Leistikow: Iowa football saga reveals college athletes' newly realized power
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Following the barrage of former Iowa football players using their social-media platforms to call for change to racial inequities within Kirk Ferentz’s program, it was quickly clear that the nation would be closely watching how this story would unfold.
And, so far, it’s becoming clear that the college-football nation is not just watching. It’s following.
A banded-together group of Texas players have said they would not participate in recruiting or donor activities until a list of demands (including changing “The Eyes of Texas” fight song, steeped in racist history). Oklahoma State star player Chuba Hubbard used his Twitter account to speak out against his head coach, Mike Gundy, wearing a T-shirt bearing the emblem of a right-wing TV network … and hours later, he was touting positive change toward race relations being generated in the Cowboys program.
The theme that Iowa football can (and, so far, is) showing the rest of the country: The players, not necessarily the $5 million coaches, hold the ultimate power.
Revisiting some of the comments made by Hawkeyes last week reveal a group of current players (not just the former ones, who don’t have a scholarship or playing time to lose) are finding the strength of their collective voice.
Sophomore safety Kaevon Merriweather, who is Black, said that the raw conversations in two days of team meetings last week allowed everybody to get issues “off their chests. It was a really strong step for the program, a really strong step for the team.”
Senior kicker Keith Duncan, who is white, pointed out that the majority of the people in the Hansen Football Performance Center are players and that Ferentz doesn't see as much as they do. “We see everything,” Duncan said. “It’s us as leaders and captains to speak up on what we can see, what we can improve.”
Maybe most powerfully, there was junior third-string running back Ivory Kelly-Martin. He acknowledged the "walking-on-eggshells" mentality of fellow Black players. "There wasn’t much communication when someone would see something bad happen," Kelly-Martin said. "When you have 120-something players coming out trying to protect one guy, I feel like that’s where a lot of the power comes from.”
George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police and the ensuing mass protests have increased a nation’s awareness and receptiveness to understanding the cause and effect of racial injustices. In the case of Iowa football, former players taking to their social-media accounts became the most powerful way to enact change. But the power didn't come from one lone voice; it was five dozen strong, and their movement ultimately led to Monday’s end of Chris Doyle’s 21-year reign as strength and conditioning coach.
Imagine if, for example, the players in Iowa's two-deep said they would sit out the Wisconsin game to protest a wrongdoing that they saw as being swept under the rug?
“The players have the power,” Duncan reminded us last week.
But, to that point, every perceived inequity shouldn’t require a team protest to fix.
And that’s where it is worth zeroing in on a key point from athletics director Gary Barta’s Monday news conference. Barta acknowledged that there needs to be better safe spaces for minority athletes to go if they’re facing discrimination or bullying treatment from coaches or peers.
In his vision, a stronger commitment to a diversity task force (first created in the spring of 2018 to address low graduation rates among Black male athletes at Iowa) can help. The interim head of the committee is Broderick Binns, the 2011 defensive MVP of the Hawkeye football team and Ferentz's current director of player development.
“One of the new charges is having that group … maybe (being) a place where our student-athletes can go,” Barta said, “and they get to know the individuals in this group, and they earn trust with this group."
While Binns, 30, still reports directly to Ferentz, he indirectly reports to associate athletics director Liz Tovar — who is Black and was cited by outspoken former player James Daniels of the Chicago Bears as an ally for Black athletes at Iowa.
"Broderick over the past year has done a tremendous job," Tovar told the Register on Tuesday. "… With Broderick being a former student-athlete here, he really has a lot of credibility among our students.
“We want this to be a good learning opportunity, to make sure our student-athletes feel safe. That they feel like they have a place to go."
Iowa's early steps seem like a good start.
So, how will we know if true progress is being made?
The athletes, with their newly realized power, will tell us.
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.