Black and White: Iowa's Football Culture Requires Substantive, Not Symbolic, Change

By HaydensDumplings on July 27, 2020 at 8:00 am
Kirk Ferentz and Gary Barta
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Taking KF and Barta to Task (Force)

Win, graduate, do it white, er, right.

Mocking platitudes aside, the UI Athletics Diversity Task Force Report lays out a devastating critique of the Iowa football program’s culture. Reading through the nine page document, there is one unmistakable takeaway: Black football players feel marginalized at Iowa. Within the report, there are admonitions to Black players to change their appearance, conform to the “Iowa way,” and isolate from the greater campus and Iowa City community. As alarming: there are few, if any, outreach measures targeting Black athletes. As the report states, “Staff and administrators acknowledged that African American student-athletes have never explicitly approached them with concerns, and additionally staff and administrators have not actively sought out feedback from African American student athletes about their experiences.”

The report itself is jarring but, for me, Ferentz and Barta’s collective response was even more concerning. Following the report (which, once again, is a scathing critique of athletic department indifference), Ferentz’s major concession was... permitting earrings, hoodies, and rap music in the practice facility. Did the elder Ferentz really believe that allowing Lil’ Wayne and Luda in the locker room was the panacea for the program’s racial divide?

The fundamental question: after such a damning report (and, make no mistake, the report exposes racial discord within the football program), why did Ferentz and Barta effectively put their heads in the Kinnick turf? There hasn’t been a great explanation. Barta described Black player outrage as a “wake-up call” to him while acknowledging that the athletic department was “previously aware of certain shortcomings.” Ferentz, likewise, said that, “I don’t want to say I was blindsided but…” In one of the more tone-deaf quotes in recent memory, Ferentz said, “We allowed (student-athletes) to wear hats, earrings, [and hoodies] but what I learned here is there's a lot more to it.” If Kirk is reading the same 2018 UI Athletics Diversity Task Force Report that I read, did he really believe permitting 59FIFTY flat bills was the cure-all? I certainly hope not.

In reality, there was a level of institutional blindness (to borrow Ferentz’s “blind spot” terminology) toward Black athletes. While unacceptable, this “blind spot” might be at least somewhat explainable if Ferentz and Barta were just beginning their UI careers (which, as we know, is not the case). The sad reality: within the UI athletic department compound, empty mottos trumped concrete action, at least until 50 plus Black players exposed the program’s ugly truths. As a proud Hawkeye alumnus, it is disappointing that it essentially took a player revolt to prompt the two most powerful—and prominent—Hawkeye athletic figures to acknowledge the 2018 UI Athletics Diversity Task Force Report and, more importantly, the program’s systemic flaws. What’s the point of a task force (which is Barta’s go-to move whenever a crisis hits) when the report and its findings are treated like a proverbial box to check? The 2018 UI Athletic Diversity Task Force Report, not the football players’ tweetstorm last month, should have been the catalyst for reform.

And while Ferentz and Barta have expressed regret over the racially charged allegations, they both have important questions to answer, particularly since the publication of that report. Among the most pressing: Why did Ferentz “drop the ball,” as he conceded?  And as Ferentz’s boss (at least in theory), why didn’t Barta prioritize racial equity within his department? And, finally, considering the damning allegations leveled in the Task Force Report, why did it take former players speaking out to serve as Barta’s “wake-up” call? Shouldn’t the “wake-up” call have been the Task Force Report or, perhaps, when Black football players disproportionately transferred out of Iowa City or graduated at shockingly low rates?

Since the allegation erupted, Ferentz and Barta have generally sounded the right notes. And among some Hawkeye columnists, there is even talk of a changed program, one where player input is now valued. But before I subscribe to this all-too-tidy narrative (which strikes me as premature), I want to see Barta and Ferentz implement the Task Force recommendations. These structural recommendations—semi-regular meetings between Black student-athletes and the President’s office; a athletic department diversity staff with actual power; team specific programs to discuss controversial topics (such as the debate about standing or kneeling during the national anthem)—are substantive in nature. By implementing these recommendations (perhaps after consultation with the player advisory committee), Barta and Ferentz could send a clear message: the real “Iowa way” means addressing program inequities with comprehensive, not cosmetic, solutions. 

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