Iowa Football

Iowa football 'can be made even stronger' after former players spoke out. Here's how.

Shelley Till, who helps coaches create better cultures, sees goodness in former Iowa players' recent critical comments

The Iowa football team takes the field for their game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 1, 2016. (The Gaze
The Iowa football team takes the field for their game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 1, 2016. (The Gazette)
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Positive things about what has transpired in the Iowa football program over the last few days exist.

So insists Shelley Till, who besides being a former college basketball player and coach, a basketball analyst on Big Ten Network since 2012, and the mother of former Iowa basketball players Claire Till Kittle and Riley Till, is a public speaker and clinician with a focus on how coaches can build safer, more inclusive cultures to get the best out of players.

That plays right into what’s come out of Iowa lately, with a few dozen former Hawkeye football players using public forums to describe negative experiences they had or witnessed in their time on the Iowa team, a lot of it seen as racial.

“I’d like to focus on the promise and the optimism of this,” Till said. “I think this is great. I think it’s uncomfortable, but we have to get comfortable with uncomfortableness. Until we’re willing to do that, we can’t reap the benefits.”

She lobbies for psychological safety, “the culture of care that promotes a belief I can be myself within this team, that candor is valued and encouraged, that my uniqueness is welcomed.”

This may be where some readers roll their eyes and spew something about snowflakes.

“When people say ‘Oh, these guys are just soft,’ that drives me insane,” Till said. “It’s not like everybody hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s allowing people to be open with each other and to share their truth without being reprimanded for that.”

Many comments over the weekend from African Americans who have played in Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa program were them saying they didn’t feel like they could be themselves, that they were walking on eggshells. Till outlines three steps toward change that would help address and solve those things.

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“The first is vulnerability and empathy,” she said. “The coach has got to be a collaborator and not an adversary. When you’re an adversary, you say you want to listen, but ‘I didn’t do anything wrong, I think you’re overreacting.’ Anything that comes after that ‘but’ makes you an adversary.

“That’s a really hard thing to embrace, especially for male coaches. I don’t know Kirk really well, but based on my observations, he has that. He’s a vulnerable guy. We’ve seen his emotions. He’s very empathetic. And I think he’s doing the right thing reaching out to these guys one individual at a time and listening.

“The second thing is to be curious and ask a lot of questions, and replace blame with curiosity because blame and criticism just escalate.

“The third is using mistakes as an opportunity to learn, creating that environment where it’s OK to say what you want to say or to give your input and not get reprimanded or not have retaliation for being who you are or making mistakes. It’s the opposite of walking on eggshells.

Till said Ferentz has shown he’s willing to admit fallibility and to ask questions and be curious. “Now,” she said, “the next step has to come from how to create an atmosphere where mistakes are opportunities to learn.”

Till said the former Hawkeyes who have told their stories and expressed their feelings on social media recently are to be praised.

“When people feel they can no longer fight for themselves,” she said, “they’re either going to shut down, give up, check out, be depressed, be anxious or worse, or the other side of that, which is flight, get the hell out of here.”

Former Hawkeye James Daniels tweeted Friday that there were “too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”

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That statement got endorsed and added to by one ex-Hawkeye after another. The cascade wasn’t orchestrated.

“It just took one person to break the dam,” Till said. “It now feels they are safer to be able to share what their experience has been. Those guys were being vulnerable in doing that.

“But they all prefaced their comments by saying their experience was great, they’re thankful for the bond they still have with their teammates, that the Swarm is a big, big deal to them. But things are broken, based on what they’ve said, with their leadership.”

The reactions of Iowa fans to all this has been divided. Many have said they’re dyed-in-the-wool Hawkeyes, but they don’t like what they’ve heard from the players and want it changed. Others have called the former players ingrates, questioned why they didn’t speak out when they were on the team. Which doesn’t acknowledge how badly things can go for a player if he speaks out in a culture in which speaking out is discouraged.

“College sports, Iowa football, is a business,” Till said. “It’s the highest level that we have. There’s a lot of money on the line, a lot of reputation on the line.

“Unfortunately, more often than not, that noise of the outcome overshadows the signals going on underneath that culture. Because of that, they’re missed or not welcomed.

As for those who dismiss players with criticisms as simply being disgruntled, or worse?

“I think most people who have that response are uneducated about this issue,” said Till. “They’re uneducated about neuroscience, they’re uneducated about behavior.

“And, I’m sure that for whatever reason, this feels like a threat to them. It’s a threat to the institution that is the Iowa Hawkeyes. This isn’t limited to Iowa. Fans in general are very protective of their institutions, of their teams. There’s pride, there’s loyalty there. Anything (unflattering), fans take personally.

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“That’s innate in every one of us. We are all created with that need for self-preservation. To some people, what they’re hearing is a threat to their self-preservation as they know it when really, we’re also created with an innate need to connect to each other.

“These guys are just trying to connect and they’re trying to improve. You hear every one of them say it. ‘I just want to make it better.’ I don’t believe they’re doing this to tear down. I believe they’re doing this as a cry to build up and to come together.

“That to me is courageous, and it’s the first step. If you have trust, curiosity, an improved culture, more open-mindedness, you’ll get all the fun stuff that comes with it like humor and solutions to problems and divergent thinking, the trust and team-building everybody wants. The program can be made even stronger.”

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

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