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Dolph, Fran, and “Iowa Nice”

One week, two scandals, and three theories to explain how Iowa fans have reacted to it all.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Hawkeye basketball fans were confronted with two significant announcements from Iowa athletic director Gary Barta on Wednesday. The first announcement was viewed by many as a welcome relief; Gary Dolphin, the “Voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes,” will be re-instated at the beginning of spring football after being suspended for the remainder of the 2018-19 basketball season for referring to Maryland sophomore Bruno Fernando, a native of Angola, as “King Kong.” Barta also announced that head coach Fran McCaffery will serve a two-game suspension for his profanity-laced verbal confrontation with official Steve McJunkins after Iowa’s loss to Ohio State in which McCaffery accused McJunkins of foul play.

This recent spate of drama surrounding Iowa’s basketball program has naturally elicited strong reactions from both fans and members of the press corps. One sports talk radio show, KXnO’s The Morning Rush, asked its Twitter followers to compare their reactions to both Dolphin’s and McCaffery’s transgressions, which yielded fascinating results:

The huge disparity in the number of Hawkeye fans more embarrassed by the actions of McCaffery than the words of Dolphin is surprising. While one Twitter poll can hardly claim to be representative of the feelings of the broader fanbase, these numbers seem roughly consistent with how Iowa’s fans and the media members who cover the program have reacted to these two controversies. While Dolphin saw an outpouring of support from fans and calls for his immediate reinstatement, a smaller percentage of Hawkeye fans seem to be challenging the university’s decision to suspend McCaffery. In fact, McCaffery’s widest base of support outside of the athletic department has seemingly come from his current and former players. While long-tenured professional Hawkeye fan Jon Miller has recently softened his stance on the Dolphin controversy, he initially railed against Dolphin’s suspension, attributing it to, “the PC crowd Runamuck.” No such criticisms have thus far been levied against the McCaffery suspension.

What can explain why Hawkeye fans are seemingly more upset by Fran McCaffery’s foolish actions than Gary Dolphin’s? Fans’ outrage over the length of Dolphin’s suspension could possibly explain their willingness to come to his defense, but doesn’t at all explain being more embarrassed by McCaffery’s actions than Dolphin’s. Three potential answers come to mind—any one of these explanations could ultimately be correct, though I suspect the best explanation is some combination of all three.

The first explanation is the simplest one –that McCaffery simply lacks the wide base of passionate support among Hawkeye fans that Dolphin enjoys. Dolphin has been associated with the program for over twenty years, and aside from the suspension stemming from his “hot mic” criticism of an Iowa player last November, he has rarely been controversial. The outpouring of support for Dolphin from his fans and colleagues in the media was genuine, well-earned, and seemingly validated by Dolphin’s sincere and thoughtful apology. There are longstanding rumors of tensions between Dolphin and McCaffery, and some fans concluded, as Jon Miller did, that Dolphin was being unfairly punished by a vindictive athletic department intent on ousting him. Many fans could not reconcile their own image of Gary Dolphin with the image of a man who is racially insensitive and difficult to get along and were therefore unwilling to accept the latter portrayal as being valid.

In contrast to Dolphin, McCaffery’s recent transgression supports the image that many fans have of the coach. This is not the first instance of McCaffery losing his cool on the sideline, nor is it even the first time his outbursts have resulted in a suspension. One article even went so far as to claim that McCaffery’s tantrums are defining his legacy. While McCaffery and the Hawkeyes have thus far put together an overwhelmingly successful season, a growing segment of the fanbase appears fed up with the coach’s fiery personality and tendency to clash with officials.

In analyzing McCaffery’s job security before the season, I wrote that Fran’s sideline antics may become increasingly irritating to fans if his team’s performance continued to slip. It appears that many fans are either dissatisfied enough with Fran’s coaching performance over the years that they are unwilling to tolerate further outbursts, or they find these outbursts offensive enough on face that his positive results on the court are insufficient to justify his behavior. Either way, nine years into the McCaffery era, the coach clearly has work to do to solidify his support among certain elements of the fanbase.

A second possible explanation is that Hawkeye fans are judging Dolphin and McCaffery more by the intent of their words than by the words themselves. While Dolphin’s invocation of a longstanding racist trope was clearly unacceptable, his reference to King Kong was intended as a compliment to Fernando meant to praise him for his physical prowess and domination of the low post. Meanwhile, McCaffery’s tirade against McJunkins was born from his frustration with the technical fouls assessed against both he and his son Connor and was undeniably intended to offend and demean the official. If Dolphin’s and McCaffery’s words are evaluated solely based on their intent, McCaffery’s sins are far greater than Dolphin’s; one man, a white analyst, made a woefully misguided attempt at complimenting a black player while the other, a white coach, deliberately challenged the integrity of a black referee. Perhaps Hawkeye fans are more willing to forgive what they consider to be a well-meaning slip-up than they are a pre-meditated display of poor sportsmanship?

There is, however, a third explanation which hinges not on the intent of either man’s words, but on how those words were perceived by the fanbase. It is entirely possible that the majority of Iowa fans were simply more offended by Fran McCaffery’s use of profanity and attack on McJunkins’ character than they were by Dolphin’s comparison of an African-born student athlete to a giant fictional gorilla. If true, this is deeply, deeply concerning. The comparison of Fernando or any person of similar heritage to an ape is extremely dehumanizing and invokes the specter of centuries-old racist tropes meant to portray individuals with black skin as being both intellectually inferior and physically threatening to those with white skin.

McCaffery’s words were immature, hurtful, unbecoming of someone of his character, and worthy of suspension. Dolphin’s words, though not intended to cause the harm that McCaffery’s were, are nonetheless deserving of far greater shame. No, Dolphin’s mistake should not condemn him to permanent exile or erase the good he has done over his career. Yes, his apology should be accepted by all those who believe it to be genuine, as I do. But should 85% of the Hawkeye fandom be more embarrassed by McCaffery’s words than Dolphin’s? No chance. One man’s words intentionally belittled a single person, the other’s unintentionally belittled a race of people. The intention of one’s words matter, but so does the impact of their word choice. Here is former Iowa football standout Jordan Lomax:

My best theory for why Iowa fans seem more upset by McCaffery’s comments than by Dolphin’s centers around a phrase that all natives of the Hawkeye state are familiar with: “Iowa nice.” This phrase speaks to the sense of humility, decency, and respect for others that many Iowans observe in themselves and those around them. To many fans, McCaffery’s tirade cut against the ethic of “Iowa nice,” particularly considering McCaffery’s past behavior and the enduring perception of him as a hothead. Whether he was right in his criticism of McJunkins or not, McCaffery acted like a bully, and most Iowa fans are understandably uncomfortable with their basketball coach behaving in such a manner. But the danger posed by subtle forms of unconscious racial prejudice such as the King Kong comparison is that they can be genuinely expressed with a smile yet can still cut deeper than any of McCaffery’s insults ever could. Pointing out that McCaffery’s words and actions violate the concept of “Iowa nice” is easy but doing the same with words like the ones Dolphin used is a taller order indeed.

As the Iowa basketball program prepares to move on from what was arguably the ugliest chapter of the 2018-19 season to date, it is worth wondering why so many are more embarrassed and upset by the harmful words used by Fran McCaffery than those used by Gary Dolphin. Both Dolphin and McCaffery have spoken of using their mistakes as an opportunity for introspection to consider opportunities for growth and improvement going forward. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, I hope the entire fanbase can do the same.