Leistikow: Back for Iowa basketball, Gary Dolphin shares how he's changed since suspension

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

As Gary Dolphin spoke into his cell phone while driving down Highway 151, he began to put his last 8½ months in perspective. And, like the gifted radio broadcaster that he is, Dolphin painted a stark picture with his crisp words.

Yes, he experienced tough days. Absolutely, he was remorseful and self-reflective.

But no, the longtime voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes hadn’t retreated into a bunker of solitude.

“I didn’t sit at home with the drapes pulled and the TV off all day long, sitting there in my robe,” Dolphin said. “I wanted to get out in front of it.”

“It,” as most know by now, was the on-air comparison of a black Maryland basketball player to “King Kong,” a reference that led to a Feb. 22 announcement that Dolphin would be suspended from calling games for the rest of Iowa’s basketball season. Five days later, Dolphin looked into TV cameras at a press conference and expressed remorse about an analogy that can stir up dehumanizing pain for those who have experienced discrimination.

Iowa radio broadcaster Gary Dolphin, left, said he has received a great deal of support from University of Iowa adminstration (including Gary Barta, right) and basketball coach Fran McCaffery since a Feb. 27 press conference.

But although we’ve heard from Dolphin since then, as the radio voice for Iowa football games, we haven’t heard from him since Feb. 27 on this topic. Until now.

Dolphin, in an interview with the Des Moines Register, detailed the steps he’s taken to become more versed in unconscious bias and how he is moving forward with Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeye basketball program.

No script. No prepared statements.

Just Dolph, speaking from the heart.

Friday, when Iowa hosts SIU-Edwardsville, will mark the first regular-season basketball game Dolphin has announced since the Feb. 19 Maryland broadcast that changed his life.

“That length of time caused me to pause and evaluate everything from style to career and how I could improve,” Dolphin said. “Nobody’s perfect, and certainly we all make mistakes.”

Most of us have seen politicians or leaders apologize for indiscretions, then eventually we mostly forget about it — and nothing really changes.

To Dolphin’s credit, though, he didn’t let his Feb. 27 apology mark the end of this story.

In the days and weeks that followed, Dolphin said he reached out to dozens of former basketball coaches, players and community leaders, both black and white. He began calling local colleges, near his Peosta residence, in an effort to find someone who could teach him more about the consequences of unconscious bias. He said a Latino professor who specializes in diversity issues became an invaluable guide. 

Nobody told Dolphin to do that. Nor did he take to social media to showcase his self-help steps. He operated quietly, with what he estimates as seven to eight hours of classroom time. He also described scenarios that were addressed during a three-hour online course on unconscious bias.

Maybe his biggest takeaway?

An alarming realization of how many people say things that are hurtful to others, both intentionally and unintentionally. Just as Dolphin wasn’t aware that his remarks about former Maryland star Bruno Fernando reflected racial ignorance.

Now, Dolphin said, he has a deeper appreciation of the impact of word choice. He is now more aware of the prevalence of inappropriate, hurtful comments on social media. Those contribute to a more destructive public discourse.

It’s easy to own the intent behind our word choices. It’s more challenging to own the unintended consequences of them. Dolphin has learned to own both sides.

“The best way to say it is in everyday life, we’re always learning something new,” Dolphin said. “When I say something new, it’s to be more open-minded and more subjective to what is hurtful and what is acceptable. My intentions, at least as far as I know, have always been good and well in mind. But I’ve learned some valuable lessons that (words) you say can be hurtful to somebody.

“We just have to stop and not only educate ourselves, but think before we speak.”

That can be a challenge when you’re in an unscripted radio business like Dolphin is.

But it’s also why Dolphin said he wanted to improve his social awareness. Perhaps others will be inspired to do the same.

Rarely is the right thing to do the easy thing to do.

But Dolphin appears to have done the right things, with quiet humility.

This is how society is supposed to function. This is how our leading voices are supposed to act.

Gary Dolphin, right, and Bobby Hansen are entering their 23rd year together as the voices of Iowa basketball.

None of us are perfect. But when we make mistakes, we help ourselves — and each other — by trying to learn from them. We know we will inevitably mess up again. But our word choices, whether intended or not, carry an impact. That's an important lesson to be open to learning, whether you're a teenager or 68, like Dolphin is. 

Our society is at its best when we approach mistakes with humility and an open mind.

Not everyone who makes public mistakes is met with the grace that was extended to Dolphin by his friends and Iowa’s administration, including athletics director Gary Barta. Dolphin was also appreciative the kindness McCaffery showed him in the aftermath of the suspension.

“Deep down," Dolphin said, "Fran knows I genuinely care about the kids.”

Dolphin was understandably nervous about how he would re-acclimate to the basketball program, especially in light of his hot-mic comments last November that criticized one player (who has since transferred) and questioned the program’s recruiting.

But Dolphin’s concerns were largely put to rest on March 2. He articulated a somewhat amusing scene, as he and McCaffery — who himself had been suspended for berating an official — munched on pizza in the head coach’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena office while the Hawkeye basketball team played an uncomfortably bad game against Rutgers one floor below them.

Dolphin remembers staying mum as McCaffery soaked in an upsetting first half. But at halftime, the two talked about moving forward together.

“He assured me, ‘We want you back. You’re going to be back.’ Then the second half started, and (the game) didn’t get any better,” Dolphin recalled. “Really, it wasn’t any more than that.”

But it meant a lot.

And now, eight months later, Dolphin is thankful for the fact that he is behind the mic again this week, as Iowa hoops tips off its 2019-20 season. It might’ve been easy for him to just move on from basketball after 22 seasons — and simply embrace his fervent initial supporters that said his Fernando comments were no big deal, and that Dolphin was wrongly suspended.

But he chose to take the more responsible route.

Dolphin pointed to a lesson he's learned from watching Kirk Ferentz during his 21 years as Iowa’s football coach. You look at the film. You take the time to learn from mistakes. You take accountability. Apologize when necessary. And you get back on your feet and genuinely try to do better next time.

We can all learn from how Dolphin has handled these past 8½ months.

“I’m glad other folks decided I was worthy enough to (reclaim) that mantle (as Iowa’s basketball voice),” Dolphin said, as our 35-minute conversation neared its conclusion. “And I’ll try to be worthy of it going forward.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.