Lawmakers expect House debate on bill addressing university sports lawsuits

By: - March 22, 2023 5:16 pm

The University of Iowa Athletic Department would have to repay the Iowa treasury for the cost of its recent lawsuit settlement under proposed legislation. (Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images)

A bill specifying that state university athletic departments have to pay for their own lawsuit settlements is expected to see debate on the Iowa House floor.

The legislation was introduced after a settlement of nearly $4.2 million against the University of Iowa athletics department in a lawsuit filed by 12 former football players. 

House File 667 would require a public university’s athletic department facing a award or judgment on a claim related to the conduct of an employee  to “reimburse the state treasury the amount of the payment.”

The reimbursement would be paid before June 30 of the next fiscal year following the lawsuit settlement if the law passes in the House and Senate this session. 

Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, the floor manager for the bill, said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch that the legislation did stem from the recently settled lawsuit. 

The racial discrimination lawsuit against the Hawkeye football program originally named athletic director Gary Barta, Hawkeye football head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, and former football strength coach Chris Doyle, but they were dropped from the lawsuit. 

The settlement payout will be split between the UI and the state Board of Regents. The Athletic reported $2.3 million will be divided among the plaintiffs while the other funds go to court costs. The UI will pay $2.2 million while the Board of Regents will pay $2 million, after the State Appeal Board voted to approve the settlement 2-1 on March 6. 

Under the proposed legislation, the reimbursement funds could not come from any money received by the university or the Board of Regents from the state, unless the funding was appropriated for reimbursement purposes specifically. 

Board of Regents, UI respond

Josh Lehman, Board of Regents senior communications director, said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch that the regents “will continue to track the language of the bill and work with the General Assembly as it makes its way through the legislative process.”

Rep. Sean Bagniewski, D-Des Moines, voted for the legislation in both the Appropriations subcommittee and committee meetings. He said in an interview that the legislation came quickly to the committee and he was under the impression the regents and the university were supportive. 

“We had the University of Iowa there (at the subcommittee) and they had the letter showing they were going to fulfill their commitment on the $2 million in the settlement, which we appreciated,” he said. “… I have not talked to the regents at all. My only indication of support was the fact that they had been there that morning, that the University of Iowa had the letter ready to go and they already came with a solution. To me, that was a really good, productive step of showing that they understand where we’re coming from and taxpayer concerns and they agree with that.”

The four lobbyists for the regents, however, remain registered as undecided on the bill. They were also registered as undecided on the original version of the bill, House Study Bill 229. 

Regardless of the thoughts of university athletics programs, Bagniewski said the bipartisan support behind this bill shows Iowa representatives don’t want taxpayers to pay for university sports teams’ settlements.

“They (athletics departments) do have their own funding here,” he said. “They have a lot of their own operations, so for that purpose and reason, the taxpayers of Iowa and our general fund should not be responsible. If they do make these decisions and they have their own programs and funding, that’s fine, but we’re not going to be the ones paying for these issues when there’s a mistake.”

While the racial discrimination lawsuit payout issues have been settled, Bagniewski said the legislation is necessary in case there are similar issues in the future. 

Nordman also voted for the legislation in the subcommittee and committee meetings. He said he has been in conversation with university stakeholders about the legislation as it moves forward in the legislative process.

UI President Barbara Wilson said in a March 9 statement that the university will pay out the $2 million settlement.

“I appreciate the work and due diligence of the Iowa Attorney General and State Appeal Board,” she said. “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.”

Nordman praised Wilson and the university’s reaction to the current legislative discourse. He expects support to continue for the legislation as it moves forward. 

“I do commend the University of Iowa for listening to Hawkeye fans, House Republicans, and Iowans when it came to who should pay for this lawsuit,” Nordman said. “… This bill has passed both subcommittee and committee with unanimous support. If it comes to the floor, I believe it will find the same support. What I would like Iowans to know is that we are looking out for their taxpayer dollars.”

State treasurer speaks for legislation, against Barta

Other Iowa officials have voiced support for Wilson’s comments and the legislation, including State Treasurer Roby Smith. Smith and others also have publicly criticized Barta.

“Today, I applaud President Wilson and the Board of Regents for reversing course and requiring the University of Iowa Athletic Department to cover costs related to the settlement, but I would also renew my call for President Wilson to re-examine the University’s relationship with Mr. Barta,” he said in a March 9 statement. “Additionally, to protect Iowa taxpayers from ever being in this situation again, I am calling on the Iowa Legislature to continue moving House Study Bill 229 through the legislative process and to consider expanding the scope of the bill to include all claims involving the Regents Institutions.”

State Auditor Rob Sand voted against approving a discrimination lawsuit settlement against the university unless Barta was fired or resigned. He has not voiced direct support for the legislation.

The university has not commented on Barta’s position or alterations to his employment. 

Nordman said the legislation is essential to allowing departments to take responsibility moving forward without harming Iowans. 

“For the most part, these university athletic departments are self-sustaining,” Nordman said. “When they handle lawsuits pertaining to their personnel, Iowa taxpayers should not be on the hook.”

Moving forward

As the legislation moves to the House floor for debate, Bagniewski said he’s discussed the issue with many of his constituents and has yet to hear a single person disagree with it inside or outside of the House chambers.

“As quickly as this legislation has moved and as widespread as the support is, I would be surprised if it stagnated,” he said. “I haven’t heard from any colleagues in the House from either party who don’t agree with it. Anytime you have a public issue like this, quick action on it, and then this much bipartisan and public support, I assume this is going to get passed pretty easily.”

Bagniewski believes the legislation should not impact university students or faculty and the funding should come directly out of athletics departments’ budgets if there are settlements in the future. 

The legislation as a whole, he said, has a larger goal of increased accountability for public Iowa universities’ athletics departments in the future.

“I hope that we would see better due diligence from these programs and lawsuits,” Bagniewski said. “Once you remove the assumption that the general fund or taxpayers will just cover the bill in some of these settlements, hopefully we will see some better standards for all the programs that our regents offer. We don’t want to target them out, but once you do know you’re going to be on the hook for it, I think it changes your calculation on how you operate your programs.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.