By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Message to Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta:
I’m starting to think you should try to settle with Tracey Griesbaum before her trial begins in June, because if not, you risk a second public embarrassment at the cost of probably a lot more than $1.4 million.
Jane Meyer’s gender discrimination case against you didn’t seem any more convincing than her significant other’s case, and yet, a jury in Polk County rewarded Meyer with a $1.43 million settlement on Thursday, and did so after barely deliberating for eight hours.
In addition, the jury also found in favor of Meyer on all five of her claims: gender discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, retaliation, equal pay violation and whistleblower violation.
So in other words, your legal team was taken to the woodshed and the same thing could soon happen again.
Once is bad enough, but twice could be devastating to the University of Iowa, and especially to you, from a public relations standpoint.
You could always appeal the verdict, and I assume you will, but the Griesbaum camp has to be energized by the verdict and ready to pounce on your vulnerabilities.
A jury of five women and three men has ruled that you violated Iowa law in your handling of the Meyer situation. That ultimately could have serious ramifications, including you losing your job and maybe even your career as an athletic director.
The jury reached this verdict despite hearing testimony from several Iowa head coaches, including Kirk Ferentz and Tom Brands, that Meyer was difficult to work with and that she was counter-productive.
So try to reach a settlement, because even if it is costly, it won’t unfold in a courtroom with members of the media tweeting the hot takes.
It would take place behind closed doors and would, of course, be news when it’s released, but it wouldn't stay in the news cycle for months like the Meyer case did, from the build-up to Thursday’s verdict.
Now this is assuming Griesbaum would be willing to consider a settlement. She might smell blood in the water and refuse to settle because she wants justice and revenge.
As for the verdict itself, I had to rewrite this column because I made the mistake of assuming that Meyer would lose her case. I just didn’t think her lawyers had proven their case, nor have I ever thought you to be anti-gay, which was at the heart of their case.
And Meyer was an at-will employee for the UI, meaning should could have been relieved of her duties without cause.
But the jury felt otherwise and then made a loud statement with how much they awarded Meyer.
The trial was kind of surreal for me because I’ve been acquainted with Jane Meyer for years, and with members of her family.
Her younger brother, Pat Meyer, graduated from West Des Moines Dowling with me in 1982 and then we lived on the same dormitory floor during our freshmen year at Drake University.
Jane Meyer also graduated from Dowling with my older brother in 1978. She was the star of the girls’ basketball team, while my brother was the star of the football team and would go on to attend Iowa on a football scholarship.
So there was sort of a personal side, the Dowling connection, and the professional side that included interacting with Jane for more than a decade while covering the Hawkeye beat for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
Jane always was professional and willing to answer whatever question came her way.
But there was another side to her, a dismissive side in which Jane seemed disengaged and disinterested with anything that wasn’t connected to her cause.
Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I used to often ask Jane about her family, and more specifically how her brother Pat was doing at the time. She always was happy and proud to answer. But not once did she ask about my brother or about my family.
I found that odd, and rude.
I don’t want to speak for my media colleagues, but to say that most of us had a lukewarm relationship with Jane would seem fair and accurate.
I bring all this up because I thought her downfall was of her own doing, caused mostly by a conflict of interest and by her sometimes abrasive and dismissive personality.
But maybe I was biased in this case and didn't appreciate Jane's side of the argument because I had the jury figured all wrong.
Jane had a good gig for a long time at Iowa, and she excelled at it for a long time. But her private life, her personality and her job description created a toxic work environment for which your only blame in my opinion was allowing the conflict of interest to fester.
Your ability to negotiate coaching contracts might leave something to be desired, but I still can’t bring myself to believe that you discriminated against Meyer or against Griesbaum because of their sexual orientation.
Every female coach that you have fired in the last decade at Iowa, except for Griesbaum, deserved to be fired based on record and performance alone.
Griesbaum’s firing as the field hockey coach went beyond wins and losses and had everything to do with her personal conduct.
I knew that up close and personal because I wrote about her dismissal in my final days at the Press-Citizen in 2014 and talked to former Iowa field hockey players from both sides of the dispute.
Both sides were passionate and seemed convinced that they were right. The players in support of Griesbaum said she was demanding, but fair, while the players against her said she was a bully and a manipulator who had different standards for different players.
The players who were opposed to Griesbaum wouldn’t speak on the record for fear of being ostracized by the Iowa field hockey community.
But they were so appreciative that you had taken action to correct what they called an unacceptable situation.
One of the players also brought up what she called a huge conflict of interest in that Griesbaum was in a romantic relationship with one of her bosses who had influence over the field hockey program.
I knew right away that it was Meyer, and assumed you knew, because the rumor had been out there since about 2011 and because I had been told that Meyer and Griesbaum were a couple.
But before I could act on that information, my job at the Press-Citizen was eliminated in mid-October 2014.
Shortly thereafter, as I’m sure you remember, the Associated Press broke the story about Meyer and Griesbaum being in a relationship and living together and your world hasn’t been the same since.
Your biggest mistake, as I said before, was allowing the conflict of interest to fester until it was too late. It would’ve been a conflict of interest even if Meyer had been in a relationship with a male coach at Iowa.
I believe that you fired Meyer because for one, she failed to perform her duties to an acceptable standard, and two, she allowed her personal life to adversely affect the work environment, not because she is gay or because she's a woman.
There are no reports of Meyer yelling at you for firing any of the other women's coaches at Iowa as she did when Griesbaum was fired.
Because Meyer wasn’t in a romantic relationship with any of them.
She only lashed out when it became personal.
I also thought that Meyer had hurt her case when she criticized Gene Taylor for having the television in his office turned on to ESPN on a regular basis during his time as UI deputy athletic director. It seemed petty and vindictive, a cheap shot that had no merit.
And yet, Meyer won her case by a unanimous vote, a rout in the opinion of the jury.
That’s why I would at least consider trying to reach a settlment with Griesbaum because you can’t afford another beat down in court.