Inquiry finds racial bias, bullying in Iowa football program

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Photo credit FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2013, file photo, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz talks with Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta before an NCAA college football game against Northwestern at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. The Iowa football program's culture has suffered from racial bias against Black players and bullying by a small number of current and former coaches, according to an investigation report released Thursday, July 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Brian Ray, File)
By The Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa football program under Coach Kirk Ferentz has suffered from a culture that perpetuated racial bias against Black players and allowed some current and former staff members to demean and bully others, according to an investigation report released Thursday.

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld said the report by an outside law firm shows the “climate and culture must and will change within our football program."

“Our student-athletes must have the ability to be true to themselves, and we cannot and will not tolerate a systemic process that inhibits authenticity,” Harreld said in a statement.

Ferentz, the longest-tenured head coach in college football, nonetheless appears likely to keep his job. The report found that many players praised changes he's made in recent weeks, saying they will improve their experience if sustained.

Ferentz and athletic director Gary Barta were scheduled to hold a news conference later Thursday.

The university hired the Husch Blackwell law firm in June to review the program after dozens of former players, most of them Black, spoke out on social media to allege racial disparities and mistreatment. Their activism came as protests against racial injustice swept the nation following the death of George Floyd and after attempts to raise their concerns inside the program resulted in only minor changes.

In addition to a public report, the firm gave the university four confidential personnel reports on current and former staff who were accused of demeaning, bullying and verbally abusing players. Harreld said the university will address the allegations against those coaches, who were not publicly identified.

Last month, the program cut ties with longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, awarding him $1.1 million in a severance agreement. Several players had cited Doyle as the major source of their mistreatment, an allegation he has denied.

But the review, which included interviews with 111 current and former players and employees, found the cultural problems went beyond Doyle and were systemic. Ferentz has been at Iowa since 1999 and his son, Brian Ferentz, is the offensive coordinator.

After Iowa promised a “family atmosphere” during the recruiting process, many Black players found that was not the case after they arrived in Iowa City, the report found. They did not feel welcome or supported in the rule-bound program, where the ideal player “was built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, white athlete from a midwestern background."

Players reported that they were long not allowed to wear “do-rags,” tank tops, earrings or other jewelry and were discouraged from getting tattoos or certain hair styles. Coaches said the rules promoted a professional appearance, but Black players said they felt singled out and isolated and forced to suppress their personalities.

It was so widely known they faced extra burdens that several players and staff recited a common saying to investigators: “If you make it through the Iowa football program as a Black player, then you can do anything.”

Ferentz eliminated rules on jewelry and hats and instructed his staff not to comment on hair styles or tattoos last year after an athletic department review raised racial bias concerns. After meeting with players last month, Ferentz dropped other rules on personal appearance and his long-standing ban on their use of Twitter.

Black players cited instances where they faced harsher discipline than white players for similar infractions and other double standards. While they were told not to kneel during the national anthem, white players donned “Make America Great Hats” and presented Donald Trump with a jersey during a 2016 campaign event, the report noted.

The report did not determine whether Black players faced random drug testing at a higher rate than white players, an allegation that players made but Ferentz denied. The university is making changes to give players more privacy around testing.

The investigation found that the program's intense monitoring of players' body weight and sleep patterns also added to their anxiety.

Players who did not meet their target weights were constantly pressured to gain or lose pounds and those who didn't get enough sleep at night — as measured by a sleep band they wore — could be “called out” during team meetings. Ferentz told investigators he has taken steps to relax those rules as well.