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Leistikow: Culture change in Iowa football is necessary, and it must start with Kirk Ferentz

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Stories shared in recent hours describe troubling racial disparities within the Iowa football program.

The stories kept coming Friday night. One after another after another.

More came Saturday morning.

One by one, former black Iowa football players felt the freedom to finally publicize stories and feelings they’ve held private for years and, in some cases, for more than a decade.

Akrum Wadley, the program’s No. 5 all-time leading rusher, said he was asked if he was going to go rob a bank or liquor store because he was wearing a team-issued Nike face mask on a cold day.

Former linebacker Laron Taylor said strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle once asked him if he was “gang-banging” in the offseason.

Chris Doyle has been Iowa's strength and conditioning coach in each of Kirk Ferentz's 21 years as head coach.

Former defensive end Terrance Pryor said after he had suffered a season-ending injury that Doyle insinuated he should try rowing instead of football before saying, “Oh wait, black people don’t like boats in water, do they?”

Many players have called out a culture of inequity in how white and black players are treated. Recent former running back Toren Young tweeted, “If you are a black player, you quickly learn to conform to white culture (when in the building) at Iowa. And if you don’t, you (won’t) make it very long.”

There are dozens of similar posts that either describe or imply racially motivated decisions disguised as Iowa culture. Many of the posts explicitly identify Doyle — the right-hand man of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz for 21-plus years and college football’s highest-paid strength coach — for harsh treatment toward all players, especially those of color.

Former defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, now with the Minnesota Vikings, detailed numerous instances of racial inconsistencies he witnessed as a five-year defensive tackle from 2012 to 2016. He and Chicago Bears offensive lineman James Daniels, who played at Iowa from 2015 to 2017, have been two of the most prominent voices to suggest that Doyle and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz — the head coach’s oldest son — need to change.

“Coach Doyle is the problem in that building. And so is Brian Ferentz,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Things won’t progress until those two fix themselves. They know they’re a problem. KF isn’t. I respect (Kirk) Ferentz wholeheartedly. It’s the other(s) in the building.”

Added Daniels, “I wouldn’t be in the league without Coach Doyle and BF. But Jaleel is right, change needs to start with those two.”

Yet as of this writing — and we have seen that these things can escalate quickly — I have yet to see a former player call for the firing of Doyle or anyone else.

That is telling, too.

The cry is for change that starts in the heart.

That’s something Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell, who is black, alluded to on our radio show Wednesday night. That change starts with education, from young to old. What Bell described that night and what players are describing now is something they’ve always known: that systemic racism is prevalent in our society.

What is sad and disappointing is that so many black athletes found that it was also prevalent within a football program at a public university — one that prides itself as progressive.

Another question I’ve heard a lot in the last 24 hours: Why speak up now?

The short answer: Because black Americans are seeing more openness to listening from the nation’s white majority, as passionate protests continue to resonate across our state and country in the wake of the chilling death of George Floyd in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer.

Former running back Marcel Joly responded to the question by referencing late former teammate Derrick Mitchell Jr., a black player who he said was treated unfairly at Iowa and was killed in an October car crash. Said Joly: “This is not NEW!! If not now? Then when!”

Comments by Felicia Goodson, the black mother of starting Iowa running back Tyler Goodson, indicate that not every black player has a negative Iowa experience. In an interview Saturday with the Register, she was “concerned” but said her son is comfortable reporting for voluntary workouts that begin in Iowa City on Monday, under Doyle's supervision. She believes in Kirk Ferentz's ability to lead change.

"He’s a really good person,” she said. “I think if they give him the opportunity, he’ll fix it. He’ll turn it around."

Still, there will be questions about how culpable the head coach should be. As one Facebook post framed it, either Kirk Ferentz is out of touch with his assistant coaches or has turned a blind eye.

And neither option is good.

At a minimum, though, Doyle has been described as someone who operates with intimidation — Johnson pointed to him stepping on players’ fingers as they warmed up — with racial overtones that he may or may not realize. That is unacceptable. Doyle should be placed on leave while athletics director Gary Barta's staff conducts an investigation. The allegations against Brian Ferentz are not as grave, but a suspension would be the right message given the Ferentzes' father-son relationship.

Doyle did not respond to a text message seeking comment; reached by phone, Brian Ferentz declined to comment.

As I wrote in multiple columns earlier this week, white leaders with influence and power must address racism and eliminate it from their operations. And that starts in this case with Kirk Ferentz, whose statement Friday night missed the mark in one way but was encouraging in another.

“I am saddened to hear these comments from some of our former players,” Ferentz’s statement began. “While I wish they had reached out to us directly, I am thankful that these players decided to share their experiences now.”

Pause.

Ferentz should realize that black players did not reach out directly because they are describing an environment where such concerns weren't perceived as welcome. Cue Diauntae Morrow, a defensive back on the 2008 team who later transferred to Toledo. He tweeted an incident in which Doyle threatened to send him "back to the ghetto" and after voicing his displeasure in front of the team, Morrow said he was suspended and Ferentz told him he was out of line.

"Doyle relays the messages for KF," Morrow continued. "KF is not innocent by any means."

Back to Ferentz's Friday statement.

“As I said earlier this week,” Ferentz said, “the best way to affect change is by listening. I have started reaching out to them on an individual basis to hear their stories first hand. Making change that matters involves an open dialogue and possibly some tough conversations. I am glad to have the opportunity to do just that. As a staff and as leaders, we will listen and take to heart the messages we hear.”

It's change that former players want.

I spoke with a black player Friday night who spent five years in the Hawkeye program. We talked for more than an hour about what he experienced and witnessed. After the conversation ended, he stressed that he did not want to be quoted … that he and other former players wanted to stress bringing about culture change at Iowa. Their motive is not to tear down a program many of them still love.

“It’s oppression. That’s what it is,” the player said. “It’s not blatant racism. I don’t think they understand.”

Eyes and ears are opening.

That’s a necessary starting point in this difficult conversation.

I’ll close with something Goodson’s mother mentioned on Saturday, after she had spent much of the last 24 hours interacting with former players (and their parents) who have spoken out. She voices a vision for change that let's hope everyone can embrace.

“I think what we’re seeing is, ‘I can’t be quiet anymore.’ This is them trying to just change the world around us,” Goodson said. “My hope for these players that came out … is that it won’t fall on deaf ears and that it wasn’t done in vain. That Coach Ferentz and the staff will create a better culture with the environment, and even the Iowa City community.”

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.