Leistikow: In evolving Iowa football program, Kirk Ferentz should lift freshmen media restrictions
The wait continues for the outside investigation into racial inequities and mistreatment in the Iowa football program, with findings from law firm Husch Blackwell not expected until at least next week.
But just as he didn't need three Kansas City lawyers to decide that a Twitter ban was bad policy, head coach Kirk Ferentz can take this time to enact further changes that will help create a more inclusive environment where every voice — their true voice, not a scripted one — is heard.
While on a family vacation, I got a chance to catch up with the Washed-Up Walk-ons podcast — spearheaded by former Hawkeyes Tyler Kluver, Drake Kulick and Kevin Ward — that welcomed Chicago Bears offensive lineman James Daniels (arguably the most integral voice for Hawkeye change) and former defensive back Jordan Lomax. The discussion was eye-opening, with the players describing Black and white tables during meals and the ways that Black players felt slighted and that their opinions were minimized. I highly recommend listening, if you haven’t already.
“That’s the main root of the problem, is that Black players did not feel like they could be themselves in the facility,” Daniels said. “It felt like Black players had to conform to be the Iowa, try-hard football player.
“In college, you should be able to be you.”
It should be noted that the players applauded recent changes instituted by Ferentz, including allowing rap music to be played in the weight room and hats and earrings to be worn inside the team facility. It should also be noted that the players felt that Ferentz was the right person to lead change, and that staff changes beyond the June 15 removal of Chris Doyle as strength and conditioning coach were not necessary.
One of the many topics discussed was who Ferentz permits to speak to the media. And, more notably, who he doesn’t.
It was not lost on Daniels and Lomax that those rewarded by Ferentz to attend the annual Big Ten Media Days — roughly 36 hours of hanging with the head coach, rubbing elbows with the league’s biggest stars and eating in Chicago’s finest steakhouses — tilted white. From 2012 to 2018, only five of Iowa’s 21 player representatives were Black (23.8%).
The perception, which I believe is based in reality, is that Ferentz’s program has historically tamped down hype surrounding certain players. Akrum Wadley, Noah Fant, A.J. Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs are among the stars in recent years who have had media access restricted. It isn't always a racial issue; one white player whose personality was stifled at Iowa and has since flourished (along with his game) is San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle.
On that note, Ferentz is showing early progress in giving his players more freedom of expression, in the wake of dozens of former Black players alleging mistreatment and disparities within the program. He lifted his long-standing Twitter ban last month, acknowledging “it was a stupid policy. … We’ve got a team that deserves to be trusted and deserves a little bit more latitude.”
It was great to see Ferentz allow sophomore safety Kaevon Merriweather — whose tweet challenging Iowa fans to support them whether they kneel for the national anthem or not stirred up strong opinions — to be the first player available for media questions in the program’s response to racial inequities.
And now, Ferentz should take things a step further during this period of program evaluation: He should lift his outdated restriction on true freshmen to be interviewed by outside media.
With a few exceptions in Ferentz’s tenure, players are kept off-limits from reporters for between 14 and 19 months upon their campus arrival as freshmen. Epenesa, for example, didn’t speak with Iowa media for 11 months after his first sack as a Hawkeye. Tyler Goodson, who last season became the first true freshman to lead a Ferentz-era team in rushing, has yet to be the subject of a media interview.
Ferentz’s reasons for this restriction have merit in theory — that he wants to limit distractions for freshmen as they acclimate to the demands of Power Five football. But as we have seen during this program-defining period, too many past players — particularly those who are Black — felt like their voices were muted for too long.
With this column topic in mind, I reached out to the university, and Ferentz responded with a statement.
The ban on freshman media access, Ferentz said in an e-mail, “has allowed our first-year players to focus on adjusting to a new phase in their lives, while concentrating on academics, athletics and their time-management skills in their first year on campus. This is included with a number of things we are currently discussing to make adjustments within the framework of the program.”
That’s understandable, and any freshman who wants to avoid interviews should have that right, too. It's great that Ferentz is open to change, considering a majority of significant true-freshmen contributors over the past five years are mi. Examples include Daniels and Jerminic Smith in 2015; Fant and Manny Rugamba in 2016; Epenesa, Wirfs, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Geno Stone in 2017; Julius Brents in 2018; Goodson and Dane Belton in 2019.
And while Ferentz might not see this is a plus, there is something to be said about the level of trust and relationship built between players and media over long periods of time. Typically, the better the relationship, the more candid the interviews become.
I (and others) experience that in covering Fran McCaffery's Iowa basketball program, where freshmen are trusted to balance incredibly demanding schedules while meeting regularly with the media, as often as four times a week.
Additionally, with name, image and likeness legislation coming down the pipeline (in which athletes will be able to profit off their celebrity while playing in college), having restrictions on freshmen expression would likely lead to negative recruiting by other programs ... if it's not happening already.
This is far from the biggest Iowa football issue out there.
But as Daniels and Lomax outlined, little changes can make a big difference. And making sure more voices are allowed to be heard is an easy, simple step that doesn't require further investigation.
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.