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Kirk Ferentz vows change after football inquiry finds 'Iowa way' led to systemic racism, player mistreatment


Mark Emmert Dargan Southard   | Hawk Central
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IOWA CITY, Ia. — An external investigation of Iowa's football culture concludes that Black players often have felt they were treated harshly but largely exonerates head coach Kirk Ferentz of being the root of the problem.

The report by the Husch Blackwell law firm, released Thursday, also addressed concerns raised by former players that Ferentz's son — Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz — was part of a group of current football staff members that engaged in racial bias and player mistreatment. The school said Thursday that he and the others will keep their jobs.

"In sum, the program’s rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity," the report reads. "The program over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players."

The report's findings are consistent with complaints raised in the past two months by many Black former Hawkeyes — namely that they felt the need to conform to an "Iowa way" of doing things that "was built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, white athlete from a Midwestern background," the report.

In addition to the 28-page review, the law firm also provided the university with four "personnel reports" about unspecified current and former employees of the department. Those reports will remain confidential.

One of those four is presumably former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, who was removed from his position June 15 with a $1.1 million settlement that included no admission of wrongdoing. Brian Ferentz, after Doyle, was the subject of the most accusations of abusive and racially insensitive behavior. Linebackers coach Seth Wallace was mentioned to a lesser extent. 

“If there is anyone in our program that has not changed from two months ago, they just aren’t paying attention,” Kirk Ferentz said Thursday. “During these two months, it’s been really challenging for everybody involved.

“… I’d like to think everyone has been affected. If anybody feels they didn’t have any role (in the allegations) — even if it was one player not feeling good about their experiences — that’s one too many. We’ve got to try to do a better job. We know that not everyone is going to leave the program happy, but everybody needs to leave knowing they were treated fairly and given an equal opportunity.”       

That, among other things is what the report asks athletic director Gary Barta and Kirk Ferentz to do in response, saying they must “create action steps aimed at improving the culture of the program, eliminating biases, encouraging student-athletes to report concerns of mistreatment, and amplifying the University’s policy statement against retaliation within the football program."

In a university news release Thursday, Iowa President Bruce Harreld said: “It is clear that the climate and culture must and will change within our football program. Our student-athletes must have the ability to be true to themselves, and we cannot and will not tolerate a systemic process that inhibits authenticity.”

Kirk Ferentz promised follow-through, despite admitted mistakes that he failed to follow up properly when concerns had been made in previous years.  

“We’ve had two significant months in this program’s history, but that’s all for naught if we don’t have follow-through,” Ferentz said. “Again, I’ve encouraged our players, ‘Call me out.’ Same thing with the advisory committee. And that’s been painful at times. But I think they will continue to probe and continue to ask questions. As we walk away today, that is the most important aspect of this whole thing in my mind.”   

Players still supportive of Kirk Ferentz

The law firm conducted 111 interviews, primarily of current Hawkeye players, coaches and staff members. Fifty-two percent of those interviewed are Black. Lawyers spoke to 74 current and former Hawkeye football players, and concluded that most of them are supportive of Ferentz, who has been head coach since 1999. He's the longest-tenured head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the most elite level of college football.

The bulk of the players interviewed — 45 of them — are on the current roster. The report said those players "were uniform in their belief that the environment in the football program has improved significantly since the inception of this review."

Those interviewed included 27 current coaches or staff members, nine former staffers and one parent of a former player. No coach other than Kirk Ferentz and Doyle is mentioned by name in the report.

“Our attorneys made it clear that conversations about personnel matters must be private, so that I’m sure played into it,” Barta said of why the school decided to keep allegations against current staff members private. “You don’t see specific personnel mentions in the report. I think that’s pretty standard for legal reasons. But that information they shared with us will go into their personnel files.

“If we separate with someone, that becomes public. But in terms of personnel and performance evaluations, those are never public discussions.”

But the Husch Blackwell made clear that the racial bias problems within Iowa football were larger than one person.  

"According to several players, issues within the culture were 'not just a Chris Doyle problem,'" the report says. "Those players said the culture problems are systemic and cannot be fixed simply by getting rid of one coach. Several former players commented that coach Doyle should not be a 'scapegoat' for the systemic issues in the program."

The investigation revealed a disconnect between what players saw as the meaning of the "Iowa way" and what coaches considered it. Many players saw it as insistence on conformity and as a way for coaches to arbitrarily single out some for punishment. There was a pervasive fear of ending up on a coach's "list."

"The general sense among those players was that once a player was labeled or placed on a list, their playing time was negatively affected, and the player was treated like a 'bad kid.' Almost every player who mentioned the 'lists' said it was very hard, if not impossible, to come off the list," the investigators concluded.

Black players at Iowa outlined ways in which they felt they were treated differently from their white peers, touching on things such as their style of hair, clothing and jewelry and even what music was playing in the football facility. They believe that even extended to politics.

"One former player asserted that the coaches previously told them not to take a knee during the national anthem because they should 'keep politics and football separate,' yet White players were allowed to wear MAGA hats and present an Iowa jersey to President Trump during his presidential campaign," the report said.

Ferentz claimed the players did that without his knowledge and said he is changing his way of thinking on that topic.

The Iowa football coach has said he's now open to the idea of his players staging some sort of demonstration during the national anthem, but that he wants them to be unanimous in that undertaking.

“We're in a different time and a different place right now as a society, and I really appreciate the dialogue we’ve had,” Ferentz said when asked if he feels his players are confident they can express themselves politically and in other ways. “I really respect and appreciate the way our players are talking and the way they feel. And more importantly, it’s clear there are people on both sides of the (politics in sports) discussion. But it’s clear there’s a real respect for each other.”

Report suggests changes underway

There are other indications in the report that Ferentz is changing his policies based on what he has learned, including:

  • Not being so stringent on weight requirements for each player, a point of contention by many who said prior obsession about this led to unhealthy eating habits.
  • Relaxing the use of sleep bands that track the amount of rest each player is getting at night. Doyle had touted the benefits of these, but players claimed they were the cause of stress and that they would be singled out in front of the team if they were deemed to be not getting enough sleep. They saw them as another way for coaches to control their behavior. Ferentz said in the report he now wants them to be purely an educational tool, that only he will view the data, and that any discussions will be held privately with individual players.
  • Moving the drug-testing apparatus outside of the football facility to ensure more privacy for those being tested. Ferentz denied, however, that Black players were more likely to be subject to the tests, which some claimed.

These are in addition to changes Ferentz has already implemented, such as allowing players to wear earrings, caps and hoodies in the football facility, letting them be active on Twitter, and forming an advisory group of 10 former Hawkeyes to help him improve the experiences of his Black athletes.

“I thought we addressed what we needed to address,” Ferentz said, “the hats, earrings — and those were important and still were important to our players. I get that better now — and I kind of got it in August (2019) — but I think the key point is just the lens that you're looking at things through. Particularly the last two months since the end of May versus prior to that point.

"A lot of viewpoints have changed. But I'll tie that in also with evaluation of people. You've got to ask better, probing questions to get more honest feedback so people can feel comfortable telling you about what needs to be addressed. And again, we're getting that right now, but we need to continue on that path as we move forward.”

Iowa announced the investigation June 15, the day after it parted ways with Doyle. He had been at Iowa for 21 years and was the highest-paid college strength coach in the country at $800,000 annually. His million-dollar payout came at a time when the university athletic department was absorbing $15 million in cutbacks because of the financial toll the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on sports.

Husch Blackwell assigned three lawyers to the Iowa probe — Hayley Hanson, Demetrius Peterson and Kristine Zayko. Barta said at the time that the interviews and subsequent report would be done in weeks, not months. The law firm was chosen by Iowa's general counsel office, which also oversaw the work.

The outpouring of former Hawkeye football players who questioned their treatment while on the team began June 5 after Kirk Ferentz went on national TV to discuss the team's response to the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. Faith Ekakitie and James Daniels were among recent Black players at Iowa who said they were treated differently because of their race. Others, including Jaleel Johnson and Amani Hooker, soon offered their own criticisms.

In response, Ferentz admitted that he had "blind spots" with regard to the experiences of his Black athletes during his 21 seasons leading the Hawkeyes.

"I've watched him make changes when he's needed to make changes during my time," Barta said. "... I was very pleased to see that the conversations with former and current players confirmed what I believed, that Kirk is a leader that can move forward with this program."

Ferentz now gets to continue his efforts to try to change the way his athletes are treated and the tarnished perception of his program.

“The important thing as we move forward is how do I better ask questions and better get to the truth?” Ferentz said. “Using former players has been a great vehicle, no question about that. But what about our current players? Because right now, they are talking very freely — but is that going to be the same way a year from now? As we move forward, the question is how do we keep that process going where players feel like they can talk candidly about things.

“Just in a nutshell, my responsibility is to be committed to the program — not me — the program. So whatever we have to do to move the program forward, that’s what we need to be doing right now.”     

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Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard. 

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