Iowa Suspends Gary Dolphin Again

By Patrick Vint on February 23, 2019 at 11:32 am
Dolph, in happier times
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday night, Iowa played basketball against Maryland.  The Terps won on a late tip-in by power forward Bruno Fernando, a play in which he took a rebound from about four Hawkeyes through height and strength and force of will.

In the aftermath of the loss, Iowa radio announcer Gary Dolphin apparently said that Fernando "was King Kong at the end of the game."  Here's the audio:

Fernando, of course, is an African American man.  Dolphin, who has been broadcasting for decades, should know better than to make a statement so crass, even if the context clearly shows no racial intent.  Had Fernando or Maryland coach Mark Turgeon voiced their offense, it would have been justified.

But they didn't.  Nobody did.  For three days after Dolphin's "King Kong" comment, it received no mention in state or national media.  There was no comment from Maryland.  There were no articles or blog posts about Dolphin's comments.  A cursory search of Twitter, the internet's living repository for all jusitified and unjustified outrage, finds zero mention of the issue.

On Friday, Learfield suspended Dolphin for the remainder of the season over the 'King Kong' comment.  Iowa Athletics approved of the suspension in an unsigned statement.  It is the second time this year that Iowa and Learfield have suspended Dolphin for on-air comments.  In November, Iowa suspended Dolph for two games after a hot mic caught him criticizing Iowa guard Maishe Dailey.  That time, athletic director Gary Barta released a statement citing "ongoing tensions" between Dolphin and the department, which made an otherwise one-day story into a four-day excursion into what Barta was talking about.  It was just about the most Gary Barta thing ever.

The "ongoing tensions" line clearly set up some sort of change in Dolphin's role, particularly on basketball broadcasts.  Gary hasn't always had the best relationship with Fran McCaffery, and the broadcasts themselves generally aren't very good.  Public outcry over the idea of Dolphin getting semi-fired for accidentally being honest eventually won out, however, and Barta retreated.  The battle clearly wasn't over, though.  Barta and Fran had made a run at Dolphin, but the precipitating event didn't generate enough political capital to actually oust him.  If he was going to go, they needed something bigger.

Best make him a racist.

Two years ago, I went to the Omaha/Council Bluffs I-Club event, headlined by Fran McCaffery.  It was early May, and the basketball season had been pleasantly successful, but the crowd was a bit agitated.  Dolphin emceed the event and talked about everything he could think of in the first fifteen minutes.  He started with a rundown of the highlights of the year in Iowa athletics, then moved to celebrity news, and then stumbled into politics.  A digression into the Syrian Civil War was borderline comical, not only because Dolphin clearly didn't know much about the Syrian Civil War, but because he was obviously trying to avoid the elephant in the room, the event that had the crowd so concerned.  Because the date was May 4, and earlier that afternoon, Gary Barta and UI Athletics had been found liable for discriminating against Jane Meyer and slapped with a $1.4 million judgment.

Dolphin is far from the greatest announcer in the world.  He has a tendency to get names wrong, he frequently gets caught finishing his last thought while the next event is occurring, and he has a maddening tendency to talk up Iowa's opponents so that both wins and losses look better.  But that day at the I-Club banquet, and every day before or since, have proven his worth as a loyal soldier of Barta and mouthpiece of Barta's regime.  That day in Omaha, fumbling for insight into ISIS-controlled areas of western Syria, had to be painful for Dolphin, but he was not going to stray off-message and bring up the boss's error.  He would remain loyal, even when it looked certain that Barta was about to lose his job.  The great irony of the Dailey comments was that it was a rare moment of criticism from someone who dedicated himself to being above any publicly critical comment.

This is what that loyalty gets you in the world of Gary Barta.  This story, quite literally, did not exist until three days after the comment in question was uttered.  Nobody involved -- not Fernando, not Maryland administration, not Iowa fans listening at home, nobody -- had publicly taken offense or called for action against Dolphin.  Had Iowa (and Learfield, which can't be omitted here) privately reprimanded Dolphin for the comment and went on with the season, nobody would have even noticed.  Instead, Iowa and Learfield quite literally created a firestorm where none existed so that they could brand Dolphin as, at the very least, too inappropriate for the air.  The story was prominently displayed on the ESPN Bottom Line crawl Friday, written by the Associated Press and every major news outlet, and shared across social media by figures who have no interest in Iowa athletics.  This is what loyalty to Gary Barta got Gary Dolphin: A public shaming for what will almost certainly be his last act as Iowa basketball announcer and possibly Iowa's football announcer.

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