Judge halts University of Iowa plan to drop women's swimming

A federal judge granted an injunction Thursday to stop the University of Iowa from dropping women's swimming for the 2021-2022 school year.

U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose announced her intentions to impose the temporary ruling Tuesday at the end of a two-day hearing on a Title IX complaint filed by six female Iowa students, four them members of the swimming team.

The plaintiffs argued that the university is already out of compliance with Title IX because it offers a disproportionate number of opportunities for male and female athletes. They are asking the court to stop Iowa from making a decision that would exacerbate the situation.

Rose said in her decision that an injunction was "an extraordinary remedy that is not issued lightly" but was necessary to make sure the swimming program didn't suffer "existential" harm.

"Plaintiffs have demonstrated a fair chance that the University of Iowa does not presently provide its female students with intercollegiate athletic opportunities in substantial proportion to their enrollment, and is unlikely to do so after eliminating the women's swimming and diving team," Rose wrote in her decision.

The university denied it is violating Title IX, which requires colleges and universities to offer equal educational opportunities. University leaders said the cuts are needed to help balance an estimated athletic department budget deficit of up to $65 million due to lost ticket sales and other revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Iowa is one of dozens of college athletic departments that have announced plans this year to shed some of their teams to deal with budget shortfalls. The court case in Iowa will be watched closely by other groups that are weighing their legal options to restore programs elsewhere, according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an attorney who founded an organization aimed providing more opportunities for women in sports. Hogshead-Makar said many, if not all, of the schools that have cut programs fall on an extensive list of athletic departments that aren't currently in compliance with Title IX law.

Attorney Jim Larew, who represents the swimmers, said the preliminary injunction was necessary because the team will suffer irreparable harm if the university is allowed to move forward with its plan to drop the team before the case is resolved. Four of the swim team's six coaches and 15 of the 35 swimmers have already left or plan to do so.

The judge called it "a very difficult case" but said the balance of harms and the public interest weigh in favor of granting the injunction.

The lawsuit filed in September also seeks to create additional sports for women.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced in August that the university would cut men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's swimming, in addition to the women's swimming and diving teams. The cuts affected 64 male and 38 female athletes.

ESPN's Dan Murphy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.