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After a summer of soul-searching, Hawkeye football players believe they are closer than ever

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — An Iowa football team that has endured a summer of scrutiny and seclusion is finally about to emerge, eager for a season that the players and coaches claim will reveal they are closer than ever.

The 2020 Hawkeyes arrived on campus in June already trying to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and found that the raw discussions regarding race relations that were blossoming across America were about to land at their doorstep.

Former Iowa players, most of them Black, shared publicly that their experiences in coach Kirk Ferentz’s program were not always pleasant. There were numerous accounts of disparaging treatment based on race, with Black athletes believing they were forced to conform to a white norm in order to be accepted.

Ferentz’s longtime strength coach, Chris Doyle, who was frequently singled out as being at the root of a demeaning culture, was asked to leave. He agreed to a $1.1 million settlement while admitting no wrongdoing.

The university hired a law firm to investigate the behavior of Ferentz and his staff. Former and current players interviewed concurred that there was discrimination that needed to be addressed beyond the dismissal of Doyle.

More:Kirk Ferentz vows change after football inquiry finds 'Iowa way' led to systemic racism, player mistreatment

In June, Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin spoke of a team culture that left Black players often feeling as if they couldn't truly express themselves, with his head coach Kirk Ferentz listening on. Four months later, Kelly-Martin says: "We have made some pretty big steps."

Ferentz, who was largely exonerated in the report, promised to loosen his grip on his players. Hawkeyes can now wear earrings, ball caps and hoodies in the football facility. They can share their thoughts on Twitter. They are even discussing some form of a demonstration for social justice during the national anthem before Saturday’s season-opening game at Purdue. This was previously forbidden.

Ferentz said last week that “honest discourse” has enabled his team to move past the events of the summer.

“We haven’t altered our core principles,” he said. “But we made adjustments that I think are probably a little more palatable to a lot of our players.”

Behind the scenes, Hawkeye players say their bond has strengthened

Hawkeye players have not been on public view since their Holiday Bowl victory in December. Spring practices were wiped out by the coronavirus. So was the annual Kids Day scrimmage usually held in August. There have been no in-person media interviews since mid-July.

On a Zoom conference call with reporters last week, Hawkeye players spoke of a tighter bond among them after what they’ve been through. In addition to the probing questions about racial disparities, there was the initial cancellation of the fall football season, the reversal of that decision, a pause in football workouts when 11 players tested positive for COVID-19, and then weeks of practices that coincided with their coursework in preparation for what they hope is nine Big Ten Conference games.

“We have made some pretty big steps,” running back Ivory Kelly-Martin said of the changes he’s seen in his fourth year as a Hawkeye.

Kelly-Martin, who is Black, had told reporters in June that he often felt like he had to “walk on eggshells” in the football facility in the past, that he couldn’t express himself freely.

“It’s a process and everything’s not going to be perfect in one day. So we still have some ways to go,” Kelly-Martin said last week. “The racial disparity and everything is still a problem that we don’t want to put to the side all the time, but we also have a lot on our plate getting ready for the season.”

There is a hope among Iowa players that the difficult conversations over the summer have made them a better team. The theory is that a locker room that is more unified, in which all players feel they are valued equally, will pay dividends on Saturdays.

“I would say that a lot that went on in the offseason did kind of bring our football team together. Because at the end of the day, we all have to go on the field and play together. We all have to get up in the morning and train together,” explained Mekhi Sargent, a senior running back. “We’re all brothers. We’re all family here.”

Sargent reported a noticeable increase in energy in the Hawkeye football facility.

“There’s not a lot of people being sluggish or just coming in very quiet as opposed to what it was back then,” he said.

Earlier:Mekhi Sargent has traveled a long way to the top of Iowa's depth chart, and he's not done

Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins has been involved in planning what the team will do to demonstrate its quest for social justice during the national anthem this season. The senior said coaches have listened to players' concerns, and that fans will see Oct. 24 at Purdue what the Hawkeyes have decided.

How will Hawkeyes display unity? 'It will be shown in the first game'

That is consistent with what Chris Stankovich is seeing around the nation as college athletes assert themselves. Stankovich is an Ohio-based professional athletic counselor and professor of sports psychology, working with coaches and athletes at all levels.

“We’re seeing a paradigm shift from when coaches were completely in control of their locker room, their culture, the environment,” Stankovich said. “We are seeing an empowerment of minority student-athletes that are just trying to make it a little bit more of their own. They’re trying to personalize and customize it to represent the demographic breakdowns of most locker rooms in football programs across America today.”

But it’s impossible for those on the outside to truly know the dynamics that are occurring within a team. Nor can you point to a team’s culture as a reason it won or lost a particular game.

“It’s difficult to get specificity when it comes to what causes what in sports,” Stankovich said.

The Texas Longhorns are a case in point. Students there objected this summer to the school’s fight song “The Eyes of Texas.” They were uncomfortable with the racial undertones in the lyrics and asked that a different song be chosen.

Football coach Tom Herman told his players, some of whom shared that concern, that they didn’t have to sing the song after games, as is customary.

Things came to a head last Saturday when quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who is white, was one of the few Longhorns who stayed to sing after a four-overtime loss against rival Oklahoma. Most headed to the locker room instead. Texas president Jay Hartzell and athletic director Chris Del Conte then told the team that it is expected to stay on the field while the song is played.

Texas is 2-2 this season, and Herman’s job appears to be in jeopardy. Is this because of a divided locker room? Who knows?

Stankovich did say that a coaching staff who honestly listens to the concerns of players and addresses them can see the benefits.

“I think people tend to sniff out things that are disingenuous and not from the heart. But when it is done with sincerity, I think absolutely it can bring a program together,” he said.

“I think it directly impacts motivation and focus. When student-athletes do feel respected and empowered and supported, you can get otherwise average student-athletes to do some pretty incredible things.”

Iowa senior cornerback Matt Hankins, who is Black, said that’s what he’s experienced since June. He said he’s been allowed “to show who I really am” while training for his final season as a Hawkeye.

Hankins also has been involved in planning whatever the team will do while the national anthem is played before Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. kickoff, the first time fans will get to witness these Hawkeyes after a transformative summer.

“Most definitely we’ve been heard and we’ve had the discussion about it,” Hankins said.

“And it will be shown during the first game.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.