A look inside the investigation of the Iowa Hawkeye football program

Mark Emmert Hawk Central
Des Moines Register
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz listens to players speak during a press conference, Friday June 12 in Iowa City.

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has taken a common step in hiring a law firm to investigate its football program after former players raised concerns that Black athletes were subject to degrading treatment.

But how the process unfolds behind the scenes will determine if the school is serious about changing the culture of the team, which has been led by coach Kirk Ferentz since 1999.

“You need to do the investigation to make sure that if there are bad actors there, you carve them out,” said Josh Gordon, a lawyer who teaches at the University of Oregon and who has conducted many assessments of college athletic departments. “But it’s also an opportunity to take this moment and pivot to something much more positive.

“The question becomes: Is it an honest effort to improve, or just a way to mitigate risk?”

Iowa’s office of general counsel selected the law firm Husch Blackwell to review its football program. Three attorneys will interview current and former players, as well as all of the coaches and staff members. Eventually, they will hand in a report to Carroll Reasoner, UI vice president for legal affairs and general counsel.

Already, the university has cut ties with longtime football strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who was named by several Black former Hawkeye players as creating a culture of racial insensitivity. Doyle, who denied the accusations, will be paid $1.1 million in a separation agreement.

But that can’t be the only action taken, said Stephen John Quaye, a professor at Ohio State who is the associate editor of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

“The investigators should be looking at the ways white coaches are socialized from birth into whiteness. My sense is few of them have studied the experiences of Black athletes or have empathy for their experiences as Black athletes in predominantly white universities,” Quaye said in an email to the Register. “Simply removing one coach will not remove racism. Racism is a culture perpetuated by white supremacy that does not just rely upon individual ‘bad’ white people.”

With that as a starting point, here’s a closer look at what such an investigation entails, the lawyers who are conducting it, how long it may take and, ultimately, what may come from it all.

Who are the lawyers?

Iowa, in a news release, touted Husch Blackwell for its “extensive experience in higher education.” The firm has more than 700 attorneys with offices in 16 U.S. cities. Attempts to get anyone from Husch Blackwell to speak for this story went unanswered.

The three attorneys assigned to the Iowa investigation are Hayley Hanson, Demetrius Peterson and Kristine Zayko.

Hanson is a partner in Husch Blackwell based in the Kansas City metro area with “a focus on representing institutions of higher education,” according to her bio on the company’s website. She earned her law degree from Drake.

Peterson, also based in Kansas City, previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He “investigates complex allegations of misconduct, providing guidance and counsel to educational institutions,” according to his bio.

Zayko has worked in Husch Blackwell’s Chicago office since 2018. She spent 20 years as in-house counsel at Michigan State prior to that.

The lawyers will likely conduct hundreds of interviews, Gordon said. The larger questions are how much authority they will be given and how much autonomy they'll possess to do their work.

Gordon said it is imperative that the attorneys be given the freedom to interview whom they choose, to ensure a random and representative sample of experiences by former football players and staffers.

“Sometimes, universities get a little cheeky and try to steer toward their alumni that they know will say certain things,” Gordon said. “I’ve dealt with that in my own assessments. You have to be sure it’s not just the appearance of cooperation, and sometimes you’re fishing in a pond that only has happy fish.”

What will be released to the public?

The fact that the lawyers’ report will be given to Reasoner is a signal that Iowa will try to keep much of the information “privileged,” or not subject to open-records requests, Gordon said. This is typical, and a smart move by the university, he added.

“It doesn’t help from a trust standpoint, but it does allow for a more candid conversation to happen,” Gordon said.

“Because you end up with a lot of names being thrown around. Personnel decisions likely can come out of this. It makes a lot of sense initially to, not necessarily keep it secretive, but to protect the confidentiality.”

But eventually, Iowa should release a synopsis of the findings of the investigation in order to be transparent with fans, athletes and media, Gordon said.

“What I would be looking for is: What are the recommendations? Are they shared? There’s no reason they shouldn’t be. You should be able to share a pretty robust report, including the methodology of what was done," he said. "You can see if there’s some action behind it."

Gordon encourages universities he works with to look beyond just the one program being investigated — to broaden its scope to include the entire athletic department. It’s unlikely that whatever has occurred within the football program affects only those athletes. Every competitor in every sport needs to feel comfortable that they can speak up, he said.

“You want to create a safe place for whistleblowers, and that’s really hard,” Gordon said. “And then you want to do it in a way that’s not going to sideline them, cost them playing time or scholarships, because those careers are so short and the opportunity is so important.”

How long will it take?

Gordon said investigations such as the one Iowa is undertaking “can be done in a few weeks if you put some good energy into it.” He’s also seen some drag on for 12-18 months.

Much will depend on how far back the lawyers delve and how thorough they’re being in examining coaching practices.

The process will also be expedited if the story remains in the news cycle and is a hot topic for fans, Gordon said. That environment can put pressure on the university to not dawdle in releasing the findings or announcing any changes that will be made.

One factor that makes Iowa’s investigation particularly interesting, Gordon said, is that Kirk Ferentz’s son, Brian, was mentioned by a few former players as exhibiting demeaning behavior. Brian Ferentz is the team’s offensive coordinator. This investigation could clear his name, or signal that a much more difficult conversation is about to take place.

Either way, it would be best to make that information public before the scheduled start of the football season Sept. 5.

“You would hope that’s part of the reason Iowa is running this through its legal counsel is that they’re doing a serious investigation in that relationship,” Gordon said of the father-son coaches.

What's the best-case scenario?

Gordon said an honest assessment of a sports program can end up being beneficial in the long run, even if the short-term headlines are not favorable. He pointed to what happened at Cornell in 2013. That Ivy League school in New York had been rocked by allegations of hazing of freshmen lacrosse players. The men’s team suspended play for a season as a result.

But the ensuing assessment of the athletic department led the university to form a Leadership Institute for athletes, which has become a recruiting tool.

“Few remember that the origins came from an incident and an investigation,” Gordon said. “It never would have happened otherwise.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at