On Monday, there was a potentially major development in the Iowa football discrimination lawsuit. The attorneys for seven Black former Hawkeye football players have dismissed individuals Kirk Ferentz (head football coach), Brian Ferentz (offensive coordinator), Chris Doyle (former strength and conditioning coach) and Gary Barta (athletics director) as defendants “without prejudice.”
Three days earlier, Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace was dismissed as a plaintiff “with prejudice” – meaning he cannot be re-added to the suit.
That leaves the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents as the remaining defendants.
What does that mean for the case and what does it tell us about what happens next?
Tom Newkirk, a Des Moines-based civil rights lawyer and specialist in implicit bias, offered valuable perspective in an interview Tuesday morning with the Des Moines Register.
“The dismissal of individual defendants in a case like this could mean that the law simply does not support the continued action against individuals, even though the overriding case against the state or university of Board of Regents is perfectly valid,” Newkirk said. “Or it means that there is an anticipated (settlement) resolution of the claims by removal of individuals from the lawsuit.
“I’ve sued the state a number of times over the years and have learned that naming the individuals, even if it’s technically correct under the law, isn’t necessarily the best method to get the state to resolve a case.”
Newkirk successfully sued the University of Iowa and fetched a $6.5 million payout for clients Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum after a jury trial surrounding the 2014 firing of Griesbaum as field hockey coach was brought. That ordeal brought Barta, the Ferentzes and other prominent Iowa coaches to the witness stand. This federal lawsuit, which was brought in Polk County in November 2020, has placed a lot of negative public pressure on Doyle and the Ferentzes for two-plus years. But they also don’t want to admit wrongdoing, Newkirk said, by settling the case. Now that they are off the case, the power to settle rests with the University of Iowa and Board of Regents.
“What happens is if you name an individual or multiple individuals is that you give power to those individuals to refuse to settle or resolve,” Newkirk said. “If I’m Kirk Ferentz, and I have to approve a settlement while I’m still a named defendant, I’m not going to do that when I know that I didn’t discriminate against African-Americans, for example.
“Chris Doyle, even though he may have done some things that are inappropriate, even he’s not going to admit that he is racist or discriminates, so why would he agree to settle? That’s one reason the individuals might be dismissed in this case.”
What’s the next step in the Iowa football discrimination lawsuit?
A potential settlement could already be in the works, but that isn’t necessarily what’s going on − even if that’s the highest likelihood. By dismissing the four defendants “without prejudice,” Tulsa-based attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons and his team could still attempt to bring any of them back into the lawsuit.
“Two reasons they could be added back,” Newkirk said, “are that a) the law shifts in a way that they feel more confident that they could bring an individual; or b), if a resolution doesn’t go through that they were hoping for.”
One of the stated wishes from the seven remaining football players suing the university − Darian Cooper, Javon Foy, Marcel Joly, Aaron Mends, Jonathan Parker, Brandon Simon and Akrum Wadley − was that Iowa put systems in place to guard against future incidents of racial bias (implicit or overt) within the university and the football program.
“In the event that there is some type of settlement in the works, it’s certainly my hope and the rest of Iowa’s hope that a large focus of this resolution will not just be on money but fixing the problem,” Newkirk said. “… Kirk and Brian could be completely innocent of overtly biased behavior, but could be participating in a system that allows this to occur.
“I know from personal experience from dealing with (the University of) Iowa for many years, they have a long way to go in trying to address that problem. I’m hopeful this can be an incentive to finally get it right.”