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UI Won't Meet Former Players' Demands To Fire Coaches Over Alleged Racial Discrimination

Eight Black former UI football players on demanding the firings of top coaches and $20 million in damages due to alleged racial discrimination. The school says it won't comply with the demands.

The University of Iowa says it will not fire head football coach Kirk Ferentz, as demanded by Black former players who allege widespread racial discrimination within the program.

Eight former players, represented by a Tulsa-based civil rights law firm, have also called for the firings of Athletic Director Gary Barta and Offensive Coordinator Brian Ferentz, and for the school to pay out $20 million in damages to players, among other demands, as the Des Moines Register reported Sunday.

On Sunday evening the UI declined to meet the demands laid out in a 21 page letter sent by the law office of Damario Solomon-Simmons, but pointed to other steps taken to address mistreatment in the program, such as commissioning an external review and appointing Black former player Broderick Binns to be Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the athletics department, among other steps.

“The University of Iowa, Iowa Athletics Department and the football program have publicly addressed some of the concerns you raise in your letter,” wrote UI Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Carroll Reasoner in a letter published by the Register. “Moving forward, we are committed to ensuring that our student-athletes have the ability to be true to themselves and we will not tolerate a system that inhibits authenticity.”

The players’ attorneys had warned if the school didn’t satisfy the demands, they would file suit in state and federal court and lodge a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Hawkeye Football has been under increased scrutiny for its treatment of Black players and racial disparities following an outpouring of allegations by former players on social media this past summer.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer spurred protests around the world and a national reckoning on race, which emboldened former UI players to go public with experiences at a scale previously unseen.

“There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long, former UI player and current Chicago Bears player James Daniels tweeted in June.

Now in the letter dated October 5, former players Akrum Wadley, Aaron Mends, Jonathan Parker, Marcel Joly, Maurice Fleming, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Reggie Spearman and Andre Harris argue that Hawkeye Football coaches created a “culture of targeted race discrimination against African-American athletes."

Under the leadership of Kirk Ferentz, his son Brian Ferentz, and former Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle, the players allege the coaching staff subjected Black players to patterns of bullying and ridicule, and retaliated when student athletes voiced concerns.

“Under the watchful eye of [Kirk] Ferentz, Iowa football coaching staff utilized racially discriminatory and punitive means to force African-American athletes into strict compliance with the Program’s racist philosophy that effectively stripped away from them every cultural aspect of being an African-American,” the letter reads in part.

According to the letter, Doyle and Brian Ferentz would “commonly” use racist language with Black players, including the "n word," and would use damaging stereotypes against them, including implying Black student athletes were criminals or gang members.

The eight players say coaching staff carried out a “racially discriminatory philosophy” that they say singled out Black players and stripped them of their cultural identity, by preventing them from wearing hairstyles such as dreadlocks and manners of dress associated with Black culture, while at the same time allowing white players to wear long hair, beards, and clothes associated with white culture.

The only personnel change so far came with Doyle’s resignation in June, following the allegations of racial bias and mistreatment posted on social media.

The eight players also allege Black players faced disproportionate punishments for violating team rules and expectations, accounts which have been reflected in previous reports about the program’s culture.

An internal report conducted by the UI Athletics Diversity Task Force in the fall of 2018 and an external report conducted by law firm Husch Blackwell and released in July 2020 documented similar accounts of mistreatment and discrimination against Black players, which spurred some to leave the university entirely.

Collectively, the eight players argue that the pattern of “negative treatment, comments, and threats” had lasting, negative impacts not only on their time at the UI, but on their “overall physical and psychological well-being”.

The treatment made it “virtually impossible for African-American athletes to focus on their education”, they say, arguing that Black players were therefore denied the benefit of a high quality education.

The task force report conducted in 2018 found that Black male student athletes had a graduation rate of just 42%, about half that of white male student athletes, 81% of whom graduate.

As of Monday afternoon, searches of court records did not reveal filings for the potential suit. But according to the letter penned earlier this month, the players and their lawyers are preparing for a far-reaching legal fight.

In addition to their other demands, they’ve requested contact information for all Black UI football players dating back 10 years, with the intent of filing a class action suit.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter