IOWA CITY, Iowa – Culture. That word alone has come to define the success or failure of sports teams in this country.
A great culture means everyone is in line and dedicated to making the team successful. A poor culture means that individual agendas are more important than unity and a common cause.
I’ve always admired Iowa’s football culture from a distance. The Iowa Way, it was called. I had no idea that way was the wrong way. The past two months have changed my thinking.
The insightful and sobering external investigation of Iowa’s football program by Husch Blackwell, released last week, showed that racial disparity was woven into the Iowa Way.
Iowa football Coach Kirk Ferentz issued a statement after the report was released Thursday, and the word culture was included.
“We have started by focusing on a culture that is more inclusive for all players and coaches,” Ferentz said. “A strong culture is based on trust and creates a sense of safety and unity where a team is more important than an individual. Over the past many weeks, I learned that our culture was not as strong or as inclusive of players and coaches as I thought.”
As a white, 66-year-old former newspaper reporter, I know I have a blind spot when it comes to racial injustice. I’ve never been stopped by the police or taunted because of the color of my skin.
I have been fortunate over the years to interview plenty of Hawkeye football players and coaches, black and white, and enjoyed the interaction. My one-on-one interviews with Ferentz have always been something I’ve looked forward to and enjoyed very much. He’s always been someone I’ve admired, far beyond football.
I never picked up, from any of those interviews, that racial bias was part of the Iowa Way. And I’m guilty of buying into the culture as it was presented to me.
The Husch Blackwell report touched on something that didn’t surprise me: Ferentz is still respected by a large majority of his players, black and white.
“While many players shared criticisms about the program generally or their personal experiences with certain coaches, most players commented positively about Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and his leadership of the program,” the report said.
While many of the most disturbing stories that have come to light in recent weeks don’t include Ferentz, he is the leader of the program. And he’s the man who is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on. It’s similar to the NCAA penalizing a program for institutional control.
“I am responsible, period,” Ferentz said last week. “As the head coach, I am responsible for all facets of the program.”
Ferentz turned 65 years old on Saturday, two days after the internal investigation was released. I’m sure he’s had better birthdays. But I’ve read four things that give me confidence that Iowa football is undergoing a positive culture change.
I’ve read more than my share of written statements over the years. They all sound good, but often end up being nothing more than semantics.
But as I read Ferentz’s statement last week, I was struck by one paragraph in particular.
“This has been a moment of truth for me as a leader for the program I have devoted my career to building,” he said. “The release of this independent review is not the end of the conversation, it is the beginning of the next chapter in our program’s history.”
The tipping point to this story occurred in the first week of June, when former Hawkeye and current Chicago Bear James Daniels tweeted, “There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”
Those 21 words opened the doors of social media to other stories that had lived in the shadows for far too long.
Last week, Daniels tweeted this:
“So much positive change within the Iowa football program and athletic department! It is amazing to see.”
And there was this tweet from another former Hawkeye, Jaleel Johnson, now with the Minnesota Vikings:
“I believe Iowa is headed in the right direction. I’m excited.”
And there was this from another ex-Hawkeye, Anthony Herron, who is now a member of the media.
“To be blunt, an old white man willing to listen and see where we can improve is an example I hope A LOT of folks in our society try to emulate.”
The ball is clearly in Ferentz’s court. And by the sound of those tweets, he’s on his way to leading a positive movement for change.