Former Iowa football players speak out about program's culture: 'Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long'

Yahoo Sports

Many former football players at the University of Iowa are speaking out about some of the negative experiences they had during their time playing in Iowa City. 

The players, most of whom are black, were critical of the culture of the Hawkeyes program with many detailing negative interactions with coaches and saying simply that they felt like they could not be themselves inside the walls of the football facility. 

James Daniels, a 2018 second-round pick of the Chicago Bears, was the first to really open up. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz spoke with reporters earlier this week and was asked about the social unrest that has followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. One of Ferentz’s responses sparked a comment from Andrews, who said if the Iowa football team decided to kneel during the national anthem, it would “bring about a cultural change for both Iowa and the state of Iowa” he believes is “long overdue.”

A few days later, Daniels spoke more broadly about the Iowa program.

“There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program,” Daniels wrote. “Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”

Many of his former Iowa teammates echoed his sentiment. 

Amani Hooker, now a cornerback for the Tennessee Titans, said it would be “difficult for black players to walk around the facility and be themselves,” an experience that was a source of “constant anxiety.”

“I remember whenever walking into the facility it would be difficult for black players to walk around the facility and be themselves,” Hooker wrote. “As if the way you grew up was the wrong way or wasn’t acceptable and that you would be judged by that and it would impact playing time. For a lot of guys it was just constant anxiety and pressure to be someone they really aren’t to play a game they love, which affected school and their play.”

Marcel Joly, a running back who left the program as a graduate transfer after the 2017 season, said he was told his tattoos did not fit in with the “Iowa culture.”

“I remember when I used to wear my tank top in the facility, I used to get called in the coaches office because I had too much tattoos and it wasn’t the ‘Iowa culture’ or the ‘Iowa Way,’” Joly wrote. “You better not dare walk around in the facility with your cornrows.”

Aaron Mends, a linebacker who spent five years at Iowa, wrote a long message detailing “what makes it hard to be a black player at Iowa” and said he would “love to help initiate the change in the program.”

“There are copious examples of team rules disguised as “culture” that may or may not be intentionally oppressive in nature. That it is part of what makes it hard to be a black player at Iowa,” Mends wrote. “As we know, freedom of expression is very important to the growth and development of young men. Growth and development are ideals Iowa prides itself upon. Every good organization has rules that help them to be successful which is to be expected. However there comes a point where at a public university there needs to be a line drawn to allow people from all walks of life to grow in their own manner.”

Former Iowa football players spoke out about the culture of the program and what it's like to be black in Iowa City. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Former Iowa football players spoke out about the culture of the program and what it's like to be black in Iowa City. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Players especially critical of strength coach Chris Doyle

Many players were critical of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle in particular. Doyle has been Ferentz’s strength coach since 1999. 

“Coach Ferentz is one of the reasons I committed to Iowa as a high school senior. He cares and he gets it. However, for this program in particular, real change begins with @Coach_Doyle and his strength and conditioning staff,” said Faith Ekakitie, who played defensive line for the Hawkeyes from 2012-16 and now plays in the CFL. 

Jordan Lomax, a former team captain who played at Iowa from 2011-15, said the coaching staff has a hard time relating to black culture and agreed that the change should start “in the weight room.” 

“I stand with my fellow Hawkeye Brothers advocating for a cultural shift in the Iowa Football Program,” Lomax wrote. “We were disproportionately represented as a result of black players leaving prematurely due to either double standards or the inability of the coaching staff to relate with our culture. I have much respect for KF and other coaches on the staff as men of great integrity, principles, & morals and I am confident they have the ability to be a part of the solution. As my brother @Faith_Joseph already mentioned, ‘the change starts in the weight room.'”

Jaleel Johnson, now a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, said Doyle would “go around stepping [on] players fingers” while they warmed up for workouts. He also said he once got kicked out of workouts because his “shoes weren’t tied properly.” Johnson said Doyle “is the problem in that building.” He was also critical of Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son. The younger Ferentz was the offensive line coach from 2012-16 before being promoted to offensive coordinator, a role he currently holds.

Terrance Pryor, who played at Iowa as a walk-on from 2009-12, said Doyle once confronted him about quitting football while he was rehabbing a season-ending injury. Pryor wrote that Doyle said he should maybe “take up rowing or something,” before adding, “oh wait, black people don’t like water in boats do they?”

“This is one of many racist incidents that black athletes had to deal with during my time there,” Pryor wrote.

Manny Rugamba, a former starter at cornerback for Iowa who now plays at Miami (Ohio), described several incidents involving Doyle. One time, Rugamba says, Doyle told a black player he would put him “back on the streets.” 

Another time, Rugamba says Doyle, who makes $800,000 per year, mocked the same player at a team lifting session. 

“A separate incident happened before one of our team lifts. He asked the same player where he was the night before the player says, ‘my girl house.’ Coach Doyle then pulls his pants halfway down to sag off his but turns his hat backwards puts one hand in his pants and starts to strut while mocking the player saying “I was at my giiirrrlllss house.”

Rugamba said incidents like that caused black players to “walk around the football facility on eggshells.”

“At 18-21 years old, Seeing others be treated like this made you walk around the football facility on eggshells. Unable to be yourself constantly trying to fit the Iowa Culture caused anxiety that could be unbearable at times with your dreams and career on the line,” Rugamba wrote. 

“As a player who transferred from Iowa, I hope this does not come off as spiteful. Iowa gave me memories, friends, and opportunities that I only dreamed of and I am forever grateful for my time there. I wish nothing but well for all Hawkeyes present and past that is why I spoke up, for the future players that get the same great opportunity that I had.”

In 2011, 13 Iowa players were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis following a workout supervised by Doyle. The workout was investigated by the university but the coaching staff was cleared of wrongdoing. Ferentz stood behind Doyle, who faced national criticism, and gave him an “assistant coach of the year” award — an award that has never been given out since. 

Kirk Ferentz’s response

With so many of his former players speaking up, Ferentz issued a statement Friday night. 

“I am saddened to hear these comments from some of our former players. While I wish they had reached out to us directly, I am thankful that these players decided to share their experiences now. As I said earlier this week, the best way to affect change is by listening. I have started reaching out to them on an individual basis to hear their stories first hand,” Ferentz said. 

“Making change that matters involves an open dialogue and possibly some tough conversations. I am glad to have the opportunity to do just that. As a staff and as leaders, we will listen and take to heart the messages we hear.”

Earlier in the week, Ferentz addressed his team in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. 

“I am a white football coach. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to be pulled over for driving while black or to have people cross the street because they don’t want to walk alongside of you,” Ferentz said. “But some of your coaches have shared that experience. I know it is real and it happens. If things are going to change, it will be up to all of us as individuals to be a part of the change. As a team, we can help lead it.”

Ferentz’s entire message, which he said to his team during a Zoom meeting, can be read below. 

Ferentz, 64, has been the head coach at Iowa since 1999 and previously was the Hawkeyes’ offensive line coach from 1981-89.

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