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What can Kirk Ferentz do to change the culture at Iowa? Two experts weigh in

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz knows the eyes of the nation are now on the Iowa football program he has run for 22 years.

Dozens of former players have come forward in the past 10 days to say that their head coach allowed a culture of racism to fester inside the Hansen Football Performance Center.

Ferentz, who claims the accusations caught him by surprise, has vowed to make things better for his Black players. If he succeeds, it could be a teaching moment for an entire sport.

But experts warn that it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.

“We have a chance to set the bar for college football,” Ferentz said at a Friday news conference. “And that is our goal. Has been our goal. Will be our goal today, tomorrow and moving forward.”

Those are the words. But what will be the actions?

So far, Ferentz has placed his strength and conditioning coach, Chris Doyle, on administrative leave pending a review of his behavior while on staff for 21 years. Doyle was the coach most often pointed to by former players for degrading words and actions.

And Ferentz created a panel of 11 former players who will advise him on the best ways to ensure equitable treatment of the young men in his program.

Much more remains to be done, said Lenora Billings-Harris, an author and speaker who helps organizations nurture diverse cultures.

“Too many people think if they just do a few things, everything will be fine,” she said. “Frankly, it’s not likely just contained in the athletic department. It’s the university. It’s the community.

“White people in general have not had to think about racism, and when they’re living in their own bubble, many of them don’t realize it’s going on.”

Billings-Harris said Ferentz and his entire staff need to begin by listening. To the Black players first.

“They need to not become defensive, not interrupt,” she said. “And say things like, ‘I hear you.’ Not, ‘I understand.’ Because unless they’ve walked in a Black man’s shoes, they can’t understand.”

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, left, listens to running back Ivory Kelly-Martin speak during a press conference, Friday, June 12, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa.

Billings-Harris suggested Ferentz next set up similar conversations with white players, who need to be part of any solution.

“The tendency is to think that it’s a Black problem and so Black people should tell us what to do,” she said. “It’s a human problem. Black people didn’t bring this on themselves.”

The conversations will be, and must be, uncomfortably frank, Billings-Harris said.

Ferentz has said he spent the past week talking to former players. When the current team met Monday for the first day of voluntary workouts, that turned instead into a discussion among all players and coaches that occasionally grew heated, Ferentz said.

Billings-Harris recommended that white coaches move beyond that by frequenting businesses that cater to African-Americans, to feel what it’s like to be the “other” in that room. She said they should volunteer at non-profit organizations that serve the Black community, “not just because they’re a coach, but because they’re human beings that want to understand."

Billings-Harris called that “personal work,” which is needed to precede any meaningful change in the football program as a whole.

Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor of psychology at Kent State University who specializes in anxiety disorders among African-Americans, has watched what is happening at Iowa with great interest.

She is not convinced that Ferentz and the white coaches understand the depth of what has been occurring to Black men who are trying to become better football players while also forging their racial identity. It’s a critical time in their development, she said.

“It reads as if what’s happening is that these young men go to Iowa City and they are being told directly and indirectly that they must act white if they are going to remain a member of this team,” Neal-Barnett said.

Many Black former Hawkeyes have said they felt unable to express themselves freely in the program, that they were expected to conform to a pattern of behavior that Ferentz had instilled over his 22 years. It wasn’t until last year that Ferentz eased restrictions on what players were allowed to wear in the football facility, allowing caps, hoodies and earrings for the first time. Last week, Ferentz lifted his prohibition on tweeting, and admitted these were just small steps.

Neal-Barnett sees the need for much bigger action.

“That means actually having on staff at least one, if not two, people who understand identity development of black males,” she said. “It also requires every member of the athletic department to take an adolescent development class, with a focus on all forms of identity — social, racial and ethnic. This is more than anti-racist training. This is psychological training.”

Neal-Barnett noted that the NCAA requires coaches to pass a test showing they understand all of the rules regarding recruiting. She believes that Iowa could truly show its commitment to change by asking its coaches to also get at least a ‘B’ on a test about racial identity development.

“B-minuses and Cs won’t suffice here,” she said. “If you are not aware of how to develop young black men, then we give you an NCAA fellowship and you go away for two years and you immerse yourself in a human development program or a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology and then you come back and coach.

“You have to become an expert in it or you have to bring on experts in it on your staff.”

Ferentz, who has met with the media twice since allegations surfaced on social media about past treatment of Black players in his program, has not hinted at doing anything like what Billings-Harris or Neal-Barnett suggest.

But they believe if the Iowa football team truly wants to be a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to fostering the growth of African-American players on and off the field, such bold steps are required. Ferentz wouldn’t have to go far to find the resources. Iowa has excellent academic programs in human development and clinical psychology, Neal-Barnett pointed out.

The Black members of Ferentz’s team deserve more than impassioned words delivered at news conferences, the experts said.

“Their racial identity is under attack, and that creates anxiety. And so you’ve got these young men who are walking around, you’re trying not to be anxious but it’s hard not to be in the face of unrelenting, chronic stress,” Neal-Barnett said.

“The age of the players makes the situation more complex. Iowa would be leaders in the field if they took that approach I outlined.”

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.

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