Naive me, I actually took Gary’s words at face value.
“We’ve made mistakes. We’re working hard to correct them. They’re not going to be corrected overnight. I want to again apologize to any former student-athletes, current student-athletes who have had a bad experience within Iowa football, and we’re going to work hard to earn everybody’s trust moving forward,” a chastened Gary Barta said on July 30.
This was Barta’s mea culpa to the corroborated allegations of racial disparities within the Hawkeye football program. As we know, the Husch Blackwell report highlighted disparate racial treatment, selective drug testing, a bullying culture, and an inadequate support system for Black athletes. It was a searing indictment of Hawkeye football culture.
When the report dropped, I hoped, perhaps naively so, that its findings would prompt Barta, Ferentz, and UI leadership to take action. And while Barta and KF sounded contrite, a tearful press conference is more symbolic than substantive. Among the still-unanswered questions: Beyond dismissing Doyle, how are Barta, Ferentz, and company addressing the program’s bullying/demeaning culture? How are Barta and KF addressing behavioral complaints about Brian Ferentz and Seth Wallace? And what is the latest on the James Daniels-led task force? Instead, crickets.
A regular status update (to student athletes, fans, and the press alike) on athletic department initiatives to address bullying/racial unease would seemingly be a no-brainer. Players would feel validated (the athletic department really does care), the university would generate positive headlines for its transparency, and KF could cite university changes when discussing Iowa to recruits and skeptical parents. In a best case scenario, Barta and the UI could even emerge as a national leader on race, bullying, and player empowerment. But in a surprise to absolutely no one, the UI athletic department is instead running its patented four corners offense, banking on ISM and Luka Garza distracting fans and press from this summer’s inferno.
Knowing Barta’s crisis management style (emphasis on crisis, less on management), I don’t expect any answers to be forthcoming. When faced with program-roiling turmoil, Barta’s default instinct is delay, a weak-kneed attempt to starve any sensitive story of oxygen. In just about every Hawkeye crisis, Barta’s avoidance strategy has backfired. We have witnessed the fallout — Lickliter’s week-long firing, a Biff Poggi press conference, the Dolph/Fran tempest. All of these PR blunders were entirely avoidable with a little decisiveness and transparency, a willingness to provide timely and accurate information to the Hawkeye public. But in Barta’s athletic department fortress, secrecy is the currency of choice.
As a proud Hawkeye alum and fan, this frustrates the hell out of me. In so many cases, Barta’s opaqueness is entirely unnecessary. For example, how did Barta’s secret extension of Fran benefit the university, athletic department, or Barta himself? In fact, it was counterproductive; when the press found out about Fran’s contract extension, Iowa had just lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State en route to a miserable 14-19 campaign. In other instances, Barta’s opaqueness has been costly to both UI coffers and the university’s reputation. See Barta’s tortured rationale (citing an internal review and “other factors”) for Tracey Greisbaum’s firing. Barta’s decided lack of transparency — why, again, did he fire Iowa’s very successful field hockey coach? — culminated in a $6.6 million stain on Iowa’s reputation.
After two decades of Barta obfuscation, perhaps I was overly naive following his emotional press conference. Watching him tear up while discussing examples of systemic racism in modern life (such as driving while Black), I thought he would immediately tackle the ingrained bullying/racial overtones permeating his flagship program. That there would be a sense of urgency, particularly after Barta and Ferentz’s fumble following the 2018 administrative investigation into racial disparities. Over the past two plus months, that sense of urgency has been equivalent to a slow-developing Iowa bubble screen.
Barta has pledged to “work hard to earn everybody’s trust moving forward.” In order to earn everybody’s trust, which I assume means players, fans and snarky columnists alike, Barta must shed his athletic department cocoon to openly discuss how his athletic department is addressing the damning Husch Blackwell report. Gary, the shot clock is ticking — your four corners approach to this crisis (and countless others) isn’t an effective strategy.