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Hawkeye Football Coach Apologizes For Culture Of Racial Bias, No Further Personnel Changes Are Planned

Phil Roeder
Flickr Creative Commons
Leaders of the University of Iowa football team are apologizing for a culture of racial bias an bullying. While one assistant coach has resigned, no further personnel changes are planned.

An independent review released Thursday finds there is racial bias and a pattern of bullying within the University of Iowa football program. While administrators say they’re committed to changing the culture that empowered a small number of coaches to demean players, no further personnel changes are planned.

The report conducted by law firm Husch Blackwell draws on accounts from 111 current and former players and staff. In the words of one former player, being on the Hawkeye Football team was “a daily struggle for Black players."

“We were punished for no apparent reason, singled out by coaches, and threatened and ridiculed every day. It is hard to explain how difficult it was,” said the former player. “Think about being under pressure every day for 4 years solely because of your race. That is how it was for me and my Black teammates.”

The report was conducted after numerous current and former players went public with their accounts of mistreatment and disproportionate discipline by coaches. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, and in the context a national reckoning on race, Hawkeye players felt empowered to take to social media and call out systemic racism in their own program.

According to the report, players felt coaches were empowered to demean them, especially athletes of color. Black players felt compelled to conform to a culture of whiteness that discouraged individuality, and demanded strict adherence to far-reaching rules and expectations on and off the field.

“[N]umerous players described feeling unhappy and unwelcome, citing to a program culture that they perceive requires strict conformity and rigid adherence to the “mold” of an ideal player, a mold that many Black players felt they could never truly fit because it was built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, White athlete from a midwestern background,” the report reads.

Players described strict rules prohibiting Black hairstyles like dreadlocks, braids and cornrows; jewelry and tattoos were also not allowed. According to the report, one current player said coaches were using the rules to “eliminate Black culture."

Players’ weight and sleep patterns were also closely monitored, with players compelled to wear “sleep bands” that would transmit measurements to a central database for daily review by coaching staff. Those who slept poorly multiple nights were “called out” in front of the team.

One coach said this close monitoring caused “unnecessary stress and added to a culture of fear."

Additionally, players say rules were unequally enforced based on race, and punishments were unequally handed down, with Black players facing disproportionate discipline if they stepped out of line.

One current Black player recounted facing harsher treatment for spitting on a turf field, stating he was “yelled at extensively," kicked out of training and assigned ten hours of community service, while white players did not face the same treatment.

“A former player also gave an example of Black players being punished by being required to repeatedly run a drill in which they run right at one another and collide,” the report states.

Collectively, the practices perpetuated an environment where players say it was extremely difficult to succeed as a Black player, with their self-esteem and sense of identity intact.

According to the report, multiple players and staff referred to a saying that, "If you make it through the Iowa football program as a Black player, then you can do anything."

UI Athletic Director Gary Barta and Head Coach Kirk Ferentz both say they are committed to changing the culture, and that work is underway to do just that.

“We’re focused on creating a more inclusive culture for everybody, players and coaches. Over the past weeks, I’ve learned our culture was not as strong as I thought,” Ferentz said. “Many of our Black players felt they had to conform to a white culture. And in some instances, coaches had crossed the line from demanding to demeaning. And that’s never acceptable.”

Ferentz says the response is ongoing. He is facilitating and welcoming “frank” conversations with current and former players; he’s created a former student-athlete advisory committee; staff training on racial justice, unconscious bias and macroaggressions is planned; and a former player, Broderick Binns, has been named Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for UI Athletics.

Last month, strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle resigned, after multiple players accused him specifically of racial bias, bullying and unfair treatment.

As part of the independent review, Husch Blackwell has provided to the UI four separate personnel reports outlining “specific allegations of mistreatment” leveled against current and former employees.

Barta said those personnel reports are being reviewed. Despite acknowledging that the culture within the program was systemic and not limited to one individual, he said Thursday no other personnel changes are planned as of yet, noting that the internal review found players were “cautiously optimistic” about current leadership.

“We will and have begun the process of internal follow-up. That internal follow-up will occur privately and it will follow university HR policies and procedures,” Barta said. “It’s not a done situation yet but I felt confident enough to share with you today that we don’t have any changes in employment in terms of who’s here and who’s not.”

When asked by a reporter whether he would take this opportunity to give Black assistant coaches “more of a voice” in the program, Ferentz said no.

“I don’t feel it will be more,” Ferentz replied.

Still, he said, he’s hopeful players and staff will continue speaking candidly about their experiences and that the program will “move forward."

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter