Iowa athletics dept. to fully cover $4M settlement

Iowa‘s athletics department will pay the entire settlement of more than $4 million to a group of Black former football players who sued the university for alleged racial discrimination.

University president Barbara Wilson on Thursday said the athletic department will reimburse $2 million to the state’s general fund for the settlement. Iowa’s state appeals board on Monday voted 2-1 to approve $2 million of state money to cover about half of the settlement. The university’s athletic department had already been set to cover the other half.

“I appreciate the work and due diligence of the Iowa Attorney General and State Appeal Board,” Wilson’s statement read. “After listening to the concerns of Iowans, and in consultation with Board of Regents leadership, I have determined that the University of Iowa Department of Athletics will reimburse the state general fund for the $2 million due to the recent settlement. I am deeply committed to our students’ success and well-being on and off the field of play.”

State auditor Rob Sand, part of the three-member appeals board, voted against using state money for the settlement. Sand also called for the firing of longtime Iowa athletics director Gary Barta, citing several discrimination lawsuits during his tenure that led to large settlement payouts.

The previous settlements were paid entirely by Iowa athletic department funds. They included a $6.5 million payout in 2017 to settle a lawsuit over the firing of former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum.

Wilson did not mention Barta or his job status in her statement Thursday. Barta has led Iowa’s athletic department since 2006.

“It reminds me of that scene in ‘Zoolander’ when Will Ferrell says, ‘I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here,'” Sand told ESPN on Monday after the vote. “I don’t know why taxpayers are paying $2 million for this. Can you imagine someone in the private sector still having their job after four settlements?

“… This doesn’t mean that Gary Barta hasn’t worked hard at his job. At the end of the day, when you’ve had four settlements related to discrimination, you have to say enough is enough.”

Iowa’s athletic department on Monday released a statement saying it remains committed to establishing “an inclusive and welcoming environment” for all athletes and staff members.

Longtime football coach Kirk Ferentz expressed great disappointment in the decision to settle the lawsuit, saying negotiations occurred between the players’ attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons, and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. Ferentz also cited a motion for summary judgment that had been filed outlining why the case should be dismissed.

“These discussions took place entirely without the knowledge or consent of the coaches who were named in the lawsuit,” Ferentz said in a statement. “In fact, the parties originally named disagree with the decision to settle, fully believing that the case would have been dismissed with prejudice before trial. … We have been told the reason for the settlement is financial. As part of the settlement, the coaches named were dismissed from the lawsuit and there is no admission of any wrongdoing.

“For more than two years, our program has been unfairly and negatively impacted by these allegations.”

Barta; Ferentz; his son and offensive coordinator, Brian Ferentz; and former strength coach Chris Doyle were dismissed from the lawsuit last week.

According to the proposed settlement, some $2.85 million would be divided among 12 players and $1.9 million would go to Solomon Simmons Law for fees and expenses. One player was not included in the settlement for reasons not immediately known.

In addition, the university would direct $90,000 to support graduate or professional school tuition for the plaintiffs, with no individual receiving more than $20,000, and provide mental health counseling for the plaintiffs through March 15, 2024. The athletic department also is required to hire University of Texas Black studies professor Leonard Moore to oversee a five-year diversity, equity and inclusion plan.

The lawsuit filed in November 2020 involved 13 Black former players, including former star running back Akrum Wadley and career receptions leader Kevonte Martin-Manley. They alleged they were demeaned with racial slurs, forced to abandon Black hairstyles, fashion and culture to fit the “Iowa Way” promoted by Ferentz, and retaliated against for speaking out.

The players initially sought $20 million in damages plus the firings of Barta and the Ferentzes.

Doyle agreed to leave Iowa five months before the lawsuit was filed after widespread accusations that he used his position as strength coach to bully and disparage former players, particularly those who are Black. Iowa agreed to pay Doyle $1.1 million in a resignation agreement.