As the nation navigates pressing issues of racial justice, so, too, is the University of Iowa football team.
Last week, several Hawkeye alumni posted about racism they experienced during their time in Iowa City, including offensive comments allegedly directed at student-athletes by one assistant coach in particular. The stories are disturbing, and they have rightly found a receptive audience among many Iowa football fans.
The initial response from team leadership was encouraging. Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was placed on leave and later removed from the program. The long-standing restrictions on players using social media were lifted and head coach Kirk Ferentz announced the creation of an advisory committee made up of current and former players and department staff.
“This will be a diverse group that will be able to share without judgment so we can all examine where we are today and how we can have a better environment tomorrow,” Ferentz said in a prepared statement.
Those are promising first steps, but they don’t tell Iowans — the fans and funders of the football team — what went so wrong to get to this point.
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Too often, people in positions of power are allowed to fall back on plausible deniability. The head coach, the athletic director and friends of the program can say they did not know about problems that apparently were evident to black athletes, and some white athletes, too.
The buck has to stop somewhere. If the high-paid adults in the room did not know what was going on, it’s a clear sign they have failed to create a culture of trust and accountability.
There is a strong culture in sports, perhaps not so unlike the culture in law enforcement, of “having each other’s backs.” In team sports especially, there is a strong drive for athletes to fall in line and fit the program’s mold. It can be a powerful ethos on the field, but when we extend that attitude too far off the field, it amounts to no less than a threat to human dignity.
Ferentz appears to still have the support of many current and former players, including some of the black men who are coming forth about their bad experiences. Calls for Ferentz’s firing are premature, but he has a lot of reckoning to do, both with his players and the public.
Even casual sports fans are well aware of inequalities in the industry.
College athletes are unpaid while others around them make millions. Women routinely face discrimination, such as the case that culminated in a $6.5 million settlement in 2017 against the UI for gender and sexual orientation discrimination. When black football players started peacefully protesting by kneeling before games in 2016, they were met with hostile and racist comments from fans and even other players. Trans athletes have to fight just to be included in competitions.
Those are only a few high-profile examples that we know about. What we don’t know about, what we have looked away from for so long, would fill many newspaper pages.
This crisis gives Hawkeye football an opportunity to be better, but only if leaders commit themselves to full transparency and accountability.
• For starters, the review of misconduct on the Iowa football coaching staff must be truly independent, not an internal project by the university.
• The advisory committee should be uninhibited to make reports directly to the public.
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• Prohibitions on unpaid athletes using social media under their own likeness must remain off the policy books.
When families send their teenage sons and daughters to play college sports, they are entrusting their children’s well-being to coaches and college administrators. It’s a huge responsibility, especially when those athletes are young and black encountering an overwhelmingly white campus, coaching staff and fan base.
Is Iowa City a safe place to send your black child? Right now, we have to wonder.
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