Opinion: Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has been listening to players, so he's giving them option to kneel during anthem

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

In early June, days before dozens of his former players alleged racial disparities or mistreatment in the Iowa football program, coach Kirk Ferentz was talking about social injustice and the death of George Floyd.

Ferentz said then, “Change is really needed right now. And it’s in our hands to try to do something with it.”

Over the course of his 22 years as Iowa's head coach, Ferentz has been impressively consistent while also stubborn to change. Now, he is relenting on an issue he was staunchly against in recent years: Football players kneeling during the national anthem. The peaceful protest was initiated in 2016 by then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest racial injustices in the U.S.

Iowa redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., who is part of the Hawkeyes' 22-player leadership group, said he plans to kneel during the anthem before Iowa’s season opener Saturday at Purdue. Ferentz has approved the decision by Tracy and anyone else who wants to take a knee.

“It’s very big to me personally,” Tracy said. "I know how African-Americans are treated in the United States.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has been part of the Hawkeyes' leadership-group meetings with players to discuss issues of race.

There have been three Hawkeye leadership-group discussions on standing vs. kneeling since June. The emphasis? To listen to each other’s viewpoints and gain an appreciation and understanding for where each person is coming from.

Those conversations affected Ferentz. He's changed his past view that everyone on the roster must do the same thing. At the same time, players will show unity by holding hands during the anthem.

“Everyone has the free ability to choose … either kneel or stand,” Tracy said. “I’m almost positive everybody’s not going to do the exact same thing. At the same time, we are still a team and will still look unified."

During one leadership-group meeting, Ferentz shared a letter from a military veteran "who felt very strongly that nobody should kneel." Recently, a 20-year Navy SEAL shared a different perspective with the team.

“In his mind, it’s all about Americans being their authentic selves … and staying true to their beliefs," Ferentz said. "In his words, that’s what people like him fought for, so (we) could enjoy the liberties and freedoms that are very unique to our country."

The varying decisions by Iowa players on Saturday could pack a powerful lesson — that individuals can think differently yet work in harmony for a common purpose.

That was a message that senior linebacker Nick Niemann reinforced Tuesday.

“Obviously my opinion is my opinion, and I think everyone's going to respect everyone else's,” Niemann said. “There’s nobody that’s right or wrong. Just with everything that's happened this offseason, I think we're just focused on listening and understanding other people and respecting them. Whatever guys do, that’s their choice.”

Ferentz echoed that the national-anthem conversation — one that former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels tweeted in June could be a needed game-changer for the program's culture — had been a powerful positive for Hawkeye football.

“Nobody’s judging each other. They’re being a good team. They’re acting like a team should," Ferentz said. "I’m extremely impressed with the way the guys have handled it."