Iowa Hawkeyes take on national anthem protests: 'We try to keep politics and football separate'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The way Hawkeye football players look at the hot-button issue that is the national anthem: Once you step into the Iowa Football Performance Center, political views are checked at the door.

So don’t look for any kind of protest from the Hawkeyes before Saturday’s game at Michigan State — or any game, for that matter. Assuming the timing works out with pregame routines, they'll stand together along the sideline, hands over hearts as they traditionally do.

Iowa defensive lineman Parker Hesse, who is white, spoke about the divisiveness that's entered the sport about who's standing, who’s kneeling and who’s staying in the locker room altogether during the national anthems before football games, most notably in the NFL.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz puts his hand over his chest during the national anthem before a 2013 game at Kinnick Stadium.

“This is a really special place, kind of the unity that we have here,” Hesse said. “I don’t know if there are many places in the world that kind of compare to that. When you show up here, everyone’s focused on one thing, and that’s winning football games as a team.

“That’s something that’s pretty special, because there are a lot of things dividing our country in different ways. But when you show up in this building it’s a place where you can feel comfortable. It’s a place where you kind of feel a sense of belonging.”

During Iowa's game Saturday against Penn State, the entire Hawkeye team stood along the sideline and honored the American flag, hands over hearts. 

The topic became more of an issue in our state Saturday when star Iowa State wide receiver Allen Lazard, who is black, tweeted his displeasure, along with the hashtag #TakeAKnee, with President Trump’s recent tweets that NFL players who don’t stand for the anthem should be fired.

The anthem protests started in 2016 as a statement regarding concerns of racial injustice in America, but they were amplified in recent days following Trump's comments and tweets. It seems like every team has handled the situation a little differently, and everyone has an opinion.

New England Patriots players who knelt Sunday were booed by some of their own fans. The Dallas Cowboys took a knee together before the anthem, then stood arm-in-arm. The Pittsburgh Steelers, except for one player who had served in the military, stayed in their locker room. That player who came out for the national anthem, Alejandro Villanueva, later regretted doing so.

"This national anthem ordeal has sort of been out of control, and there's a lot of blame on myself," Villanueva, Pittsburgh's starting left tackle, said Monday.

"I made (Steelers) coach (Mike) Tomlin look bad, and that is my fault and my fault only. I made my teammates look bad, and that is my fault." 

About one-third of players on the Hawkeye roster are black, including star Iowa running back Akrum Wadley. He said the Hawkeyes are concentrating on winning a Big Ten Conference championship and that anything that could deter that focus would be a distraction.

“But I feel like if we’re all going to do something, we’re all going to do it,” Wadley said. “We’re not going to have one person doing one thing and the rest of the team (doing another).”

Fellow running back Toren Young, who is also black, said Tuesday, “We try to keep politics and football separate. Everybody comes from different backgrounds. I’m sure everybody has different views and opinions on it. While we’re here, we have the common goal that we’re going to win games. So we’re just going to shift our focus toward Michigan State.”

That overall message comes from the top of the program, and is consistent throughout. 

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said anything politically motivated should be done on an athlete's own time; not while wearing a Hawkeye uniform or participating in team activities.

FROM 2016: Iowa athletes present then-candidate Donald Trump with unofficial Hawkeyes gear

"Certainly, we encourage them to grow, and be curious and ask questions. To me, that's healthy. As long as you're alive you should be doing that," Ferentz said. "But this is the one time we put everything aside. We all dress alike, act alike, and we're trying to do the same thing. Whatever they do on campus is great. As long as it's not illegal or immoral, I'm all for it."