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US investigating University of Iowa over gender bias complaints against athletic director

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — A federal office will investigate the University of Iowa's handling of gender bias complaints against athletic director Gary Barta involving his treatment of female coaches and athletes, the school acknowledged Wednesday.

In a May 22 letter, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights notified Iowa President Sally Mason of the investigation and requested numerous documents. The office is responsible for enforcing Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding.

The investigation comes in response to a complaint filed by four members of the women's field hockey team in January. They allege that Barta's decision to fire the program's veteran coach, Tracey Griesbaum, before the season last August was based on gender stereotypes about strong female coaches and hurt the team's competitiveness. Like other supporters of Griesbaum, the players allege her firing was part of a pattern in which female coaches have faced different standards than male coaches during Barta's nine-year tenure.

Barta fired Griesbaum after the university investigated allegations that Griesbaum harassed and bullied players. The investigation did not substantiate policy violations but raised concerns about an environment of "fear, intimidation and/or mistreatment" by Griesbaum. The school paid Griesbaum a $200,000 buyout and named her longtime assistant, Lisa Cellucci, the interim coach.

The complaint alleges the university overreacted to allegations from a small number of players. The complainants, including junior standout Natalie Cafone, said they supported Griesbaum's coaching methods, which had made her highly successful during her 14-year tenure at Iowa. Allegations of verbal abuse wouldn't have been a problem if she were a male coach or taken seriously if they involved male players, the complaint alleges.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2010, file photo, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta speaks during a news conference in Iowa City, Iowa. The U.S. Department of Education is launching an investigation into the University of Iowa's handling of gender discrimination claims against Barta. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, the department's Office for Civil Rights notified the school of the investigation last week and requested numerous documents. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2010, file photo, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta speaks during a news conference in Iowa City, Iowa. The U.S. Department of Education is launching an investigation into the University of Iowa's handling of gender discrimination claims against Barta. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, the department's Office for Civil Rights notified the school of the investigation last week and requested numerous documents. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

The university released a statement pledging to cooperate with the investigation and again denying that Griesbaum's removal was gender-related. Barta has said the move was meant to protect players from Griesbaum, who has denied any wrongdoing.

Tom Newkirk, an attorney for Griesbaum who helped the players draft their complaint, praised the office's decision to investigate. He noted the case is being watched nationally among supporters of female coaches and athletes who complain they are often treated differently than their male counterparts.

"My thoughts are that this is a groundbreaking decision by the Office for Civil Rights to a complaint of this kind from student-athletes. I'm hopeful that they will get to the bottom of what's going on at the University of Iowa," he said. "You have four student athletes who are challenging the removal of their coach because she's a woman. No one has done that before."

The office will look into whether the university discriminated against the female athletes by allegedly failing to investigate an Oct. 15 gender bias complaint they filed against Barta, supervisory attorney Ann Cook-Graver wrote in her letter to Mason.

If the investigation finds the school violated Title IX, the office would typically try to negotiate a settlement in which the university would take steps to come into compliance. If that were unsuccessful, the office could move to suspend federal funding to the school, although that scenario is highly unlikely.

The university must provide the office with a copy of the university's investigation of the Oct. 15 complaint, including notes, records of interviews and other documents. Iowa also must turn over all sex discrimination complaints and investigation reports dating back to 2012.

University spokesman Tom Moore said the school couldn't comment on how it handled the Oct. 15 complaint, saying it involves student information that is confidential under federal law. Players have alleged Barta and other officials blew off their complaints.

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