Hawkeye football players Djimon Colbert, Brandon Smith witness 'liberating' change
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Djimon Colbert marched in the streets to emphasize the need for racial justice in America.
Brandon Smith watched his home state of Mississippi strip away a symbol of divisiveness from its flag, a step he never thought possible.
It’s been a summer of remarkable, and welcome, change for two Black starters on the Iowa football team, and they’ve been able to measure the progress within and outside of their program, which was beset by allegations of mistreatment based on race at the precise moment that the nation as a whole started witnessing widespread and ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Speaking to reporters at Kinnick Stadium on Thursday, Colbert, a redshirt junior linebacker from Kansas, called his transformation “super liberating.” He participated in demonstrations in Iowa City, on one occasion being part of a crowd that was covered in a cloud of a chemical irritant.
“It was some crazy times,” Colbert said. “It’s kind of a reflection of the world today. It shows there are these issues we’re fighting, and we’re not fighting them for no reason. The only way to go is to make progress.”
Smith, a senior wide receiver, is a friend of Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill, who leveraged his sports stardom to push for a change that Black people in that state had been calling for for years. Last month, Hill tweeted that he would no longer play football for the Bulldogs as long as the state flag carried a Confederate emblem in its design. Within days, the state legislature agreed to remove the offending reminder of the Civil War.
“I was skeptical about it,” Smith said Thursday of his initial reaction to the notion that Mississippi might actually alter the design of its flag. “It really surprised me.
“I definitely think that was a great thing (for Hill), just to use your platform, your power, to have a voice and promote change to something that’s honestly been backwards for many years.”
Colbert and Smith both said the atmosphere around the Hawkeye football team is more inclusive than it was in their first three seasons. Conversations are more open. Players feel they have more freedom of expression.
“If you come to the University of Iowa, your voice, it will be heard. What you say and how you feel is valid,” Smith declared, the gold cross hanging from his left ear itself a sign of the change that is happening in Kirk Ferentz’s 22nd year as head coach. Players were previously forbidden from wearing such jewelry at the football complex, along with hoodies and ball caps.
“It’s hard to think that everybody has the same personality,” Smith continued, speaking of the mindset he encountered when first coming to campus. “It’s easier to come here and be yourself without being judged or criticized just for looking the way you want to look or talking the way you want to talk.”
Colbert said he’s witnessed more free-flowing conversations in the weight room and the locker room as the Hawkeyes have been going through voluntary workouts to prepare for a football season that is in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Guys being able to open up, not feel uncomfortable talking to guys who don’t look like you,” Colbert said. “It’s a very open space, very open discussion. … It’s very good for our team.”
Ferentz has loosened his grip on his players, particularly after dozens of former Hawkeyes, most of them Black, took to social media in early June to point out instances of demeaning treatment during their time at Iowa. That, in turn, led the school to part ways with longtime strength coach Chris Doyle, who was most frequently mentioned in the complaints. It sparked an ongoing investigation of Ferentz’s program. And it prompted the coach to finally overturn his longstanding prohibition against active players using Twitter.
That shift in the tenor of Hawkeye football emboldened Colbert to join hundreds of demonstrators calling for reform in the way law enforcement treats minority citizens.
“Being a Black athlete here, you kind of don’t get to face these issues first-hand because you’re more focused on school and your sport,” Colbert said. “Being able to get out there and fighting for what my ancestors and people before me were fighting for, I felt it was kind of my responsibility.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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