesbaum’s supporters often point out, 13 football players were hospitalized after an excruciating practice. Doctors diagnosed them with rhabdomyolysis, a condition commonly caused by overexertion in which muscle cells burst and spill their contents into the bloodstream. The school’s investigation found no wrongdoing.
Three months later, the coach in charge of that practice was awarded assistant coach of the year. In January, the university paid one of the hospitalized players $15,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed claiming physical and emotional harm.
In response to Griesbaum’s firing, Ackers and three other field hockey players – Dani Hemeon, Natalie Cafone and Jessy Silfer – filed a civil rights complaint against the University of Iowa alleging a violation of Title IX. It’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a student to file a complaint on behalf of a coach. In their complaint, they say that by taking away Griesbaum, the university denied the female student athletes their most valuable resource. They claim Griesbaum was fired for reasons that a male coach never would be fired.
“If you take every allegation against Tracey Griesbaum and you pretend that it’s true, then the question you have to ask yourself is: If a male coach were engaging in exactly the same behavior, who cares?” said attorney Tom Newkirk, who helped the young women file the federal complaint. He also represents Griesbaum.
Following the students’ complaint, investigators from the federal Office for Civil Rights arrived on Iowa’s campus in April to do a full Title IX review of the athletics department. Theoretically, the office has the power to punish a school for violating Title IX by removing all federal funding or referring the school to the Justice Department for legal action. But it has yet to wield this power against any school since the law went into effect in 1972.
For Barta, things are looking up. At the beginning of this year, Iowa rewarded him with a five-year contract extension and will boost his base pay from $400,000 to $550,000. It also increased his annual deferred compensation to $250,000 and his potential bonuses. His colleagues around the country have been equally impressed. The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics named him an athletic director of the year for 2015-16.
Back at the hockey field, Griesbaum’s stick and whistle still hang on the hook where she left them almost two years ago. Cellucci refuses to take them down.
Update: After publication of this story, Reveal spoke with a former field hockey player who echoed many of the complaints cited in the university’s investigation of Griesbaum. She did not want her name to be used.
Top photo: Christine Grant (front right), seen at the dedication of Grant Field in 1991, served as the University of Iowa’s women’s athletics director for 27 years. During her tenure, women coached an average of nearly 80 percent of the women’s teams. CREDIT: Courtesy of The University of Iowa Libraries
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.
Follow Annie Brown on Twitter: @nniebrown.