Investigator sees possibility of anti-gay bias in Iowa coach’s firing

In this photo provided by the University of Iowa athletics department, women’s field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum watches the team from the sidelines.

In this photo provided by the University of Iowa athletics department, women’s field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum watches the team from the sidelines. Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa — A former Iowa women’s field hockey coach has a “reasonable possibility” of proving that gender or anti-gay discrimination played a role in her firing, an Iowa Civil Rights Commission investigator has found.

In a screening decision on Tracey Griesbaum’s complaint last month, investigator Benjamin Flickinger found that a reasonable person could infer that she suffered discrimination when athletic director Gary Barta fired her in 2014 and that further investigation was warranted. While the case remains at a preliminary stage, the finding comes as the former coach prepares to sue the university.

The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education is in the midst of an inquiry into gender bias claims made by field hockey players who supported Griesbaum.

The university says Griesbaum was fired over ongoing concerns about the way she treated some players, four of whom had filed complaints between 2010 and 2014. But Flickinger noted that the university’s investigative report didn’t substantiate any policy violations by Griesbaum and that the one incident singled out as unprofessional also involved the assistant coach hired to replace her.

“It is unclear why that report would have led to the termination of an employee with over 22 years of successful employment,” Flickinger wrote in the eight-page, Dec. 2 analysis obtained by The Associated Press.

Griesbaum contends that male coaches who did worse, including those responsible for a 2011 workout that landed 13 football players in the hospital, were not disciplined, Flickinger noted. In addition, she claims that five other gay female coaches were fired or forced out in recent years. Barta has said those decisions were based on poor team performance.

The university has said Griesbaum’s “combative” attitude contributed to her firing. But Flickinger said the school hadn’t offered any evidence to support that assertion, and many coaches might be combative if they believe they are being falsely accused of wrongdoing.

At this stage, the university hasn’t provided any evidence showing that the firing occurred for non-discriminatory reasons, he wrote. The commission could have found no probable cause for discrimination or closed the complaint without further investigation.

Griesbaum’s attorney, Thomas Newkirk, said the analysis shows the commission could grasp a complicated bias claim.

“They saw through the university’s defenses,” he said.

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