'Iowa is a flashpoint': How Hawkeye football entered the national conversation on racial injustice
Iowa football head coach Kirk Ferentz appeared on ESPN's "SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt" last Thursday night.
The man who has led the Hawkeyes since 1999 highlighted how his program was addressing George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police and the ensuing wave of protests around the country focused on racial injustice.
"The key thing, I think," Ferentz told Van Pelt, "is being respectful of each other."
Four days later, the coach and Iowa football are a much larger part of that national conversation than Ferentz could have imagined.
National sports media are abuzz with discussion of players' allegations of racial discrimination within the Hawkeye football program, chiefly involving veteran strength coach Chris Doyle.
"I have a hard time believing Kirk Ferentz doesn’t know what’s going on with his strength coach," ESPN host Dan Le Batard said Monday morning on his radio show, "The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz."
On ESPN's radio show "Golic & Wingo," Mike Golic Jr., who played offensive line at Notre Dame from 2008-12, said the culture Doyle allegedly created is toxic.
"You set a culture with what you as the leader ... repeatedly does," Golic said.
Later Monday, on ESPN TV show "Highly Questionable," co-host Bomani Jones, who is black, sounded off on Doyle, Ferentz and the program as a whole.
"If you think what Chris Doyle did with those players was fireable, and I do believe that it is fireable, then Kirk Ferentz has to go with him," Jones said. "And since Kirk Ferentz is running this like a family business, where he’s got his son (Brian) as the offensive coordinator, you basically need to get everybody out of there. You see the tweets from the players. What the players are basically saying is this is widespread."
Starting with former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels on Friday, the day after Ferentz's ESPN appearance, dozens of black former Hawkeyes have come forward with descriptions of racial discrimination they say they faced while playing for Iowa. Doyle, at the center of many of the allegations, was placed on administrative leave on Saturday.
"There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program," Daniels tweeted.
"Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long."
The players said that Doyle made racially insensitive remarks in their presence, which Doyle denied Sunday in a tweeted statement, and they singled him out as a key part of the cultural problem they say exists within Ferentz’s program. One black former Hawkeye athlete said that Doyle would step on the fingers of players before they lifted weights.
This is not the first time Doyle has been in the middle of a national controversy at Iowa. In 2011, 13 of the athletes that Doyle trained were treated for rhabdomyolysis, a rapid destruction of skeletal muscle that releases proteins into the bloodstream and can cause kidney failure or death. The syndrome can be caused by overexertion, and an exercise regimen devised by Doyle was blamed for triggering it. Doyle said he would not use the workout again, and he was not publicly punished. Three months later, he was named assistant coach of the year at Iowa. Doyle, who earns a base pay of $800,000 a year, is the nation's highest-paid strength coach.
On Sunday afternoon, Ferentz told reporters that Iowa athletic director Gary Barta would lead a review of the Hawkeyes' strength and conditioning program, which Doyle has been in charge of since 1999. He said that Barta would coordinate the review, but that it would be conducted by people "not involved in athletics."
"I don’t know how many people will be involved or how long it will take," Ferentz said.
Some players' allegations also specifically named offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Brian Ferentz reports to Barta, not his father.
As of Monday evening, there was no announcement from Iowa on when or if Barta will speak to the media.
In response to the allegations, Iowa football has loosened its longstanding social media policy that barred Hawkeye football players from using Twitter.
Now, they can — and they quickly began to use the platform.
Many players tweeted messages that conveyed unity and a hope to, as a team, change the Iowa football culture for the better.
"I am not sure how to fix the problem in America, but I am going to do what I can for my IOWA FAMILY," sophomore defensive end Logan Lee, who is white, tweeted. "I will stand side by side, and if necessary, in front of my African American brothers/sisters and protect them at all costs. I need them as we are not a family without them."
One of the most widely shared tweets, with more than 8,000 "likes" in five hours, came from sophomore defensive back Kaevon Merriweather, who is black.
"If you can not support us right now with this movement and with our team taking a knee during the national anthem, DO NOT support us during the football season," Merriweather tweeted. "DO NOT watch our games on tv. DO NOT come up to us when you want photos. DO NOT ask us to give your kids autographs. DO NOT COME TO US EXPECTING US TO DO FOR YOU WHEN YOU CAN'T SUPPORT THE BLACK ATHLETES ON THIS TEAM AND THE DECISIONS WE MAKE AS A TEAM.
"I would rather play in front of 1,000 fans who care about us as people outsideof (sic) football and what we are standing for, than 70,000 fans who only care about us when we are in uniform and on the field entertaining them."
Jon Solomon, editorial director of the Sports and Society Program at The Aspen Institute, said Iowa football has become a focal point for the national discussion on how racial injustice permeates the world of college sports, as with other areas of society.
"Iowa is a flashpoint," Solomon said. "It’s not going to be the only one."
Players from other programs have recently spoken out on racial topics. On June 2, former Clemson tight end D.J. Greenlee, who is black, told The State newspaper in South Carolina that assistant head coach Danny Pearman used the N-word in a verbal altercation with him in 2017. Pearman has since publicly apologized and is still on staff at Clemson.
Florida State defensive lineman Marvin Wilson threatened to not play after Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell told The Athletic that he had one-on-one talks with his players following Floyd's death, when he actually hadn't.
Players and coaches from several programs have also been involved in protests against racial inequality, including at Missouri, where 60 players last week were part of a rally and then a march to the Boone County courthouse to register to vote.
"Coaches who don't recognize (they need to re-evaluate how black players are treated in their program) are going to be in trouble," Solomon said. "By trouble, I mean just maintaining their jobs and trying to win games, because I do think this will become a recruiting factor for players. That shouldn't be the reason why you should treat players appropriately, but that is going to be the reality. I think there are some coaches around the country who already immediately get that. And they are speaking out forcibly on behalf of their black players.
"Parents and kids are going to be watching this. And they’re going to be recognizing how different schools, athletic departments and coaches are or are not treating their black players."
Matthew Bain covers recruiting, Iowa/Iowa State athletics and Drake basketball for the Des Moines Register and USA TODAY Network. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.
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