Leistikow: A chance for Iowa football to truly leave its jersey in a better place
The eyes of the nation are on Iowa City.
Allegations of racism and mistreatment of players within the Iowa football program aired on Sunday’s ABC evening news. A U.S. senator from Connecticut was tweeting disgust about it earlier in the morning. Several national college football writers joined the usual Iowa media contingent on a Zoom call with college football’s longest-tenured coach late Sunday afternoon.
While some view this developing story as a crisis, it’s more accurately a huge opportunity.
Voices long held down or too scared to speak up have spoken up. What a positive first step.
And now, IN IOWA, there’s a chance to showcase to a country desperately seeking meaningful progress in addressing racial inequities in our society … how it can be done.
All weekend, allegations of institutional racism within Hawkeye football were described by dozens upon dozens of social media posts from former Iowa players, most of them black.
The man at the top of the institution of Iowa football is expressing a willingness to foster change. A statement late Saturday from 21st-year head coach Kirk Ferentz called this “a defining moment” for Hawkeye football.
But it’s truly a chance to be a defining moment for something far bigger. And if Ferentz doesn’t see it that way, then this story is almost certainly going to end poorly.
Ferentz’s best moments during a 45-minute news conference were at the beginning, during his prepared remarks. He said he was “very, very sorry” that some players felt like they couldn’t speak up to voice concern during their playing careers. He said he needed to be a better leader, a better communicator.
“Our program is demanding. It has been demanding from the start,” Ferentz said. “Players I talked to and heard from are largely appreciative of that … appreciative of a program where they can come in, work hard, show improvement and excel.
“One big point of distinction. In coaching and in life, there is a difference in being demanding and then also potentially being demeaning. And to be demeaning … is not acceptable.”
There was little contrition from Chris Doyle, who released a statement Sunday just 5 minutes before Ferentz was set to speak. Doyle, the primary focus of former players’ cries for culture change, stated that he was told to remain quiet but felt compelled to respond to statements about his behavior that he said were untrue.
“I do not claim to be perfect. I have made mistakes, learned lessons and like every American citizen, can do better,” Doyle wrote. “At no time have I ever crossed the line of unethical behavior or bias based upon race. I do not make racists (sic) comments, and I don’t tolerate people who do. I am confident that a complete review of the body of work over 21 years will speak for itself.”
Not one "I'm sorry" in the four-paragraph statement.
Nor does Doyle acknowledge the possibility of having made racist comments, which raises questions about his openness to make meaningful change that his former players desire.
Education must start with a willingness to be educated.
I’ve posted and tweeted so many of the stories being shared, but here’s one from Brandon Simon, a black former defensive end who ended up transferring. He said Doyle once threatened to “send him back to the streets.” (Simon, in fact, says he grew up in a beautiful home with loving parents and attended a prep academy in New Jersey.)
There are real implications to our words. Young black men often grow up being reminded by society that they somehow have lesser stature than others. That may have felt like an off-hand comment to Doyle, but it became a hurtful example that Simon still remembers and posted about Saturday night.
“Doyle must think all black people in America come from ‘the streets’ and have no guidance,” Simon wrote. “His statement exemplifies what he thinks of black people and our culture! His belief is that they have to conform to a culture that looks like him in order to succeed. This attitude has led to the high transfer rate of many black student-athletes, and some quitting football altogether.”
While allegations against Doyle are going under an external investigation, Ferentz will certainly have a say in whether his right-hand man for 21 years will be retained. Based on Doyle’s statement, there’s not much receptiveness for change.
“If any of us can’t do our jobs effectively, then it’s really no use trying to do your job,” Ferentz said. “That’s one of the questions I’ve had for our former players. In your mind, can I do my job effectively moving forward?”
Another fair question: What is Ferentz’s culpability in all of this?
He bumbled a bit on a question about former defensive back Diauntae Morrow, who claimed that he was suspended by Ferentz for standing up to Doyle after a racist remark. Ferentz, known for his steel-trap memory, didn’t remember that incident.
“I’m not saying it’s true or not true,” he said.
Ferentz also denied that Iowa’s drug-testing practices were unfair to black players, something multiple ex-players (including Chicago Bears lineman James Daniels) have charged. He later said he didn’t think racism was a big problem within Iowa football, a bit of a cringe-worthy remark given what’s been shared in the last 72 hours.
“But that’s easy for me to say,” he noted. “If there is something being felt, I want to minimize that as much as possible.”
So, where do we go from here?
Again, let’s think big-picture.
Ferentz should view this opportunity as one that will define his coaching career.
He’s won 162 games as Iowa’s head coach, but these coming months could shape his legacy beyond wins and losses.
The assignment of outspoken longtime NFL defensive lineman Mike Daniels to head a diverse committee was a smart step. The group is being formed to “make the program more inclusive, more welcoming, more safe for all of our black players and all of our players, in general.”
Take that committee’s advice to heart. Push the envelope. Let them lead change. They want the best for Iowa football, too. That is the former players’ wish: To make the program better than ever.
Announce the changes. Be publicly accountable to them. Allow healthy dialogues to continue.
Whether Iowa wins nine games this coming season or 12 or five, what happens to the football culture is the program’s biggest story of 2020.
Players and coaches often talk about leaving the jersey in a better place from one year to the next.
Let’s show the rest of America how Iowa can be a better place, too.
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.