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Former UI Football Players File Lawsuit Alleging Racial Discrimination

Thirteen Black former University of Iowa football players have filed a lawsuit alleging they suffered racial discrimination under Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff. According to the legal challenge filed in Polk County District Court, the players’ attorneys argue that for years, Black student athletes have been subject to “pervasive harassment, bullying, policies causing disparate treatment, and race-based threats” under the coaching staff.

The lawsuit alleges that the program demanded strict adherence to the “Iowa Way," a set of rules and expectations that governed players’ conduct and personal decisions on and off the field and “forced them to conform to White culture, norms, and customs."

The players say this philosophy “effectively stripped away every cultural aspect of being an African-American” by banning certain hairstyles and manners of dress associated with Black culture. They also allege they faced disparate punishment for disruptions or violations compared to white players.

Led by Tulsa-based civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, the players had initially sought a $20 million settlement and the firings of Ferentz, his son assistant coach Brian Ferentz and UI Athletics Director Gary Barta. The University of Iowa declined to take those steps.

Head Coach Ferentz has repeatedly said he is eager to change the culture in the program, that he has facilitated and welcomed “frank” conversations among players and staff about race and misconduct, and has recognized that in some instances coaches “crossed the line from demanding to demeaning."

He’s also established a former player advisory committee and expanded the current team’s football leadership group to allow for more diverse voices in key team policy discussions.

The lawsuit follows what has been a tumultuous few months for the Hawkeye football program. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and a nationwide reckoning on race and injustice, dozens of former and current players took to social media to voice their accounts of misconduct and racial bias by coaching staff.

Soon after this outpouring on social media, the program announced a “separation agreement” with Strength and Conditioning Coach Chris Doyle, who was the subject of many of the accounts of misconduct and racial bias. To date, no other personnel changes have been made.

That outpouring on social media also prompted the university to hire an outside law firm to conduct its own independent review. The report by the firm Husch Blackwell found the program perpetuated racial and cultural biases and a pattern of bullying, and demanded “strict conformity and rigid adherence” to a culture in which “Black players felt they could never truly fit in."

According to an account from one former player, being on the Hawkeye Football team was a “daily struggle for Black players."

That report ungirds many of the allegations outlined in the lawsuit filed this week, which also includes personal accounts of the former players themselves, who argue that the “discriminatory treatment” interfered with their ability to earn a high quality education.

In an Oct. 18 letter declining to grant the players’ initial settlement request, University of Iowa Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Carroll Reasoner said the school welcomed the opportunity to work with the former players “in creating meaningful change” in the program and on campus, and were willing to assist those former students who did not obtain their degree.

“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,” Reasoner’s letter reads in part.

In additional to the lawsuit filed this week, Solomon-Simmons has said that the players intend to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Justice and Iowa’s Civil Rights Commission.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter