Chad Leistikow's early thoughts on results of Iowa football racial-bias investigation
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The outside investigation into alleged racial bias within the Iowa football program was publicly distributed Thursday morning.
Kirk Ferentz and athletics director Gary Barta were scheduled to hold a 1 p.m. news conference. Here are some early thoughts on the findings and recommendations from law firm Husch Blackwell.
Yes, investigators say there have been racial biases within the Hawkeye program that require further action.
This isn’t a newsflash to anyone who has followed the story since early June, when dozens of former players spoke up via social media to detail stories of racial disparities and bullying from Iowa coaches, particularly now-departed strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.
However, the 28-page report — compiled by a team of attorneys who interviewed 111 individuals (of which 52% are Black) — concludes that the program’s structure "perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity. The program over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players."
The law firm, though, did conclude that "current and former players were overwhelmingly positive in their evaluation of the coaching staff, with three exceptions. Many current and former players told investigators that three members of the coaching staff abused their power and verbally abused and bullied players."
Those staff members were not named in the publicly distributed report, but Husch Blackwell said it provided the university with four personnel reports to address specific allegations against current and former coaches. It seems most likely that one of those would be Doyle, the only coach other than Kirk Ferentz who was specifically mentioned in the report.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was not mentioned in the report, although it would be a logical assumption that he was one of the unnamed assistants. The son of the head coach unofficially had the second-most public allegations of mistreatment against him (after Doyle) by a wide margin. His status going forward will be a question for Barta, his direct supervisor, to address later Thursday.
The report outlined overall confidence in Kirk Ferentz among players, but there was troubling information about the head coach.
Perhaps most damaging as I read through the report was that a current (unnamed) Hawkeye coach described “a feeling among Black players that, although the rules are the same, there are disparities in the impact of the rules. This coach told investigators that he brought the treatment of players up to (Kirk) Ferentz a couple times over the last four years with no resulting change.”
Although, again, many of these things have been aired in the media for nearly two months, it does describe a scenario in which Ferentz was made aware to potential racial disparities and took little to no action. That scenario is consistent with a recent interview former team captain Jordan Lomax conducted with The Des Moines Register and The Athletic; Lomax helped make Ferentz aware of racial issues in 2017. The university has acknowledged looking into racial disparities in 2018. According to this report, Ferentz was made aware of these issues as early as 2016.
In a statement released by Ferentz late Thursday morning (before his press conference), he said:
“This is an important time for me as a leader of our program. This review brings us face-to-face with allegations of uneven treatment, where our culture that mandated uniformity caused many Black players to feel they were unable to show up as their authentic selves.
“I want to apologize for the pain and frustration they felt when I was trusted to help each of them become a better player, a better person."
That might have been Ferentz's strongest admission of remorse yet; in early June, he said he hadn't apologized to former players because "I think they know how I feel.”
The report describes Iowa's culture as 'not just a Chris Doyle problem.'
That was the opinion of several players, according to Husch Blackwell; that a demeaning culture extended beyond the 21-year strength and conditioning coach. The summary of findings described that some coaches “only become friendly with the Black players when they are contributing to the team.”
Another former player, who was described as a prominent contributor but not named, said: “Every single day was a struggle. I felt bad about myself as did many of my Black teammates. We wanted badly to be successful and to help our team and took the abuse to achieve team goals.”
Had players not aired their grievances over the past eight weeks, these comments would be shocking — as they were in early June.
The report delved into sleep bands and players' weight as major issues but diffused drug-testing disparities.
Doyle has publicly outlined the benefits of monitoring sleep patterns with student-athletes, but overall this report revealed that the use of sleep bands damaged the team culture. The term “sleep list” was described in the report, in which the 10 players who got the least sleep during a week had to meet with the strength-and-conditioning staff. That practice was described as demeaning for the worst sleepers, although an unnamed former strength coach (presumably Doyle) was quoted in the report that "not one time in the history of Iowa football was anyone ever disciplined for sleep."
Ferentz said in the report going forward that he will be the only coach to receive data about player sleep and that it would only be used as an educational tool.
Additional anxiety was caused among players surrounding target weights (as supplied by Doyle), and players who weren’t within two pounds of their target weight would be subject to a “shake list” — in which the player was forced to chug shakes and complete extra conditioning work, with nausea and anxiety among the reported outcomes. According to the report, one current coach told investigators that Black players were “held to a different standard after they were sick and lost weight.”
Ferentz said in the report that larger weight allowances will be made going forward.
Lastly, the report did not find evidence of Black players being exposed to more drug tests than white players, as former Hawkeyes James Daniels and D.J. Johnson had claimed. That was a key point to be addressed, although the report only cited 2019 team data.
Still, Ferentz said drug testing would be moved outside the football building going forward.
It was interesting that of the 74 players interviewed, 45 are current Hawkeyes.
With that ratio, it’s obvious that the Husch Blackwell investigation did not interview all the former players who supplied stories of mistreatment and placed a high level of importance on evaluating the current culture of the program.
On that topic, the report says players report feeling more comfortable to be themselves. They told investigators that, "after recent changes, the environment has become more open, there is more talking and laughing, and players are enjoying their workouts."
That is consistent with media interviews in recent weeks with four current Black players.
However, the report said there was skepticism among current players that the changes would be lasting … “and that for change to be permanent, it must come from (Kirk) Ferentz and go ‘down the line.’”
That was a revealing conclusion that, with fall camp set to start Aug. 7, should remind us that Kirk Ferentz (who has received a vote of confidence from Barta) needs to deliver more strong changes toward creating inclusion on the Iowa football team. And although Thursday marked a key moment in this story, it's still just beginning.
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.