Iowa Football

Former players have spoken, and Iowa football has been rocked

More than ever before, Kirk Ferentz and staff must focus on putting in the hard work

Iowa Hawkeyes players take the field for the swarm at Kinnick Stadium last Oct. 19. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes players take the field for the swarm at Kinnick Stadium last Oct. 19. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Iowa Hawkeyes football under Kirk Ferentz has been an unqualified success in the area that matters most: The quality of his players as people.

Over the last two decades, the vast majority of Ferentz’s players have struck me as people I would want as neighbors. They are bright, decent, positive. They have heads and hearts to go with their brawn or artistry.

They have been achievers, not finger-pointers. They have spread across Iowa and the nation after college and brought things more together in their spheres, not more divided.

That isn’t a happy coincidence. Their coaches helped them learn how to do that, and a lot of players have said as much over the years.

But if you’re going to take comfort and pride in those words, you also have to listen to the players when they say something wasn’t right when they were part of the team.

It began Wednesday when Chicago Bears offensive lineman James Daniels tweeted “If the (Iowa) team collectively decides to kneel, this will bring about a cultural change for both Iowa football and the state of Iowa which I believe is long overdue!!!”

 

A floodgate opened Friday night after Daniels tweeted “There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.” Many African American former Hawkeyes replied, some diplomatically and some bluntly. More than a few mentioned strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, and things he said to them that they found hurtful and disrespectful.

 

Others didn’t name anyone, but had pointed comments all the same.

“I remember whenever walking into the facility it would be difficult for black players to walk around the facility and be themselves,” Amani Hooker tweeted. “As if the way you grew up was the wrong way or wasn’t acceptable & that you would be judge by that and it would impact playing time.”

 

Daniels and Hooker had highly productive on-field careers that weren’t bumpy off the field. Iowa was the only major program that recruited Hooker out of Minneapolis. That’s far from the first time Ferentz’s staff saw things in African American high school players — you may have heard of Bob Sanders and Desmond King — that others did not.

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When Hooker and Jordan Lomax and Greg Mabin and Mike Daniels and many others issued public comments with their names attached that weren’t flattering to the Iowa program, how could you not take it totally seriously? Many weren’t fire and brimstone, by the way.

“We appreciate the opportunities the Iowa program brought us, but I do hope bringing these issues to light can stimulate positive change,” Mabin wrote.

 

“I have much respect for KF and other coaches on the staff as men of great integrity, principles, & morals and I am confident they have the ability be a part of the solution,” Lomax tweeted. “As my brother (Faith Ekakitie) already mentioned, “the change starts in the weight room.”

 

No, if a change is required it starts at the top, with Ferentz. If Hooker had trouble feeling like he could be himself inside the Iowa football complex, that’s serious. If Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen” about a Hawkeye’s new tattoo as former Iowa player Cedric Boswell said he did, and it was a tattoo that was meaningful to Boswell, that’s a problem.

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Here’s where the lines get blurry for many of us. Was there racism at work here? I find it very hard to think coaches who go to black neighborhoods, get to know black families and what matters to them, and work with black people for their entire careers can endure in their profession if they have that in them. Maybe some of the former players would disagree, maybe I’m naive, I don’t know and I admit it.

Many, many African Americans who played at Iowa for Ferentz have come back to Iowa City for football games or to the football complex, have spoke glowingly of him and their experiences in his program, and swear by him.

But insensitivity or simply not paying attention can be damaging, too, and I’ll step out of my glass house for a moment to look inward. When I’ve received news releases from Iowa trumpeting its Big Ten all-academic honorees from fall sports, I’ve noticed the ones from football have almost exclusively been white. More than once, I thought about asking why more African American players aren’t on that list. Are they getting real educations? Then I’d forget about it 10 seconds later.

Incidentally, that’s something that began to be directly addressed in the athletic department as of 2018, as James Daniels pointed out Friday.

Over the last 10 years, about three-fourths of Iowa’s team captains have been white while only about half the starters were. (I’ve since been informed three of the captains are season-long and are voted on by the team, not the coaches. The fourth can be named weekly based on performance, though changes aren’t common.) About half of the Hawkeyes’ NFL draftees in that time have been African Americans. Were more of them worthy of captainship, I wondered, but never asked. It would have been uncomfortable.

For the last eight years, Iowa has put the name of a former Hawkeye on its ANF Wall of Honor in Kinnick Stadium. Each honoree has been white. Obviously, one of Iowa’s recruiting areas is Midwestern farm kids, and they’re white.

But couldn’t there be something for balance, something to celebrate African Americans from the program who have gone out and made the world a little better? There is no shortage of great candidates. I’ve never asked anyone at Iowa, and have had the platform to do so.

This isn’t about me, but it is about us. I think and hope most of us seethe at racists, and feel for black men and women who are so angry, sorrowful and frustrated with how they are treated in America in 2020. But those feelings don’t all come from police brutality, or politics and laws and economics that tilt the scales against them. Some stems from too many of us not doing much after recognizing those scales aren’t balanced.

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Responding quickly Friday night to the torrent of comments from his former players, Ferentz put out a statement saying “As a staff and as leaders, we will listen and take to heart the messages we hear.” I believe him.

Many former Iowa players have said Hawkeye football isn’t what the outside world thinks it is, and that it needs change. They basically said they aren’t saying those things to tear it down, but to help build it up. I believe them.

It will be difficult for Ferentz, his staff, and the Iowa athletic department to turn this from the public relations nightmare it is into something better. But the program has always prided itself in being built on substance, not talk, and doing the hard work needed to prevail. So do it. Us, too.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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