The University of Iowa and the Iowa Board of Regents have agreed to pay $4.2 million to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by eight Black former Hawkeye football players. Because Iowa law requires lawsuit settlements against state agencies be paid from the state’s general fund, Iowa taxpayers will be providing $2 million to settle the Board of Regents part of the case. The other $2.2 million will be paid by Iowa Athletics.
The eight former Hawkeyes, all on the roster between 2010 and 2018, launched their lawsuit in November 2020, alleging Athletes described racist microaggressions and double-standards as well as vindictiveness (including NFL blackballing) from Hawkeye coaching staff. In a written account released shortly before the lawsuit was filed, one of the players, former star running back Akrum Wadley said “playing for Iowa Football was a living nightmare.”
The lawsuit came just months after an independent review of the Hawkeye football program commissioned by the university found “the program’s rules 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.” According to the report issued by the Husch Blackwell law firm at the conclusion of its review, those coaches were able “to create and perpetuate an environment that bullies and demeans athletes, especially Black athletes.”
An October 2020 letter to UI from the eight players — Maurice Fleming, Andre Harris, Marcel Joly, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Aaron Mends, Jonathan Parker, Reggie Spearman and Akrum Wadley — presented their original demands, including $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.
As part of the settlement revealed Monday, the players agreed to drop Kirk Ferentz, his son Brian, linebackers coach Seth Wallace, former strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, and Barta from the lawsuit. That left UI and the Board of Regents as the sole defendants.
The settlement agreement states that Barta, Ferentz and the other coaches were not party to the agreement to dismiss them as defendants.
Ferentz put out a statement on Monday saying he disapproved of the settlement. He said the players’ claims had no merit and was confident he and the others named in the lawsuit would have been succeeded in getting it dismissed. Ferentz’s statement was a sharp contrast to the one he made when the Husch Blackwell report on the football program was released in 2020. That time Ferentz said he wanted “to apologize for the pain and frustration” players felt, and declared the report was “a moment of truth” for him.
Although the initial demand by the players that Gary Barta be fired was dropped, that issue still came up when the State Appeals Board met on Monday to approve the use of $2 million from the state’s general fund to settle the lawsuit. The three-member board — composed of the State Auditor, the State Treasurer and the director of the Iowa Department of Management (DOM) — must approve all of the state’s legal settlements.
Prior to the meeting, Auditor Rob Sand released a letter explaining he could not vote to approve the settlement unless Barta was held accountable.
“Under Gary Barta’s leadership at the University of Iowa Athletics Department, we’ve had the Peter Gray scandal plus three incidents of discrimination totaling nearly $7 million in damages (setting aside other suits),” Sand wrote.
(Gray resigned from UI Athletics in 2012, after an internal investigation found evidence he had sexually harassed athletes and students while associate director of athletic student services.)
Sand restated his position at the board meeting on Monday, and was the only member of the board to vote against approving the settlement with no stipulation as to Barta employment.
“I just look at this and see sort of a fourth bite at the apple and don’t understand why at that point taxpayers would be asked to chip in,” Sand said. “So, I don’t think I can support it unless Barta is no longer at the university and forfeited any severance or similar pay that he was entitled to.”
“I just see this as a question of institutional accountability and trust for the public. At a certain point, the institution’s got to show the public that it’s aware of its own issues, and is there to serve and not there to protect each other from different issues.”
Kraig Paulson, appointed director of DOM by Gov. Reynolds in 2021, pushed back against Sand’s recommendations, saying “this particular panel… is not put together to make employment decisions.”
“I don’t have all the facts… I’m not in a position to say [if Barta or anyone else at UI had done anything wrong] right now,” Paulson said. “And it would seem to me that [given] the risk that we are trying to manage right now, this is very clearly in the best interest of the state of Iowa.”
Paulson argued Iowa could face greater costs from the lawsuit if the current settlement was rejected. He said the Iowa Legislature could address questions about Barta, but the board just had to consider if the settlement was in the best interest of the state.
Sand pointed to the previous settlements, the filings in the current lawsuit and the 2020 Husch Blackwe report on the football program.
“At the end of the day, I don’t feel that when we’re asked to vote one way or another on a settlement that there are pieces of it that we shouldn’t be looking at, like employment,” Sand said. The auditor added that any settlement that did not require accountability from Barta for his actions as UI athletic director was not fair to Iowans.
Roby Smith, who was elected to his first term as treasurer in November, said he has “zero tolerance for discrimination” before saying he would vote to approve the settlement as is. Smith did add he “would encourage the university to reexamine the relationship with not only Gary Barta, but Brian Ferentz and others named in recent lawsuits.”
“But do let us remember, this is a settlement, not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing on anyone’s part.”
UI did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement, just as it did not admit to wrongdoing in any of its previous settlements in discrimination lawsuits. UI Athletics issued a statement attributed to Barta that said the department “remains committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for every student-athlete and staff member involved in our program.”
In addition to paying $4.2 million, the settlement include other requirements.
UI Athletics will provide up to $20,000 to each of the eight former players to cover the cost of graduate or professional school tuition, as well as pay for one year of mental health counseling for each.
UI also agreed to pay for up to 10 student athletes to attend the Black Student Athlete Summit for the next three years, provide non-discriminatory access to pro day events and produce a plan to encourage Black candidates to apply for coaching internships.
The university also agreed to hire University of Texas professor Leonard Moore to work the athletics department on its diversity, equity and inclusion program (DEI) program.
Republicans want to get rid of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs at state universities, just when we need them the most. Gary Barta should resign, and so should anyone alse that was party to this discriminatory behavior. https://t.co/1Emhqr5SwL
— Claire Celsi (@SenClaireCelsi) March 6, 2023
The agreement on better implementation of a DEI program comes as Republicans in the Iowa Legislature have advanced a bill that prohibits Iowa’s three public universities from spending any money, from either the state or private sources, on such programs. It’s unclear what impact such a bill would have on the settlement, if it passes.
An earlier version of this story appeared in LV Daily, Little Village’s Monday-Friday email newsletter. Sign up to have it delivered for free to your inbox.