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Hawks ‘walking on eggshells’ is Kirk Ferentz’s greatest failure

The Iowa Way’s culture of unnecessary self-seriousness kept college kids from being college kids in the one place they should feel safe

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Southern California vs Iowa Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When I think about the accusations of the Iowa Hawkeyes staff directing racist tropes and innuendo towards Black student athletes, there is a singular sentiment I return to as the most unfortunate: the fact that Black players felt like they could not be themselves. Kirk Ferentz will need to address it.

It was something Kelvin Bell first addressed last week in an interview with Hawk Central in the broader context of being a Black man in America:

“One thing that I carry around with me when I walk around Iowa City or any other part of Iowa — and I’m sure you don’t have to worry about this — I don’t want to scare people,” Bell said. “I am very, very aware. Not only being a large black man. But just being black.

“When I wake up in the morning, that’s the armor I have to put on. Because I know that if I’m perceived as a threat, it’s not going to be good for me. And you not having to have that? That’s privilege. That’s an extra weight you don’t have to carry.”

While it’s unfortunate and, sadly, understandable that Black people must put on this mask as they travel through overwhelmingly white Iowa, it’s a different story to require that same mentality within the context and environment of Iowa football.

The Iowa football community likes to prides itself on its family atmosphere. It is a regular talking point of recruits during their post-commitment interviews; that Iowa City feels like a home away from home. Which is why the comments repeated again and again and again by well-known Hawkeyes is a tough pill to swallow.

Geno Stone: “Walking into the facility everyday I felt like we all had to put a mask on and be someone we were not.”

Amani Hooker: “To [sic] many really good players that have never touched the field on Sat. because of how they were treated around facility.”

Emmanuel Rugamba: “Seeing others be treated like this made you walk around the football facility on egg shells.”

Again, this is a program which has sold itself on its familial nature. Someone should be most comfortable when they’re among family. The Hawkeye families sent their children to Ferentz’s tutelage to enable them to become their best selves; not just turn into football-playing robots. Iowa’s Black contingent is often those furthest from home; most in need of a home away from home where they can be themselves.

What’s been described inside Iowa’s Hansen Football Performance Center is not the culture families were sold. Though a brotherhood was built, a family was not. It is just so disheartening as a fan to read such a common sentiment.

Of course, some make it out. More than a few have had successful NFL careers. Those that find success there often credit Iowa, Kirk Ferentz, and Chris Doyle for their success. But at what cost to others who became shells of themselves on their way to transferring or quitting the sport?

Football is already a sport which commands so much time from its student-athletes: practices, weightlifting, meetings. These priorities influence what classes can be taken and potentially limits what one could major in. Hell, Iowa is even influencing the way players sleep!

So any moment these guys have to let their hair down, they need to feel like…they can actually let their hair down. Be themselves. Simply put, Kirk Ferentz trusted each student-athlete enough throughout the recruiting process to extend an offer. Should this baseline level of trust not be extended when the kids step on campus?

Iowa certainly has some big issues to address and appears to be putting mechanisms in place to influence change within the program. This also is not calling for wholesale changes to Iowa’s professional approach. Kirk Ferentz is still going to be Kirk Ferentz. He deserves the chance to be a better version of himself and ‘The Iowa Way’ a version of itself.

Though Iowa cannot turn back the clock to fix the toxicity many of these players faced while they were in Iowa City, they must start with creating a lasting environment where everybody feels comfortable being themselves.

If Kirk can pull it off, he will leave an indelible mark on the program he’s overseen successfully for decades. If he can’t — or won’t — then someone else will be the agent for change Iowa needs.

The original blog has since been edited in multiple spots for clarity.