Eight former University of Iowa football players seek $20 million, Kirk Ferentz's firing over racial discrimination

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

Eight Black former University of Iowa football players are seeking $20 million in compensation and for athletics director Gary Barta, head coach Kirk Ferentz and assistant coach Brian Ferentz to be fired over what they contend was intentional racial discrimination during their Hawkeye careers.

The group, which includes two of the football program’s most prolific producers in Akrum Wadley and Kevonte Martin-Manley, made the demands in a certified, 21-page letter sent to the UI. A copy of the letter, dated Oct. 5, has been obtained by the Des Moines Register.

The group is represented by Tulsa civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons and has additional demands, including attorney’s fees; the creation of a permanent Black male senior administrator position in Iowa athletics; mandatory anti-racist training for athletics staff; the establishment of a board of advisers including Black players and anti-racist professionals to oversee the football program; and tuition waivers for any Black athlete who did not graduate with a degree during Kirk Ferentz’s 22-year tenure. 

According to the letter, if the demands are not met to the former athletes’ satisfaction by Monday, Oct. 19, the athletes were prepared to pursue a lawsuit “to ensure they are rightfully compensated for their emotional, mental and bodily damages and that Iowa is appropriately held accountable for its unlawful, discriminatory conduct.” 

Kirk Ferentz, in his 22nd year as Iowa's football coach, is tied for fourth (with Joe Paterno) for most wins as a Big Ten head coach with 162. Here, he is shown at a June 12 news conference following racial-bias allegations within his program.

On Sunday, UI general counsel Carroll Reasoner formally replied to Solomon-Simmons to say the football program had previously taken steps to implement some of the demands but unequivocally added, “We respectfully decline your monetary and personnel demands.” 

In other words: No $20 million settlement and no further firings.  

To date, 21-year strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle is the only person to lose his job over racial-bias allegations that shook the program in early June.  

UI president Bruce Harreld, who on Oct. 1 (four days before this letter was submitted) announced his plans for retirement, shared this statement Sunday: "We appreciate some former athletes sharing insights on their experience while at the University of Iowa. Many of their concerns have been reviewed and addressed. And to be clear, any student-athlete that has left the university and did not obtain their degree is welcome to return, and we are here to support them.

"There are several demands outlined in the letter, and we are proud of the efforts made to date. We have a path forward that includes ideas and recommendations from many current and former students aimed at making the University of Iowa a more inclusive and better place to learn, grow and compete as an athlete. However, the university rejects the demands for money and personnel changes."

More:Attorney for 8 Black former Iowa football players: Demands are not a 'money grab'

The brewing lawsuit is a continuation of the upheaval engulfing the UI football program after approximately 60 former players in early June shared examples of racial bias or mistreatment. Their revelations led to a review of the program by outside law firm Husch Blackwell. 

The public timing of the former players’ demands coincides with Iowa football’s first game week in 10 months. The Hawkeyes are scheduled to open their coronavirus-delayed season Saturday at Purdue.

The 21-page letter lays the groundwork for litigation and was led by Solomon-Simmons, whose website touts his national TV presence and role in high-profile cases, including efforts to obtain reparations for the survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Des Moines attorneys Alfredo Parrish and Brandon Brown are listed as local counsel. 

Accounts of negative Iowa football experiences under the direction of Ferentz, college football's longest-tenured active coach, are outlined on behalf of these eight former players: 

Maurice Fleming, a defensive back at Iowa from 2012 through 2015 who transferred to West Virginia. Fleming states that Doyle would use the n-word in his presence. Doyle said on June 7 that he has never made racist comments, and current Iowa strength coach Raimond Braithwaite (who is Black and has known Doyle since 2002) recently said he had “never witnessed or heard (Doyle) make a racial comment.” On June 15, it was announced that Doyle would be paid $1.1 million by the UI as part of a separation agreement. 

Andre Harris, a wide receiver who never saw game action in his three years at Iowa (2013-15) and transferred to Eastern Illinois. He says coaches gave him harsher punishments than white teammates for similar rules violations. 

Marcel Joly, a running back who had two career carries in four years at Iowa (2014-17). He says coaches once questioned whether a BMW he drove to the football facility was legitimately purchased. 

Martin-Manley, a five-year wide receiver (2010-14) whose 174 career receptions remain a school record. Martin-Manley says complaints he brought to Kirk Ferentz’s attention about racist practices in the program were ignored. 

Aaron Mends, a five-year linebacker (2014-18) who transferred to Illinois State after getting a sixth year of eligibility. Mends echoed Martin-Manley’s sentiments that complaints of systemic racism and double standards were shared with Ferentz but brought no significant change. Those claims are consistent with Ferentz’s admitted lack of action in 2019, when he failed to follow up as promised with Black players after making surface-area program changes, such as allowing rap music in the football facility. Ferentz has admitted he “dropped the ball” then but has voiced more commitment to change since June. 

Jonathan Parker, a four-year running back (2013-16) who gained 714 all-purpose yards in 2014 but saw his role diminish and transferred to Northern Illinois. Parker says he was subjected to “daily ridicule and bullying,” including from Brian Ferentz who Parker says called him “a dumb-a-- Black player.” 

Reggie Spearman, a linebacker (2013-14) who had 49 tackles in 21 games as a Hawkeye before transferring to Illinois State. He says he was unfairly punished, as compared to white teammates, over an OWI charge in October 2014 that was later dismissed. 

And Wadley (2013-17), who ranks fifth in program history with 2,872 rushing yards and scored 35 touchdowns, one shy of Tavian Banks’ school record. Wadley has made a wide range of public claims of mistreatment, including that his meal-card privileges were revoked — a charge Kirk Ferentz categorically denied at a July 30 news conference. 

Former Hawkeye running back Akrum Wadley, who was the MVP of the Pinstripe Bowl in his final game, said in a June 29 post that playing at Iowa was "a living nightmare."

The accounts from the eight former players were consistent with social-media posts or statements they each aired over the summer in an attempt to draw attention to mistreatment and/or racial bias in the Iowa football program. In the letter, Solomon-Simmons says these players “intend to assert additional claims” should a lawsuit occur.

The findings of the Husch Blackwell investigation, which was conducted at the direction of Barta and Harreld, were made public in a 28-page report released July 30. While the report concluded that “the program’s (stringent) rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases,” it found “positive changes since the inception of the review” and overall favorable opinions of Kirk Ferentz as the head football coach. 

However, the 21-page demands letter outlines a different tone aimed at proving that Kirk Ferentz “witnessed, sanctioned and possessed intimate knowledge of widespread racial discrimination within the program.” 

In saying his clients were the subject of discrimination, Solomon-Simmons states the UI should be liable based on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin in any program or activity, such as a public university, that receives federal money. 

In the UI's response to Solomon-Simmons: 

Reasoner points out that Broderick Binns, a Black former Iowa football player, has recently been elevated to the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in athletics. While he is part of the 13-member Hawkeye Leadership Team (assistant athletics directors and above), Binns is not considered a member of the senior administration as the plaintiffs are requesting. 

She notes that Ferentz has created a diverse advisory committee “to improve the football climate.” That is being led by Black former offensive lineman David Porter, although it’s unclear how frequently the committee meets or what impact it’s having. 

She says Iowa athletics provides annual education for coaches and staff surrounding diversity issues. (However, Ferentz in a Sept. 17 news conference did not directly answer a question about whether his staff had received additional racial-bias training in the wake of the summer’s allegations.) 

She also invites the eight plaintiffs to assist the football program in creating meaningful change and that Iowa would be happy to help the efforts of former players who didn’t obtain a college degree. 

Current Iowa players and coaches, during the team’s media days earlier this month, reported that there has been a more inclusive environment within the program since the events of June and Doyle’s departure, while also acknowledging there’s more work to be done. 

“We haven’t altered our core principles,” Kirk Ferentz said. “But we made adjustments that I think are probably a little more palatable to a lot of our players.” 

Brian Ferentz, the head coach’s 37-year-old son and current offensive coordinator, was contrite for his past actions during an Oct. 8 news conference.  

In his first public statements since being accused by Wadley and a handful of other former players of making racially charged comments, he said, “My personal goal as a coach is to have a positive impact on young people. And it’s painful to learn that I may have fallen short in that department. But I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow.” 

Two days earlier, multiple current Black players came to Brian Ferentz’s defense, including running back Mekhi Sargent, who said: “Coach Brian is a great man, a great coach. … He’s going to continue being very supportive of all the players here.” 

The potential legal action by these eight former athletes is likely just the beginning of another chapter in the Hawkeye football racial-bias saga.

In the letter, Solomon-Simmons wrote that if players' demands aren't met, they also intend to file a discrimination complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. He's also requesting that the UI provide contact information for every Black Iowa football player of the last 10 years and said if a lawsuit is filed, the group would seek class-action status for “all similarly situated African-American student-athletes.”

Of the $20 million requested, $10 million is to compensate the eight plaintiffs for “the loss of earning capacity, the loss of professional opportunities, defamation, pain and suffering, mental conditions, mental anguish, PTSD, humiliation and overall emotional distress”; the other $10 million is to be allocated to other former Hawkeyes who were affected by the alleged discrimination.

Solomon-Simmons did not respond to a request for an interview or comment as of 7 p.m. Sunday.

Kirk Ferentz addressed the potential lawsuit with a statement later Sunday evening, adding he would have no further comment on the matter.

“I am disappointed to receive this type of demand letter. Due to the threat of litigation, I am not able to address the specific comments made by our former players," Ferentz said. "As you may know, this past summer we made adjustments to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all of our student-athletes. These changes include both policies and rules, as well as an expanded leadership council of current players and a new advisory committee comprised of former players.

"I am deeply committed to helping everyone who joins the Hawkeye football program reach their full potential on and off the field. My focus is now on our current players who are preparing for our first game this Saturday."