(ED. NOTE: This is a constantly-developing story, so we'll certainly have more to say on Kirk Ferentz's press conference from earlier today shortly, but in the mean time, a few thoughts on protest action. -- RB)
Well, so much for that Friday afternoon news dump.
If you haven’t heard (and if you are reading this site, you are likely well aware), allegations of racial disparities have engulfed the Hawkeye football program. A number of former Hawkeyes have accused Chris Doyle (and, to a lesser extent, Brian Ferentz) of racial insensitivity. And for the record, these aren’t exactly program malcontents coming forward; James Daniels and Amani Hooker, in particular, were standout Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz, to his credit, pledged to listen to their concerns and “take to heart the messages we hear.”
That is fine—but is it enough?
Race is a sensitive topic, even more so during these turbulent times. Over the past week, the horrific George Floyd killing exposed our country’s racial divides. “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry—and a source of outrage (count me among those outraged for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other African American victims of police brutality).
It is in this cauldron that Iowa football faces a backlash for racial insensitivity. For me, the sheer number of former Hawkeyes coming forward causes alarm. During Ferentz’s twenty one years in Iowa City, when have there been this many Hawkeyes questioning the program? Sure, the rhabdo crisis generated player and parent outrage (and Board of Regent oversight) but these allegations feel more personal. They go to the program’s core.
While being noticeably short on specifics (more on that in a bit), Ferentz’s statement on the George Floyd homicide demonstrated a level of humility. “I am a white football coach. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be pulled over for driving while black or to have people cross the street because they don’t want to walk alongside of you,” Ferentz wrote. He then pledged to be a “better listener” to understand “where another opinion comes from.” In his final sentence, Ferentz stated that “Change will begin with us.”
Well, Kirk, your former players are demanding “change,” both inside and outside the Hansen walls. You have an opportunity to translate those words into meaningful action (placing Doyle on administrative leave is a necessary first step).
Kirk Ferentz has always emphasized the “team,” squelching any hint of individuality. He has muzzled his most quotable players (see: DJK, Akrum) for fear of “unwanted distractions.” And when Colin Kaepernick first knelt to protest systemic inequalities, Ferentz didn’t want any Hawkeye to engage in a similar protest. There is a uniformity within the program, conforming to Kirk’s stated wishes. And, yes, this uniformity has won a lot of games (162 to be exact). But according to former players, the uniformity has also been stifling, helping to perpetuate a toxic atmosphere within the Hansen performance center.
My hope is that Ferentz adapts to the changing environment; he has sounded many of the right notes so far. The one exception: his team (or else) stance on future protests. On the possibility of Hawkeye players taking a knee, Ferentz said, “I’d just like to see our team be together. So, everybody’s taking a knee or everybody’s at attention, either way, but just the big thing is to be together on gameday and present a uniform appearance as a football team.”
With all due respect, this stance is somewhat naive. And while I understand his team (or else) focus, I think it misses the mark now more than ever. A small town Iowa kid is going to have a much different perspective on police brutality/racism than an African American player from Chicago or Detroit. In Kirk’s desire for uniformity (which, yes, I partially understand), there is a level of conformity. I understand how African American players could feel disempowered within Kinnick’s confines (and that isn’t even touching Doyle’s racially insensitive comments).
My recommendation: Ferentz allows individual players to kneel if they desire. The flag means different things to different people. For some, it represents military might; for others, it represents equality. And for some of us (particularly after watching that George Floyd video), it represents a country struggling with racial and economic inequities. If Ricky Stanzi, one of our favorite Hawkeyes, can use his platform to wrap himself in Americana, why can’t other Hawkeyes use their platform to protest police violence against African Americans?
At the risk of repeating myself, sports are a window into society. And mirroring our broader society, a significant number of African Americans within the Hawkeye program don’t feel heard. The avalanche of tweets this weekend confirmed that. And just like the United States is grappling with racial injustices, Kirk Ferentz and company must do the same. Listening is a start (as is the creation of a diversity advisory committee to be chaired by Mike Daniels) but, at this point, the Hawkeye program must embrace tangible, actionable change. More than a stirring Big Ten upset or another top 25 finish, empowering all Hawkeyes will leave the jersey in a better place.