Leistikow: The Gary Dolphin conversation we should be willing to have

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Over the course of his long broadcasting career, Gary Dolphin has made a lot of friends.

Many of them are black.

As Dolphin spoke about them Wednesday, he became reflective and even a little emotional. His words became the most profound and defining moments of a 32-minute news conference to welcome him back, starting this spring, as the voice of Iowa Hawkeyes football and basketball.

Dolphin grew up in Cascade in the 1960s. A white person surrounded by white people. Early in his life, he wasn’t exposed to people that looked different than him.

I can relate. I imagine many of you can, too.

Iowa broadcaster Gary Dolphin will return to the mic for the Hawkeyes' spring football game in April.

What he heard from his black friends he’s met over the years — coaches, players, community leaders — was a combination of support for the person he is … but honest criticism about his referring to a black Maryland basketball player from Angola as “King Kong.”

“They called to let me know that they understood what I said, what I was trying to do,” Dolphin said. “They still support me. They like who I am. But several were disappointed in the analogy.

“That caused me to pause.”

Thank you, Gary.

And thank you, Gary’s friends.

This is the conversation all of us have been needing to have.

Talk about the head basketball coach being suspended for two games can take a back seat today.

Comparing a black man to an ape, fictional or not, is not only inappropriate but offensive. For centuries, it’s been a disparaging and dehumanizing analogy. It’s disappointing how many people haven’t grasped that.

For five days, too many of us — many with good intentions of defending a friend or peer — were too focused on Dolphin's punishment and not how his words could be received.

A white person doesn’t get to decide what offends a black person; just as a man can’t decide what’s offensive to a woman.

Dolphin, plain and simple, was in the wrong to say what he said.

“It was unintentional,” he said. “But it was wrong. And I recognize that now.”

Dolphin gets it.

For five days, though, too much of the discussion following his suspension missed the point.

Ever since the suspension of Dolphin for the remainder of Iowa’s basketball season was announced last Friday, his defenders have been vocal and persistent. 

But he didn’t mean anything by the comment, they've said. What he called Maryland's Bruno Fernando was actually a compliment.

We know better, though. For example, you can compliment a co-worker on his or her appearance and still offend that person. Intention matters, sure, but so does perception and how that comment makes others feel. 

Sometimes the most painful and lasting damage we do is, unfortunately, unintended.

Gary Barta, the Iowa athletics director who has been the target of many fans’ anger for his role in temporarily pulling the plug on Dolphin, explained in detail how he’s seen that play out repeatedly in the Iowa City community.

Let me repeat that: In the Iowa City community.

This is a real issue that hits close to home. We need to pay attention. We need to listen. 

Barta told of the many times he’s sat across the table from a black Hawkeye athlete who will "describe to me pain that they’ve gone through in our community” because of intentional and unintentional bias.

Any of us who haven’t faced constant and real racial struggles can be quick to minimize little side comments as nothing. But it is received very differently — often painfully — for those who have experienced discrimination.

That’s why Dolphin’s off-the-cuff reference to Fernando without thinking about the racial implications is a lesson we can all learn from. 

And if you want this conversation to stick to just sports for a minute, this story might resonate: There were Iowa fans on Twitter engaging DaJuan Foster, the father of five-star recruit Xavier Foster of Oskaloosa, and trying to convince him — a black man — that he shouldn't be offended by Dolphin’s comment.

That’s not the look you want as a fan base — to be telling a black athlete’s father what he should think. That's not the look you want as a human being.

At least one tweet to me this week demanded that I try to find just one black person who was offended by Dolphin’s comparison — as if all black people must think alike.

"That’s the bigger point is the experience and the pain associated with the reference," DaJuan Foster tweeted. “But some people don’t want to understand. All I want to do is educate. But one must be open to listen.”

And that’s where so many of us failed over the past week.

We either didn’t listen. Or didn't want to. 

Also in the news today:Some thoughts on the two-game suspension of Iowa's Fran McCaffery

Listening and having these conversations, not aligning on one side against the other, is what makes America great. Black Americans were once counted as three-fifths of a person. Women couldn’t vote until the early 20th century. Segregation was still prevalent in our country until the 1960s.

We progressed in all these areas as a society by having conversations and reflecting on ways we could improve.

But there's more work to be done. When we commit ourselves to learning and growing from our mistakes, we're moving in the right direction.

Dolphin and Barta did a great service in communicating this Wednesday. I was leery that the press conference would be a 30-minute "welcome-back, buddy boy" affair. But both were willing to step out and have these conversations in front of a state that’s 91 percent white.

“My conversations with my African-American friends really struck a nerve with me,” Dolphin said, “that even though we may think we know everything about race relations and insensitivity … we can learn something every day.”

Apologies are crucial in moving forward, as Iowa and Dolphin intend to together.

Dolphin apologized and acknowledged what was hurtful about his words. He needs to apologize to Fernando, too — he said he would, after the basketball season. Hopefully, Dolphin will also follow through on his promise to become more well-versed in unconscious bias.

It's on all of us to improve as people, as Dolphin's friends told him. 

“If you make a mistake, you own up to it," he said. "And you move on. And that’s all I can do.”

This has no doubt been a painful week in Hawkeye Nation.

Hopefully, though, it's one we can all learn from. 

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Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.