Forward progress: University of Iowa football needs transparency and accountability to confront racism

UI officials have a long history of giving short shrift to the media’s requests on potentially unflattering topics. The only thing this public relations strategy seems to accomplish is generating confusion.

A group of former University of Iowa football players in June 2020 took a stand against what they saw as racism in Hawkeye sports’ flagship program.

An underlying point was that certain coaching staff had created a hostile environment for young Black athletes and that higher-ups had failed to step in. A frequent subject of the claims was longtime strength coach Chris Doyle, who was paid off to part ways with the university shortly after the players’ stories surfaced. Still, it was clear that these problems were bigger than any one person.

It seemed at the time like university leaders might really reckon with the troubling allegations and pursue a fundamental shift in the program’s culture. Instead, a diversity advisory committee established to deal with the issues, a keystone of UI’s response, was recently put on indefinite hiatus, as first reported last week by The Gazette’s Vanessa Miller and John Steppe.

There was a lot of nitpicking from the Hawkeye football faithful at The Gazette’s reporting but we and our colleagues stand by it. The paper quoted an email sent by Ferentz and reported that the committee was dissolved, the same word Ferentz used in the message to the now-former members. With the entire body relieved of its duties and apparently no solid plans for a replacement, we have to consider the committee defunct unless and until it is reinstated.

In the email, Ferentz said members made a “positive impact” but didn’t explain how. He said he is considering how to restructure it but gave no additional details. Anyone reading it was left to wonder what the football team is doing about perceived racism in its ranks.

Shortly after The Gazette’s story was published, the Des Moines Register obtained a new letter from Ferentz to players’ families. He reframed the committee as his own personal project, as if to say it ought to be out of bounds from the public eye.

To the contrary, Ferentz positioned the committee from the outset as being focused on the football program at large and not on him personally. He said in summer 2020 that it would “identify how we can make the program more inclusive, welcoming, and safe.” So, what are the tangible outcomes? We don't know.

The coach is trying to go it alone 
at his own peril. He is the highest paid public employee in Iowa, the most prominent representative of 
the university and also happens to be a defendant in an ongoing lawsuit over racially motivated discrimination and harassment. When you’re in a position like that, you don’t get to have a secretive and unaccountable panel of advisers to address the problems at hand. Some of that work needs to be done in public view.

Without official reports from the university, we have a limited view of the process. One thing we know from news gathering is that the committee was discussing issues brought to them by players and sought to create a safe environment for them to speak out without fear of punishment. It’s important for student athletes to have such an outlet, even in the offseason, so it is dismaying to see it taken away.Sports figures and fans often bristle at scrutiny from the broader public and it’s a bad look.

Ferentz’s defenders point out ad nauseam that his salary is funded by sports revenue and not by taxes, but that distinction is meaningless. The university is a government entity with special privileges private actors aren’t entitled to, so all of its departments have special obligations to be transparent and accessible.

We don’t give free passes to professors whose positions are supported by outside foundations or to police programs funded by forfeiture. From any reasonable perspective, UI athletics programs ought to be accountable to the public.

UI officials have a long history of giving short shrift to the media’s requests on potentially unflattering topics, as with this latest kerfuffle. They declined to give Gazette journalists additional context about future plans for the committee. The only thing this public relations strategy seems to accomplish is generating confusion.

Former players’ stories of ill treatment came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. Throughout our institutions, there was a great fervor in that moment to finally start taking racial justice seriously. We are not holding up to the bold commitments we made back then.

It always seems to end with leaders rattling off platitudes about the value of diversity but not committing to any specific course of action. We have seen it time and time again in legislatures, city councils and boards of supervisors. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds last year notably called for a bill to ban racial profiling by police but instead signed a bill sent to her by Republican lawmakers making it easier to criminally prosecute protesters.

UI leaders shouldn’t let their comments from 2020 turn out to be the same empty promises. If Hawkeye football is serious about doing well by its Black athletes, they transparency and accountability would be a good place to start.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com