By Mike Jones on July 21, 2020 at 12:00 pm
Ferentz Mask On
© Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

A previously unreleased report by the University of Iowa Athletics Diversity Task Force was published by Rob Howe of Hawkeye Nation yesterday, detailing the committee’s 2019 findings on why Iowa ranks at the bottom of the Big Ten with only 42% of male African American student-athletes graduating. The investigation did not single out Iowa Football but instead examined the athletic program as a whole. The findings by the committee were a summary of every complaint and concern raised by ex-Iowa football players over the past couple of months. To summarize, African American student-athletes:

  • Do not feel comfortable being themselves.
  • Believe there is a double standard between how black student-athletes are treated vs. white student-athletes.
  • Believe that there is a short period of time to make a good impression on campus and that the margin of error is perceived to be much smaller for black student-athletes.

Among other problematic findings, and this is a theme, is that staff and administrators lacked awareness of the experiences of the black student-athletes and that there was a lack of trust between black student-athletes and their coaches. I felt that this line was extremely damning:

Several coaches attributed problems with recruitment and retention of African American student-athletes to “just not liking Iowa.” The sentiment about minorities not liking Iowa is prevalent among many members of the [Athletic] Department who have come to accept it, thus giving the impression of lacking a sense of urgency for changing the culture because it is not within their control. 

And there’s the rub. This isn’t a story of overt racism in the Iowa Athletic Department or the Iowa Football program. This is about Iowa administrators and staff either willfully or negligently failing to account for implicit bias and institutional racism in their programs. "These types of things don’t happen at Iowa because this stuff would 'never happen in our town.'” It’s easy to claim ignorance of culture problems when your head is in the sand. This is a story of looking the other way and shirking responsibility because people "weren’t told.”

And that’s probably Kirk Ferentz’s biggest problem. Because he was made aware of these issues, even if the committee’s report wasn’t exclusive to his program. Back in May/June when former players made these allegations, Ferentz responded:

"I don't want to say I was blind-sided," Ferentz said during a Sunday call with media, "… but the bottom line is we don't want anybody to leave this place not feeling like this was a good experience."

He wasn’t blind-sided because he’d read the Diversity Task Force report approximately a year prior. He knew what was going on. Per Howe, in response to the report, Ferentz said that he relaxed wardrobe restrictions and “created a committee of current Black student-athletes to discuss what could be done to improve matters now and in the future” but that the group only met once, in August. Ferentz recommended that they meet again but it didn’t happen. He was quoted as saying:

“I dropped the ball…I felt we had a pretty healthy environment, a pretty healthy culture last December. Coming off the field in California [after the Holiday Bowl], I felt pretty good about things. When we left here on March 13, I felt good about our positioning to start spring practice. A lot of things in the world have changed since then,” Ferentz said on Thursday.

Did Kirk Ferentz honestly think that because they’d won some football games, including the Holiday Bowl, that implicit bias and institutional racism had magically disappeared from his program? If so, that is a very “Football Guy” attitude to have. As the team did well, all ills are cured? The problem is that the adage of “winning cures all” applies more to “am I going to get fired” than it does to “tackling the issues of systemic racism in the 21st century.”

The debate about what should happen in the football program has been immediately dumbed down by some asking “Do you believe Kirk Ferentz is racist?” Me personally? No, I don’t believe that Kirk Ferentz is racist. What I do believe is that Kirk Ferentz, Leader of Men, the Dean of College Football Coaches and the State’s Highest Paid Employee, was made aware of glaring issues inside of his program a year ago and did little to address them, thus facilitating a continuation of implicit bias and institutional racism within Iowa Football. For that, he is responsible.

None of us have the answers because we aren’t in the locker room or the offices of the Athletic Department. All we have are the accounts of former/current players and the report of this task force, which is now known as the (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) DEI Accountability Board. If there are any positives it’s that current players have noted a change in the atmosphere, as Ivory Kelly-Martin told reporters back in June:

"I'm sure I can speak for a lot of the guys on the team, yes, it felt like (players were walking on eggshells)…It was an atmosphere where you did have to look out and kind of watch your back. You had to be on your toes at times. Throughout this week there have been so many conversations that have talked about change and we are hopeful that this is actually going to happen. These last couple of days in the weight room and outside on the field, we can all tell that there is a clear difference between how it was versus how it is now."

But it’s not just one conversation or a series of conversations. It’s an ongoing process of institutional changes that must be implemented by staff and administrators to ensure that there are inclusion and equality across all sports programs and that the proverbial ball isn’t dropped once again. I hope that Ferentz and Barta recognize this and substantial action is taken, leading to a healthier culture and a program that proudly graduates a substantial amount of its black male student-athletes. After all, isn’t that what the goal is?

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