Uncertainty over whether the Big 10 conference would compete this fall football season has dominated conversations in the past few months. But this week, with the Iowa Hawkeyes preparing for a postponed season opener in West Lafayette, Indiana on Saturday, a potential lawsuit has shifted focus back to allegations of racial discrimination within the University of Iowa Athletics Department.
On Sunday, news broke that eight Black former Hawkeye football players, all on the roster between 2010 and 2018, had sent a letter to the University of Iowa via their legal representatives, seeking $10 million for “loss of professional opportunities” and “pain and suffering” incurred during their time at Iowa; another $10 million for a fund to compensate any other UI athletes who experienced discrimination; the firing of head coach Kirk Ferentz, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and UI Athletics director Gary Barta; mandatory annual anti-racism training for all athletic department staff; and the hiring of a senior Black male administrator to support Black UI athletes, among other demands.
National civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, along with Des Moines attorneys Alfredo Parrish and Brandon Brown, are representing the eight former players making the demands: Maurice Fleming, Andre Harris, Marcel Joly, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Aaron Mends, Jonathan Parker, Reggie Spearman and Akrum Wadley.
Read in full (content warning: racism, racial slurs): Former players’ demand letter to the Iowa Football program
Martin-Manley and Wadley are two of UI’s most impressive players during the last decade, with Martin-Manley (2010-14) making a record 174 career receptions as a wide receiver, and running back Wadley (2013-17) rushing a whopping 2,872 yards and scoring 35 touchdowns.
The former players said they are prepared to move forward with a lawsuit “to ensure they are rightfully compensated for their emotional, mental and bodily damages and that Iowa is appropriately held accountable for its unlawful, discriminatory conduct,” if the demands made in the letter were not met by Monday, Oct. 19.
Allegations made by these eight men and other former Hawkeyes emerged or resurfaced in June as Black Lives Matter demonstrations rose up in Iowa and around the country, drawing attention to systematic racism. Athletes described racist microaggressions, double-standards and vindictiveness (including NFL blackballing) from Hawkeye coaching staff. These reports resulted in the termination of longtime football strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle in mid-June — who reached a more than million-dollar separation agreement with UI — the naming of former Hawkeye defensive end Broderick Binns as executive director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Athletics Department in July, and a racial-bias investigation into the program.
There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.
— James Daniels (@jamsdans) June 6, 2020
Wadley’s account, released after Kirk Ferentz’s first press conference addressing the allegations of racism within his football culture, was one of the longest and most pointed: Writing that “playing for Iowa Football was a living nightmare,” Wadley alleged Brian Ferentz repeatedly joked that Wadley looked like he was going to rob a liquor store or gas station whenever he wore his team-issued wool hat, and once called him a “dumb motherfucker” for temporarily parking in the practice facility’s back parking lot. Players would be “punished for anything and everything”; Wadley said he and other Black players were “targeted to the extreme” to pack on weight, yet access to the dining halls could be held for ransom by the couches.
I was threatened by Kirk Ferentz that my meal card would be taken away and I will not eat nor be able to sit with my teammates during eating session. He did follow through on his threat. I went to use my meal card and it was declined. I had to call my mother from New Jersey at 10 or 11 at night because I was hungry to order Domino’s Pizza for me. Or I would have to go to a fan’s house earlier at night to eat because there was no way I was going to be able to make it through the next day vomiting, being weak and be able to make it through school and practice.
Wadley sought help from a therapist, who “disappeared” after one appointment, he said. He turned to alcohol to “cope.” He said Brian Ferentz would explicitly wish injury on lineman Reggie Spearman, who was eventually replaced by Josey Jewell. Many Black teammates transferred.
“I wish I never played for the Iowa Hawkeyes,” Wadley concluded. “I would not encourage any future athletes or parents to send your kid to go play for the Iowa Hawkeyes under that current coaching staff.”
Kirk Ferentz has categorically denied rescinding Wadley’s meal card or making any threats towards him. Earlier this month, Brian Ferentz — in his first public remarks since the accusations against him from players including James Daniels, Jaleel Johnson and Wadley came to light — said “it was surprising and difficult, at times painful to hear those things.” He apologized to the players but said he has “no recollection” of making any racist comments.
In response to the 21-page letter calling for his, his son’s and Barta’s firing, Kirk Ferentz said he was “disappointed” but couldn’t address specifics “due to the threat of litigation.”
“I am deeply committed to helping everyone who joins the Hawkeye Football program reach their full potential on and off the field. My focus is now on our current players who are preparing for our first game this Saturday.”
UI’s legal council sent a statement to Solomon-Simmons on Sunday declining their demands, saying racial justice reform was already happening at Iowa.
“There are several demands outlined in the letter and we are proud of the efforts made to date,” UI President Bruce Harreld said in his own statement. “We have a path forward that includes ideas and recommendations from many current and former students aimed at making the University of Iowa a more inclusive and better place to learn, grow and compete as an athlete. However, the university rejects the demands for money and personnel changes.”
In late July, UI accepted the findings of Husch Blackwell, the firm that conducted the external racial-bias investigation into UI’s football program this summer. Their report found that most football staff, including Kirk Ferentz, were largely popular among former players of color; however, policies within the UI football program “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.”
“The program over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players,” Husch Blackwell’s report read.
In addition, “numerous” former players alleged there was one coach who “was able to make or break their professional careers” and “wielded complete control over which players could speak with NFL scouts.”
Des Moines Register Hawk Central writer Chad Leistikow asserted this coach was likely Chris Doyle. Still, some players told the investigators that Doyle “should not be a scapegoat for the systemic issues in the program.”
“In essence, the report left the door open for a lawsuit in which Ferentz and the university could be liable for discrimination based on race,” Leistikow said. The players’ lawsuit was likely announced ahead of Saturday’s season opener to light a fire under UI, he continued.
While Iowa has unequivocally rejected the demands for money and personnel changes, it might feel pressure to resolve the lawsuit before it gets messier. Even if some of the claims by former players can be debunked by putting Kirk and Brian Ferentz on the witness stand, that would be viewed as a last resort.
The University of Iowa doesn’t want its high-profile coaches (and ex-coaches, in Doyle’s case) being deposed under oath about things like their politics, whether they’ve used the n-word (as has been charged about Doyle) and their interactions with players over the last 22 years.
The controversy-ridden Gary Barta failed just three years ago to navigate UI Athletics out of gender discrimination allegations in court, Leistikow noted, resulting in a $6.5 million judgement against the university.
Current players have stood by the coaches — sometimes literally at news conferences — including Tyrone Tracy and Mekhi Sargent. Others, like Ivory Kelly-Martin and Matt Hankins, said they felt that conversations between coaches and players, and changes made over the summer (such as the replacement of Doyle with interim strength coach Raimond Braithwaite, a Black member of the coaching staff), have “allowed [them] to lead” and have more “fun on the field.”