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Leistikow: Hawkeye parents unify in search of answers from Big Ten, want fall football restored

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

University of Iowa leaders made it clear to the Big Ten Conference earlier this week that they wanted to play football games this fall. Although that request was shot down by a majority of league presidents and commissioner Kevin Warren, parents of Hawkeye players are continuing to fight for fall football.

What started as some Twitter direct messages flourished into a Thursday-night Zoom call, with parents of an estimated 35 to 40 players formally organizing their request for more transparency from the Big Ten. They also requested for their sons to be given the opportunity to play this fall — as is the intent of the Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are two primary messages in a letter distributed to media and hand-delivered to the Big Ten offices in Chicago on Friday morning.

One, more transparency in medical information that led to Tuesday’s decision to cancel the fall sports season with the idea of pushing competition to the spring semester.

Two, to reconsider the cancellation of the fall season.

Nikkie Britt, the Indianapolis-based mother of second-year Iowa offensive lineman Justin Britt, doesn’t understand why her 5-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son can attend in-person classes, but her son cannot play football.

She also wonders this: “Why is the Big Ten commissioner’s son allowed to play and my son is not? What’s that about?” she said, a reference to Powers Warren being a Mississippi State tight end in the SEC. “Our deal is we want to make sure we are doing this ethically, professionally and passionately.

“Football is bread for (Justin). Football is life. If he wants to play, I want what’s best for him. And I want him to play.”

The passion from parents was widespread Friday on social media, although it was made clear in interviews with multiple Hawkeye parents that the letter does not necessarily represent every family.

“We believe we have some legitimate questions,” said Mark Moss, an elementary-school principal in Ankeny whose son, Riley, is a third-year Hawkeye defensive back.

The letter sent to the Big Ten requests an opportunity to speak with Warren and Big Ten leaders about the decision and wonders why student-athletes were never consulted. In fact, athletes thought their season was a full go, considering the Big Ten released a 10-game fall schedule just six days before pulling the plug.

RANDY PETERSON: Big 12 sought player input before moving forward

“The fact that the Big Ten and the Council of Presidents and Chancellors made this decision with no input from those actually assuming these risks is appalling,” the letter stated. “The lack of unity, strategic planning, leadership and communication are why we are in the (current) position.”

Hawkeye players, coaches and administrators largely wanted to have football games this fall despite ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s accurate that the Big Ten has been less forthcoming about medical advice it’s received as compared to the Pacific-12, which also canceled its fall season Tuesday. The Pac-12 decision referenced myocarditis, which affects the heart and is triggered by viruses. It is still inconclusive how significantly the new coronavirus contributes to myocarditis vs. the traditional flu.

Warren did say: “Any time you’re talking about the heart with anyone, but especially a young person, you have to be concerned.”

Stuart Duncan, the North Carolina-based father of Iowa kicker and Lou Groza Award finalist Keith, blasted “the perceived deception and hypocrisy (from the Big Ten). … Why is myocarditis such a big concern now? Enough to cancel the season but not a concern in years past with the flu? It comes across as an excuse and not a legit reason. Either that, or they didn't care about it in the past but all of a sudden woke up three days ago and went, 'Damn, we care about players now.'"

Parents assembled for roughly two hours on Zoom calls to organize their thoughts and deliver their message. They made sure that head coach Kirk Ferentz (who was supportive of fall football) was aware of their plans and felt support from their Hawkeye sons in these efforts.

Gary Koerner, the West Des Moines father of starting free safety Jack, tweeted this (without referencing the Big Ten specifically): “Poor Leadership 101: Be hypocritical. Do not communicate. Do not be transparent. Do not show courage or optimism. Do not get input from key stakeholders. Ignore those most impacted. Don’t plan for contingencies. … Leading is tough, we get it, but it’s the job.”

The Register this week requested to interview Edith Parker, the dean of Iowa’s College of Public Health and the university’s representative on the Big Ten’s Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases — which Warren cited as integral to the league’s fall-sports decision. Her insight would be wonderful to have. But the UI declined to make Parker available, saying: “The Big Ten is asking all us to forward all media inquiries to them.”

Yet the Big Ten has been silent since Tuesday. That is reflective of the frustration Hawkeye parents feel and the answers they still seek.

Nikkie Britt, for one, expressed more concern about her son playing a spring and fall season in 2021 than her son playing this fall.

However unrealistic it might be that the Big Ten would reverse its fall course, this process has lacked transparency. And however you feel about the Iowa parents' views, it should be commended (especially in the wake of this summer’s racial-bias investigation into the Hawkeye football program) that families of many backgrounds in many states came together in a short time to find unity.

“We just want to have a conversation with commissioner Warren and the Big Ten itself. We’re going to be professional about it and really try to make some change,” Moss said. “Even if we don’t get the fall season back, if we can impress upon the Big Ten that transparency and open dialogue is the best way to go about something like this. Decisions down the road, maybe we can change the practices they have in place right now.”

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.