Iowa A.D. Gary Barta feels like recent conversations have gotten beyond the surface on race. Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Fourteen months before Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said he was startled to hear of allegations of racial bias in his program, the university’s athletic department prepared a nine-page report that identified many of the same issues.
Ferentz, who has led the Hawkeyes’ most high-profile sport since 1999, said at a Thursday news conference that he had read that full report and has been revisiting it periodically since dozens of his former players, most of them Black, took to social media starting in early June with complaints about their time at Iowa.
The report was issued in April 2019, and Ferentz said he met with his players last August after reading about discrepancies in the way Black athletes at Iowa feel they are treated relative to their white peers.
Still, in December, Ferentz said he canceled a planned followup meeting with his players on that topic. In retrospect, he said he "dropped the ball."
“I felt we had a pretty healthy environment, a pretty healthy culture,” he said Thursday, speaking of the days after the Hawkeyes beat USC in the Holiday Bowl to finish off a 10-3 season.
The “UI Diversity Task Force Report” was undertaken to address Iowa’s low rate of graduating its Black athletes. The school ranked last in the Big Ten Conference at 42% when the task force convened in 2018. That compared to an 81% graduation rate for white athletes. The 11-member task force did not focus specifically on football, but that is by far the largest sport at Iowa, with 85 scholarships available and rosters that routinely top 100 athletes.
In a June 15 news conference, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta referenced the report and conceded that much of its findings centered on the football team, although he, too, did not appear to have pressed for any meaningful change at the time. The Des Moines Register requested a copy of the report the next day, and a week later was sent a five-page “summary” of its findings that had previously been released to the media. The full nine-page version was obtained by reporter Rob Howe of Hawkeyenation.com, who posted a link to it in a story published Monday morning.
The task force interviewed 24 current and former Iowa athletes in fall 2018, 15 of them Black. The findings were consistent with what many of Ferentz’s ex-players have been saying in recent weeks:
- That Black athletes are expected to conform to the “Iowa way,” which is modeled after white culture and puts a premium on “staying off the radar” and appeasing coaches.
- That Black athletes, many of whom come to Iowa from other states, were isolated socially and discouraged from making any connections to the larger campus community and Iowa City. They were told to befriend fellow athletes and concentrate solely on their sport.
- That the recruiting pitch used by coaches to get Black athletes to attend Iowa was inconsistent with how they were treated upon arrival. There was little sense that their coaches cared about them beyond how they performed in their sport, the athletes said.
- That Black athletes were addressed in demeaning ways by coaches in ways that their white counterparts were not.
In one telling example, an athlete who was part of the survey said he witnessed an athletic staff member berate another Black team member in front of the group.
“That set the tone for that kid, and he left a week later,” the Hawkeye athlete said, according to the report. “I personally have experienced this at least once per week since I have been here, but I have thicker skin. This isolates the students of color who may not have the mental fortitude to withstand all of the bulls--- by themselves and they don’t have someone of the same color to go to. It’s hard to be ourselves around coaches. If you are, you are vulnerable and will be taken advantage of.”
Another common complaint in the report was a lack of Black leaders and role models in the Iowa athletic department. Iowa’s four highest-profile sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling — all have white head coaches. Barta is white, as is his deputy athletic director, Barbara Burke. Broderick Binns, who was a member of the task force, is a Black former Hawkeye football player who was recently elevated to the newly created position of director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the entire athletic department.
The task force interviewed coaches and other staff members as well, and discovered that many of them seemed unaware of the feelings that Black athletes had, or felt powerless to change the situation.
Ferentz has twice spoken of the “blind spots” he had regarding the experiences of Black players in his program.
He pointed to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was suffocated while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers May 25, as the catalyst for “more direct conversations” between his coaches and players.
“A lot of things in the world have changed since then,” Ferentz said Thursday.
Yet the players' statements starting in June echoed comments made to interviewers nearly two years before.
In response to the report, and after that meeting with his players last August, Ferentz allowed his athletes to wear earrings, hoodies and baseball caps in the football complex. And then he apparently did little else to address the complaints.
After former Hawkeyes started speaking out last month, the university parted ways with longtime football strength coach and trusted Ferentz assistant Chris Doyle after 21 years. Doyle received a $1.1 million payout. He was the person most often singled out in recent weeks by former players for inappropriate language and behavior, which he has denied.
The university has contracted with the Husch Blackwell law firm for an external investigation of the way Black football players were treated. That probe is in its fifth week, with no word on when findings will be released. The report may either implicate, or clear, assistant coaches Brian Ferentz and Seth Wallace, both of whom have been mentioned by former players as being verbally abusive. Brian Ferentz is Kirk's oldest son.
Kirk Ferentz also has lifted his longstanding ban on Hawkeye football players using Twitter, freeing them to express themselves about the ongoing demonstrations for racial justice in America. He has convened an advisory group of 10 former players dating to the 1970s that he says he’s leaning on for advice during calls that occur about once a week.
“There were serious and troubling comments by many former players about their experience while they were on our team,” Ferentz said in a June 12 meeting with the media. “The coaching style by some was at times demeaning and created unnecessary frustration and anxiety. … We must be more inclusive and more aware.”
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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