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For Hawkeye football players, freedom to tweet is a landmark moment

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — June 8 was a landmark day for the Iowa football program.

One by one, players who had just arrived on campus for voluntary workouts used their Twitter accounts to voice messages of unity and hope, for their team and the nation.

Coach Kirk Ferentz’s longstanding ban on that social media platform had been lifted. By Friday, Ferentz was telling reporters what had been evident to many observers all along: “It was a stupid policy. … We’ve got a team that deserves to be trusted and deserves a little bit more latitude.”

Kaevon Merriweather, a third-year safety from Michigan, offered the boldest Twitter pronouncement: “I would rather play in front of 1,000 fans who care about us as people outside of 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.”

Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather speaks during a press conference, Friday, June 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Ferentz’s program has been rocked by allegations from numerous former players, primarily African-American, that they were daily confronted by racism during their playing careers. It came in the form of words and actions from certain members of the coaching staff, the players said, but also in the way they were forced to alter their behavior to try to fit in.

Being allowed to tweet their feelings, as all of their peers do, may seem like a small step, but it sends a large message. The current Hawkeyes will be heard in ways that former players weren’t allowed to be.

“To tell a kid who has experienced what’s happening in our culture. They’ve lived it first-hand. But you tell them, ‘Hey, you can’t talk about it. You can’t show your support. You can’t show your heartbreak. You can’t show your anger,’” said Kevin DeShazo, the founder of Fieldhouse Media and an author who specializes in college athletes in the digital age.

“We’re telling them, ‘You’re going to be leaders. You’re going to be world-changers. But not right now. Right now, we want you to be silent.’ It sends a mixed message as we’re trying to develop them as men.”

Ferentz said his players initially asked him to lift the Twitter ban so that they could participate in the national conversation surrounding police treatment of African-Americans after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That topic was present in most of the messages the players posted on June 8.

But there were also tweets aimed at fans who had been hearing the claims of discrimination from former players. Those, too, had largely been aired on Twitter. The current players wanted people to know that they are standing together and are determined to change things in their own building.

That’s why Merriweather, who is Black, tweeted to his 2,887 followers that being a Hawkeye isn’t a Saturday-only experience. He wants fans to back the players seven days a week as they work through a difficult situation.

“We expect our fans to be with us every step of the way,” Merriweather told reporters Friday.

“I expected to get a little bit of backlash, but the support of Iowa fans was truly amazing.”

Ferentz said it was “parental instinct” that led him to implement the Twitter ban years ago. DeShazo said that was a common rationale for an older generation of coaches who were worried that social media would be just one more distraction for their players.

But only the Clemson and Iowa football programs had maintained a Twitter ban until Ferentz, 64, finally relented this month.

“It’s isolating in a way,” DeShazo said of efforts to keep athletes off Twitter. “You’re preventing them from using platforms that the world uses to communicate and do business on a day-to-day basis.

“Student-athletes have power. You can’t prevent them from bringing whatever is in the dark into the light. They’re realizing now the power of their voice.”

DeShazo credited Ferentz for realizing his fears about Twitter were unfounded and ultimately listening to his players instead of stubbornly sticking to an outdated policy.

“There’s zero correlation of social media use and the ability to perform on the field and win at a high level,” DeShazo noted.

Two years ago, Merriweather tweeted: “Bye Twitter. I’m gonna miss you.” It was a sentiment nearly every player expressed just before heading to Iowa City as they logged off of the platform, only to re-emerge four or five years later upon graduation.

No more.

“It feels pretty good having another outlet that I can express myself, be able to share how I feel,” Merriweather said Friday.

He composed three tweets all week. The first one received 17,600 “likes.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.