Leistikow: Examining the impact, timing, credibility of ex-Iowa football players' demands
Sunday’s revelation that eight Black former Iowa football players had organized behind a national civil-rights attorney was indeed breaking news. It should not have come as a surprise.
But wasn’t there already a racial-bias investigation over the summer? And the Hawkeye program has taken a bunch of encouraging steps forward. Isn’t it time to move on?
Let’s unpack those sentiments for a moment, and we’ll get to some other legitimate questions, too, about why the eight players — all of whom played between 2010 and 2018 and includes former star running back Akrum Wadley — are demanding $20 million and for longtime head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and athletics director Gary Barta to be fired.
The Husch Blackwell investigation over the summer was celebrated in some pockets of the Hawkeye fan base because it provided an overall positive review of Kirk Ferentz’s handling of the program.
But those who paid close attention know there were troubling claims and revelations in the report, too, and that’s just the stuff that was made public. Specific allegations against four “current and former” staff members were provided to the university in separate personnel reports that Barta said would not become a matter of public record.
The Husch Blackwell report made clear that it wasn’t tasked to investigate every individual claim. However, it drew enough conclusions to state that the program rules “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.”
Recall, there was a section about certain players being “blackballed” to NFL scouts by an Iowa coach. There were allegations of different punishments for Black and white players for similar rules violations. And there were also several former players who said that 21-year strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle (the only person to lose his job over the allegations) “should not be a scapegoat for the systemic issues in the program.”
While vowing to move forward and improve, Iowa accepted the findings of the Husch Blackwell report in late July.
So, in essence, the report left the door open for a lawsuit in which Ferentz and the university could be liable for discrimination based on race. It didn’t close it.
But isn’t this fishy timing? To have this come out on game week?
Chalk this up to smart legal maneuvering by Tulsa-based attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons — much like it was a smart move by Iowa’s general counsel to publicly withhold the contents of the four aforementioned personnel reports. It’s Solomon-Simmons’ job to create maximum leverage for his clients, not to appease Hawkeye backers.
With Iowa playing its first football game in 10 months on Saturday at Purdue, there’s no doubt that this becomes an unwelcome distraction for Kirk Ferentz, Barta and the entire university.
While Iowa has unequivocally rejected the demands for money and personnel changes, it might feel pressure to resolve the lawsuit before it gets messier. Even if some of the claims by former players can be debunked by putting Kirk and Brian Ferentz on the witness stand, that would be viewed as a last resort.
The University of Iowa doesn’t want its high-profile coaches (and ex-coaches, in Doyle's case) being deposed under oath about things like their politics, whether they’ve used the n-word (as has been charged about Doyle, who denied using racist terms) and their interactions with players over the last 22 years.
Don’t forget, it was just three years ago that Iowa tried to fight allegations of gender discrimination in the courtroom, and Barta had many regrettable moments on the stand. Iowa wound up paying $6.5 million to former administrator Jane Meyer, former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and their attorneys.
That’s why this feels like a first step toward an out-of-court settlement. Iowa likely wants to focus on the legitimate, positive progress that has been reported over the past 4½ months — and not unwind it by dragging out a potential lawsuit for months or even years.
But don't some of these ex-players have less than sterling reputations? Why should they be taken seriously?
It can be easy to discredit former players who have expressed sour grapes toward the Iowa program. There might be no more prominent example of that than Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, a star wide receiver whose career ended after a drug bust in December 2010. While all charges (including cocaine possession) were dropped with exception of marijuana possession, Johnson-Koulianos' later claims of being mistreated at Iowa were often discredited because of that arrest.
In comments posted by The Athletic in early August, Kirk Ferentz confirmed that yes, at least one of Johnson-Koulianos' troubling allegations was true: That he was forced to wear a yellow garbage can on his head and run around the practice field, with recruits and their parents in attendance.
“It was addressed, and that was the last time it happened,” Ferentz said. “It’s not something we condone as a program.”
Even if one man's story can be dismissed, be careful not to discredit everything he said because of his alleged past. (Likewise, just because one story has proven true doesn't mean that all allegations are true.) Legal minds looking at these claims won't examine them through black-and-gold glasses.
On a similar note, it's possible to have some Black former players upbeat about the changes they're seeing and other Black former players unimpressed by what they've seen. For example, former Hawkeye captain Jordan Lomax outlined in a late-July interview with the Register and The Athletic that he thinks Kirk Ferentz is the right man to lead change. But these eight ex-players shouldn't be expected to "fall in line" and feel the same.
These eight young men saw Doyle walk away from the university with a $1.1 million separation agreement even though he was identified as a primary culture problem in the Iowa program. So, from their perspective, shouldn’t they also be compensated as being among the victims of program-wide behaviors that led to Doyle's departure?
One last observation: Iowa almost certainly won't reach a point where it is forced to part ways with Kirk Ferentz. College football's longest-tenured coach has earned the benefit of the doubt among key decision-makers and current players to lead the university through this messy but important chapter in Iowa football history.
That's another reason why Sunday's news seems to set the stage for a settlement.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.