External investigation into Iowa football culture reveals how players felt 'unhappy and unwelcome'

The external review of the Iowa football program corroborates public claims by numerous former players about the way the team treated its players.

The systemic issues in coach Kirk Ferentz’s program were brought to light earlier this summer when multiple Black players from the program said they had been treated unfairly. The 26-page report released Thursday by the Husch Blackwell law firm cites myriad examples from current and former players about how Iowa’s football culture made it hard for players to fit in.

“Virtually all the players spoke positively about their position coaches and the influence those coaches have had on their lives, both personally and athletically,” the report said. “Yet numerous players described feeling unhappy and unwelcome, citing to a program culture that they perceive requires strict conformity and rigid adherence to the ‘mold’ of an ideal player, a mold that many Black players felt they could never truly fit because it was built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, White athlete from a midwestern background. Additionally, numerous current and former players and coaches of all races described an environment in which a small number of coaches felt empowered to bully and demean athletes, especially Black athletes.”

After multiple players made their concerns public in June, longtime strength coach Chris Doyle was placed on leave and Ferentz admitted that he had a “blind spot” regarding the concerns of some Black athletes. Doyle eventually was given a $1 million severance payment to leave his post.

He was the only Iowa staffer to lose his job. Ferentz was never publicly disciplined as part of the investigations despite his insistence that he’s ultimately responsible for what goes on in his football program. Ferentz and Iowa have also made changes to the program’s rules — like loosening a strict tweeting rule for players — in the wake of players speaking out.

Ferentz issued a statement Thursday that included an apology to the players “for the pain and frustration they felt at a time when I was trusted to help each of them become a better player and a better person.”

Political double standard?

One of the numerous double standards cited in the report — which is based on interviews with nearly 75 current and former players — was Iowa football’s insistence that sports and politics remain separate from each other despite their inextricable link. A player told the firm that no protests of any kind during the national anthem would be allowed while white players could freely wear hats supporting President Donald Trump.

One former player asserted that the coaches previously told them not to take a knee during the national anthem because they should “keep politics and football separate,” yet White players were allowed to wear MAGA hats and present an Iowa jersey to President Trump during his presidential campaign. One of the coaches interviewed could not recall anyone making the “politics” comment but confirmed that a football jersey was given to President Trump.

Head Coach Ferentz confirmed that he previously believed it is better to keep politics and football separate when in a team environment. He told investigators that his views have changed recently and, moving forward, he wants the players to support and respect one another, even if they have different political views. Head Coach Ferentz also stated that when student-athletes are not in a team setting, he encourages student-athletes to engage in the political process. Both Athletic Director Barta and Head Coach Ferentz denied that any of the players attended the presidential campaign event on behalf of the Iowa football program. Both stated they only became aware that players attended the event after the event had concluded.

Numerous Iowa football players — including then-QB C.J. Beathard — appeared at a rally for Trump when he was running for president in 2016 and gave Trump an Iowa jersey with the No. 1 on it.

After the rally, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta made a statement saying that while players were encouraged to be active in the political process, the statements made by Iowa players at the Trump rally were not representative of the entire team and that the jersey given to Trump was not an official one.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has said he's ultimately responsible for everything that happens in his football program. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has said he's ultimately responsible for everything that happens in his football program. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

If a Black player makes it at Iowa he can do anything

The report notes that “numerous former players said Black players received harsher treatment than White players in both the frequency and severity of punishment” and cites a saying that was well-known within the Iowa football program about how hard it is for a Black player to conform and thrive.

Acknowledging extra burdens for Black players, several players and staff alike referred to a saying about the program: "If you make it through the Iowa football program as a Black player, then you can do anything." One former player explained that it is difficult for people who have not been involved with a major football program to understand how Black players are treated. As he described, “I worked hard and helped our team win games. I finished as one of the top [players] in the program’s history, but every single day was a struggle. I felt bad about myself as did many of my Black teammates. We wanted badly to be successful and to help our team and took the abuse to achieve team goals.”

The report also lays out the set of well-known rules that Iowa had for its players — rules that Black players said made it hard for them to fit into a white stereotype.

Players on the team said they were not allowed to wear earrings or other jewelry or have tattoos, though the report said coaches denied a rule banning tattoos. Players were allowed to only wear team-issued gear in the football facilities and two coaches “noted the need for [players’] hair not to obscure players’ eyes” as players said that “hairstyles traditionally associated with Black culture were not allowed.”

The below paragraph was also the only entry in the report under “verbally abusive behavior.”

Several former players also described being subjected to verbally abusive behavior. One current Black player told investigators when he first joined the team, coaches told him he would never play, he was "shit for brains," and he was a "dick head." The player said such treatment “definitely fuc*** with his head for a bit." A different former player told investigators it “seemed like every Black player had two strikes the day we entered Iowa… I was either a criminal or a dumb motherfu**** to these guys.”

Coach ‘blackballing’ players to NFL scouts?

The report also cites “numerous” former players’ feedback about how Iowa staffers handled the pre-draft process for departing players. It said that multiple players alleged that an unnamed coach “used his influence with NFL scouts to ‘blackball’ players, mostly Black players, whom he did not like. The allegation that the coach would ‘blackball’ players was repeated by one coach, who did not address whether race influenced this; he said that the coach tried to ‘blackball players with the NFL or negatively impact their prospects.”

It also states that former players felt there was an implicit requirement to prepare for the NFL draft at Iowa’s facilities for fear of getting negative feedback from members of the coaching staff to NFL teams. Iowa staffers, including Barta and Ferentz, denied that players were described as “undraftable” to NFL scouts.

Chris Doyle parted ways with Iowa after players' concerns were made public. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Chris Doyle parted ways with Iowa after players' concerns were made public. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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