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Leistikow: Gary Barta, Kirk Ferentz made mistakes on Iowa's race issues. Can they get it right this time?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Try to envision this scenario.

One man is in charge of a multi-million-dollar business — let’s call him Gary Barta — and learns of racial inequities and possible mistreatment of people in the most lucrative branch of his operation.

He then tells the man in charge of that multi-million sector — let’s call him Kirk Ferentz — that he needs to address racial bias that has been occurring under his watch.

If you’re Ferentz, how do you proceed?

And if you’re Barta, how much force do you apply to make sure decisive and tangible change is made?

What actually unfolded paints a picture of two privileged white men not really sure how to fix the problem or understand its scope. That became more starkly clear Monday; that both failed in initial responses in their power positions at the University of Iowa — Barta as athletics director, Ferentz as head football coach. An article posted Monday morning by HawkeyeNation.com outlined how many of the complaints that surfaced on social media in early June (such as Black players feeling they couldn’t be themselves and had to conform to a white culture) were known by Barta and Ferentz in the spring of 2019.

Barta had in the spring of 2018 created a diversity task force to address poor graduation rates among Black student-athletes — which at Iowa had become the worst in the Big Ten Conference — and learn about racial bias happening under his leadership.

“I was convincing myself the changes were making a difference,” Barta said at a June 15 news conference, also acknowledging that follow-up meetings were sporadic.

Ferentz’s tangible response before the 2019 season was to allow rap music in the weight room and to permit the wearing of hats, earrings and hoodies inside the Iowa football building.

“(The changes) appeared to be in my mind significant,” Ferentz said Thursday.

Both Barta and Ferentz have now admitted they didn’t do enough, and that they were caught off guard by the early-June barrage of racial-bias complaints from 50-plus former football players.

So, the question arises: If Barta and Ferentz didn’t get it right then, should we trust them to get it right now? 

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz, left, received full support from athletics director Gary Barta (right) in a June 15 news conference.

Let’s circle back to that question toward the end of this column.

But first, consider being placed in Ferentz’s shoes again in the spring of 2019. Your boss alerts you that many of these athletics-department complaints stemmed from football. How do you address them?

Even if Ferentz seriously cared about making change, were he and his staff equipped with racial-bias training and full university support to do so?

It’s obvious now that Barta wasn’t holding Ferentz’s feet to the fire to take sweeping action. Ferentz had an initial meeting with Black players in August before the 2019 season, but then failed on his promise to players that he would conduct a follow-up meeting later in the fall. It was a low priority, and either Barta made him feel that way or he shrugged it off or both.

“I dropped the ball,” Ferentz admitted Thursday, but noted that the June outcry of former players has “prompted and motivated more direct conversation.”

We should also remember that Barta was rewarded by UI President Bruce Harreld with a new three-year contract, released in August of 2019, that was set to increase his pay to $1 million for the 2020-21 school year. How much of an incentive was addressing racial inequities for Barta before June 5, 2020?

It seems that, university-wide, Iowa was not set up to succeed in addressing racial complaints.

This is an excellent example of why racism is still prevalent in America, why the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death have been so eye-opening to so many. There often isn’t enough institutional accountability among white men in power to make meaningful change to address racial injustices.

But now, Barta and Ferentz realize the stakes. We have their full attention, and they have ours.

So, back to the question: Will they get it right this time?

It seems like they are saying and doing the right things now, and they should be supported for taking positive early steps. The Husch Blackwell outside investigation into the Hawkeye football program, which could be completed as early as this week, could highlight further specifics on what more must change.

Meantime, should we in the media and the Iowa community continue to throw stones at past failures of Barta and Ferentz?Or are we going to focus on the change that's happening in the past six weeks and push for more necessary improvements?

The majority of former players have stepped up to say Ferentz is the right guy to lead change; that (now-removed) strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was the biggest culture problem. Parents of current Black players are publicly backing Ferentz and the team’s efforts for more inclusion and for creating a positive environment.

Barta and Ferentz have become the most motivated individuals to lead the necessary culture turnaround, which does seem to be in the early stages of happening. Current players have described a world of difference in the past six weeks, with Black wide receiver Brandon Smith on Thursday saying, "If you come to the University of Iowa, your voice will be heard."

If a year from now, we find out that little follow-up has taken place and that racial disparities weren't properly addressed in the Iowa football program? Or in the athletics department? Then, absolutely, fire Barta and fire Ferentz.

Until then, they have shown with their actions and words of the past six weeks that they deserve the chance to get it right.

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.