$4M to be paid in Iowa football discrimination suit; Kirk Ferentz 'disappointed' in result

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

A $4.175 million settlement agreement has been reached in the lawsuit filed by a group of Black former University of Iowa football players who have accused coach Kirk Ferentz of overseeing a racially discriminatory culture.

The Iowa Department of Management’s State Appeal Board voted 2-1 to approve the settlement Monday afternoon, with the state on the hook to pay $2 million to the players.

Reaction to the settlement began early Monday, with Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand, one of the three appeal board members, saying he would vote against using taxpayer funds for the settlement unless Iowa athletics director Gary Barta was ousted.

Leistikow column:What led to racial-bias settlement cannot be brushed away by Kirk Ferentz

Moments after the settlement was announced, Ferentz — entering his 25th season as Iowa's head football coach — said he was "greatly disappointed" in the outcome in a statement obtained by the Des Moines Register through his attorney, Jeff Stone.

"The settlement negotiations took place between the plaintiffs' counsel and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which represents the University of Iowa and the Board of Regents," Ferentz said. "These discussions took place entirely without the knowledge or consent of the coaches who were named in the lawsuit. In fact, the parties originally named disagree with the decision to settle, fully believing that the case would have been dismissed with prejudice before trial.

"A motion for summary judgment was filed which outlined why the case should have been dismissed. Unfortunately, this settlement was reached between the plaintiff’s attorneys and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office before the judge had an opportunity to rule on the motion. We have been told the reason for the settlement is financial. As a part of the settlement, the coaches named were dismissed from the lawsuit, and there is no admission of any wrongdoing."

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta

Sand said he opposed using state general funds in this settlement because of three previous racial discrimination cases totaling more than $7 million in payouts under Barta, who has been Iowa's athletic director since 2006. 

While the state appeal board typically covers half the settlement in medical malpractice lawsuits against the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, that's an agreement that Sand said is codified with the hospital.

“Show me a medical malpractice with the same doctor for a fourth time, and I’d be voting against that, too,” Sand said. 

During Monday’s state appeal board meeting, Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen and State Treasurer Roby Smith, both Republicans, voted to approve the settlement, overriding Sand, a Democrat.

Paulsen and Smith argued they shouldn’t make personnel demands as part of approving public funds for the lawsuit.

Paulsen said the Legislature should decide whether it wants state money covering settlements with the university. He and Smith said they defer to the Attorney General’s Office in deciding whether the settlement is a good deal.

“I’m not in a position or I’m not ready to basically convict the group of defendants on this and hold one out in particular,” Paulsen said of Barta.

Smith said he “would encourage the university to reexamine the relationship with not only Gary Barta but (offensive coordinator) Brian Ferentz and others named in recent lawsuits.”

But he said he approved the agreement because a loss in court “could far exceed $4 million.”

Settlement documents were made public Monday morning.

The key settlement details include:

  • The state of Iowa will pay $2 million to the plaintiffs, with the Iowa athletics department being responsible for the remaining $2.175 million.
  • About 45.5% of the settlement will go toward attorney's fees of $1,878,750. Another $35,837.41 will go toward unspecified costs. The firm of Tulsa-based civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who was lead counsel for the former players, will be paid the full settlement amount.

Twelve former players signed the settlement agreement Feb. 23:

  • Akrum Wadley (a former star running back who played at Iowa from 2013-17)
  • Jonathan Parker (2013-16)
  • Marcel Joly (2014-17)
  • Aaron Mends (2014-18)
  • Maurice Fleming  (2012-15)
  • Reggie Spearman (2013)
  • Kevonte Martin-Manley (2010-14)
  • Darian Cooper (2011-16)
  • Laron Taylor (2012-14)
  • Brandon Simon (2016-19)
  • Javon Foy (2019-20), and
  • Terrence Harris (2014-16).

Thirteen players were on the initial lawsuit filed in November of 2020, but Andre Harris' name was not included in the settlement for reasons not immediately known. Those 12 players would share the remaining $2,210,412.59 — which amounts to roughly $184,201.05 per player.

The University of Iowa also will commit $90,000 toward the suing players to obtain graduate school degrees. They would not be required to attend the UI.

The university also agreed to support mental-health costs for the 12 former players for one year, through March 15, 2024.

The agreement also stipulates that the university will hire the services of Leonard Moore, a former vice president for diversity at the University of Texas, through at least May 2024 to assist Iowa's five-year Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) plan.

“The athletic department remains committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for every student-athlete and staff member involved in our program,” Barta said in a statement. "The Hawkeyes' over-arching goal to win every time we compete, graduate every student-athlete that comes to Iowa, and to do it right, remains our focus."

Barta did not comment on the calls from Sand and Smith to reevaluate his employment or fire him outright.

Lawsuit stemmed from allegations of mistreatment in Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes football program

Monday's settlement ends the legal chapter of what became a national news story on June 5, 2020, when dozens of former players used social media to share their stories of alleged mistreatment under the watch of Ferentz, the longest-tenured active coach at college football's top level.

The outcry led to the ousting of longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle through a $1.1 million separation agreement and an outside investigation led by law firm Husch Blackwell, which found that “the program’s rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.”

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz's program was put under scrutiny for allegedly having a racially discriminatory culture, according to a November 2020 lawsuit. His son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, at right, and former strength coach, Chris Doyle, became the key defendants in the suit.

That report became the basis for Solomon-Simmons (a former Oklahoma football player) to lead 13 former players in a suit filed Nov. 13, 2020, that named as defendants the UI; the Board of Regents; Barta; Ferentz and his son, Brian; Doyle; and current strength coach Raimond Braithwaite.

The players requested $20 million in damages, demanded the firings of Barta and both Ferentzes and sought other measures aimed at improving the treatment of Black players at Iowa.

What led to the University of Iowa football lawsuit settlement agreement?

Over the course of two-plus years, many key moments pointed to Monday’s settlement agreement.

The first big development was a 21-page ruling in May 2021 by Judge Stephanie Rose that removed Barta, Braithwaite and Kirk Ferentz as defendants; dismissed six of the eight counts; and trimmed the number of plaintiffs from 13 to seven, saying ex-players Fleming, Andre Harris, Terrence Harris, Martin-Manley, Spearman and Taylor were outside the four-year statute of limitations to sue.

While many aspects of that development favored Kirk Ferentz, the players’ side also claimed victory because two counts of the federal lawsuit (overseeing a racially hostile environment and deprivation of civil rights) were allowed to continue and put more scrutiny on the behaviors of Doyle and Brian Ferentz.

At the time, Joshua Gordon, an Oregon-based sports-conflict resolution expert, looked over the case and told the Register: “I still think this will end with (a) settlement, ultimately. (When) you get into an evidentiary battle, you’re talking big money to defend and deal with depositions and discovery.”

From May 2021:Judge Stephanie Rose's 21-page response sets stage for case

While Gordon was proven correct, settlement talks didn’t ramp up for another 18 to 20 months as both sides dug in.

Over the ensuing year, the two sides fought over access to university records, including confidential personnel reports from the Husch Blackwell investigation related to Doyle, Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz and linebackers coach Seth Wallace.

The state argued it had already provided 200,000 pages of documents and that personnel reports were protected by attorney-client privilege, but on June 24, 2022, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Helen Adams ordered UI to turn over all the materials to Solomon-Simmons and his team.

While that wrangling took place, a filing by the plaintiffs in April 2022 cranked up the heat.

Solomon-Simmons' team filed a second amended complaint with four new counts, including a retaliation claim against Kirk Ferentz over his treatment of Parker, and sought to restore Barta and Ferentz as defendants while adding Wallace.

A secretly recorded meeting by Parker between him and Ferentz was included in the defense team's public filings. The recording shed light on Ferentz inquiring whether Parker had "both feet in the circle" of the program and the coach assigning Parker four hours of community service for throwing a ball toward Brian Ferentz during a special-teams drill.

From April 2022:Damario Solomon-Simmons speaks with Register after new developments

A final push, then football season

After the order for the UI to turn over all materials, the defense team continued to push Rose to dismiss the case, while the plaintiffs argued that key UI personnel were hiding behind their legal team to avoid depositions.

In August 2022, Brian Ferentz’s voice was heard through a 537-page filing as he outlined the complaints against him from all seven players, with Wadley being the most prominent. Wadley is Iowa’s No. 5 all-time leading rusher and left the program after the 2017 season with 35 career touchdowns, one shy of Tavian Banks’ school record.

Wadley sued Brian Ferentz for $20 million, saying the coach tarnished his reputation. Brian Ferentz replied in his filing that Wadley stopped going to class, thinking he would be taken in the 2018 NFL Draft.

In his final game as a Hawkeye, Akrum Wadley (25) led Iowa to a 27-20 win against Boston College in the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl. Wadley was among the 12 Black former players who signed a settlement agreement on Feb. 23.

As stated in the filing, “Based on 20 years of playing and coaching, B. Ferentz believes that if Wadley were good enough to play professional football, he would have played or be playing, regardless of anything B. Ferentz said or his silence.”

Then in September 2022, Doyle submitted his own request for a summary judgment and included testimonials of support from more than a dozen people, including nine who are Black and played in the NFL. That list included prominent NFL players such as Mike Daniels, Noah Fant, Micah Hyde, Desmond King and Tristan Wirfs.

Doyle also went through the contentions of each player suing him, including Wadley. The filing stated, “Mr. Wadley acknowledged under oath that Doyle never used the ‘n’ word, and never said anything about his hair, jewelry, tattoos other than Wadley’s belief that neither Doyle nor Coach Kirk Ferentz liked players wearing hoodies.”

Then came the rigors of a football season and an even greater spotlight on the Ferentzes, as Brian Ferentz's offense produced the program's worst yardage totals since 1978. Meantime, the legal waiting continued, with depositions for Kirk and Brian Ferentz still on hold.

In a Dec. 14 filing, both parties requested additional time to file motions to compel and resolve outstanding issues with the discovery process. The original trial date of March 6 was pushed back, and on Feb. 25 the plaintiffs removed Wallace from the case (no specific racial-bias claims ever surfaced about him) "with prejudice," meaning he could not be re-added to the lawsuit.

Three days later, on Feb. 28, the Ferentzes, Doyle and Barta were removed "without prejudice," meaning they could be re-added to the suit, but their removal proved to be a strong indication that a settlement was near.

By taking them off the case, the power of reaching a settlement lay with the Attorney General's office.

That settlement agreement arrived Monday.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. The Register's Tyler Jett contributed to this article.