Iowa Football

Iowa football program and those who cover it need open eyes, ears

Regarding inequality: Excuses are easy, empathy takes effort

University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz discusses findings of the independent review of issues of racial dis
University of Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz discusses findings of the independent review of issues of racial disparities in the program during a press conference in the Feller Club Room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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It was just a sliver in the external review of the University of Iowa’s football program culture.

It was something I admittedly skimmed right past on July 30 while hurriedly unpacking the Husch Blackwell report a couple hours before attending a news conference with Iowa athletics director Gary Barta and football coach Kirk Ferentz in Iowa City.

It said this: “That player recalled a coach telling the freshmen players that they needed to get on a boat and sail away from their old lives to be successful in the program.”

Perhaps the only moment I’ll remember from that most-recent damage control hour was when KWWL-TV sports director Rick Coleman questioned Ferentz about the line.

“Coach, the one paragraph that stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it,” Coleman said, “was about a current player that you have. He was saying that one of the coaches told him, freshmen players, that what you’re doing right now is you’re going to get on a boat and leave your past life behind you. That’s a little bit tone-deaf to me because as an African American, that boat might symbolize something different for me than it would for a lot of white players who look at the Mayflower opportunity coming here. Slave ships, 1619, they came here for centuries to this country. So you see the visualization? That’s a difficult passage for me. Is this coach still on staff? Is this true? It hurt me.”

“No player should leave his past behind him because we’re all a product of our past,” Ferentz replied. “There’s a lot better way to state that, no question about that. … I certainly don’t condone that. And appreciate your feelings on it.”

He didn’t address if that coach were still on his staff.

In that room with a couple dozen people who often cover Hawkeye football, Coleman was the only African American. In the two months since former Black former players publicly stated concerns and criticisms about their experiences in Iowa’s football program, I’ve heard from some who have asked how I and others can offer opinions about it when the people who cover the team are almost exclusively white.

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I can hide behind a curtain of excuses. I’ve never been a manager. I’ve never hired anyone in my career or been involved in hiring decisions.

Also, the media industry has changed, and shrunk. The Gazette’s sports department had layoffs twice in the last decade. I don’t think a reporter has voluntarily left our sports staff in that time.

Again, those are excuses. Excuses seem hollow when an excerpt from that Iowa report affected Coleman more than most of the rest of us in the media pack.

As a rule, local television anchors and reporters don’t inject much opinion on broadcasts because that’s not what viewers expect from them. Unlike national cable news, where much of the audience goes to get its own own viewpoints supported, we expect local TV news to report and let the viewers do the processing.

That’s what Coleman does. He’s a Waterloo native who has been at KWWL for 33 years because viewers like him and he does a good job presenting content that’s relevant to them. He wants to tell stories, not be part of one. So I appreciated him being willing to talk about his feelings when he asked Ferentz that question, and in the time that has followed.

“Some quotes I saw in that report, some of the things players were saying, you could see where systemic racism existed,” Coleman said. “Saying one thing to one group that didn’t resonate to the other.

“I keep bringing up that boat. For African Americans, boats — why didn’t (the coach alleged to have made the remark) say a plane or a car or a train? He said a boat. For 250 years, African Americans’ ancestors were brought to this country in boats and they were taken away from their past lives with force and without them wanting it to happen.

“So a young African American athlete — think about yourself being on a boat and taken away from your past life. Of course that means something different to a white athlete. If you think of the Mayflower, symbolically, it’s leaving Europe and British rule and coming here to a new way of life, a better way of life where you have certain freedoms.

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“That dichotomy was said by a coach, someone with authority. Someone who will have reign over your life however long you choose to be at Iowa.”

Coleman said “I like Kirk Ferentz. I think he’s an upstanding guy.

“Obviously the pressure to win as a football coach is important. I think he’s also trying to produce solid young men whatever the race. I just think he gave Doyle too much power. And a lot of that was because they’ve been successful with Chris Doyle as the strength and conditioning coach and a guy that kind of led the charge.”

A recurring complaint from the Black former Hawkeyes who spoke out in June was they didn’t feel comfortable being themselves in the Iowa football building.

“From a young African American’s perspective,” Coleman said, “they asked me to come here because not only did they like the way I play football, but also they thought enough of me personally, my character, my family, that I would be successful in this program. Why criticize some of the things that I came to the program with, my style, the tattoos, all that?

“You accept me as me and not try to change that part of it.”

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

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