Former Iowa football player still seeking closure for racism within program — The Undefeated

Akrum Wadley still feels the humiliation.

The Iowa football team was drafting players for the annual Hawkeye Challenge, an intrasquad competition intended to reinforce the program’s culture of accountability. When the offseason began each January, players could earn points for things like good grades, strength and conditioning performance or volunteer work. They also could lose points for bad grades, missing target weights or lateness. At the end of each summer, when the offseason was over, the team with the most points won perks like skipping to the front of the meal line for the rest of the year.

Entering the draft, each player was assigned a point value based on coaches’ evaluations of their behavior during the first few weeks of the offseason. The squad gathered in a circle as the captains, who like the team itself were predominantly white, began to choose their guys. The pool of players dwindled until only Black players with negative point values were left in the middle.

“I would be last every single time,” said Wadley, one of 13 former Iowa players suing several football coaches and the university for racial discrimination. He left Iowa in 2017 as one of the most productive running backs in school history. “You can just imagine that feeling, being a guy that’s contributing to a lot of the team wins and being last. And it’s not due to anything with my performance or my work ethic.”

What was it due to, then? What does race have to do with being on time or missing weight? How can the Hawkeye Challenge be racist?

There are legitimate answers to these questions, and they cut to the heart of the current national struggle over systemic racism. As the 10-3 Hawkeyes prepare to play Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on Saturday, it remains to be seen whether the program’s leadership will hold itself to the same high standard of accountability that it demands from its players.

Amid the tidal wave of 2020 protests against racial injustice sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Chicago bears guard and former Hawkeye James Daniels tweeted that the Iowa program was infected with racism, too. Soon, a flood of more than 60 former players, including Wadley, described racist treatment within the program. They said Black players received worse punishments than white players for the same offenses, and felt pressure to “put a mask on and be someone we were not.” They said Black players were treated more harshly because of how they dressed, how they wore their hair or the rap music they enjoyed. In other words, Black players said they were treated worse just because they were Black.

The university commissioned an outside review of the football program, which corroborated the players’ accounts. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said he had a “blind spot” and gave too much disciplinary authority to a few members of his staff. He relaxed rules governing hair and tattoos, and announced new advisory boards and listening sessions designed to help Black players feel more comfortable.

Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz (left) and head coach Kirk Ferentz (right) watch warm-up drills before a game against the Illinois Fighting Illini on Nov. 20 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The only person punished was strength coach Chris Doyle, who was eased out the door with a $1.1 million severance payment and 15 months of health benefits. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, the head coach’s son and subject of numerous complaints, kept his job and collected an $85,000 raise in 2020.

Wadley and 12 other former athletes who played at Iowa between 2010 and 2019 filed a federal lawsuit in November 2020. A judge recently dismissed several charges but said two could proceed. One accuses the university of creating a “racially hostile environment.” The other alleges that Brian Ferentz and Doyle used racial epithets and “intentionally discriminated” against players. Charges against Kirk Ferentz were dismissed.

The players are represented by Damario Solomon-Simmons, who is well known as the attorney seeking reparations for the Tulsa Race Massacre. And reparations are what Solomon-Simmons is seeking for the former Iowa players, too — compensation from a university that made millions from fans who cheered on Wadley as he ran for 2,872 yards and 28 touchdowns in his career, which are both top-five all-time records at Iowa.

The university has rejected Solomon-Simmons’ demand for $10 million in damages for the plaintiffs and another $10 million for other Black athletes who experienced discrimination. Solomon-Simmons also demanded tuition waivers for Black football players who did not graduate while playing for Ferentz, annual anti-racist training for athletic staff, mental health therapy for players who need it, and other measures. Depositions of Kirk and Brian Ferentz are scheduled for January, with a trial scheduled for 2023.

When I spoke by phone with Wadley, it was his first public statement since his original social media post a year and a half ago. He sounded like a man who is not yet able to move on. 

“Sometimes I even dream about it,” said Wadley, 26. “I still go through everything. I still live that.”

His first inkling about what was in store came during his freshman year, when he saw other Black players leaving campus. (According to the lawsuit, 41% of Black male student-athletes graduate from Iowa, compared with 77% of all athletes.) Soon he overheard a phone conversation where an assistant coach insisted that his teammate cut off his locks “because they’re not going to tolerate that here.”

Then it got worse. He says Brian Ferentz repeatedly compared him to an armed robber while he wore a team-issued Nike hat-and-face mask headwear; that the same coach told a story about his white friend being nervous around so many Black students at Wadley’s high school; and that his meal card was suspended for supporting Black players who transferred (which Kirk Ferentz said was “flat-out not true”). Wadley and other players say Brian Ferentz and Doyle also used the N-word and frequently said things like “what gang is he in?” “dumbass Black player” and “go back to the ghetto.”

“There was always a racist joke, or any little insult that my circle of guys, we all experienced,” Wadley said. “Over time, these little things turn into major issues and they take a toll on you.”

He and his Black teammates had NFL dreams, so they figured they would lean on each other and tough it out. But “it definitely crushes your self-esteem. It definitely make you feel less of a person, man. Those words hit home and it just eats at you even more when you gotta go home and look at yourself in the mirror. You know, I’m a man at the end of the day, and if we was back in Jersey, out of that system, I wouldn’t let that be said to me. But when you got a mission and you got a goal in mind to get to that next level, you feel like you just gotta deal with things like that.”

Wadley acknowledges that he made mistakes, especially during his redshirt freshman year, when he moved from his Black hometown of Newark, New Jersey, to a campus that was only 3% Black. He landed on academic probation. He was underweight. He got in trouble for having a party in his room.

Strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle before a matchup against the Iowa State Cyclones on Sept. 10, 2016, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Doyle is no longer with the program.

Matthew Holst/Getty Images

But he also saw Black teammates punished for spitting on the turf, while white players got away with the same thing. He received community service hours as punishment without being told what he had done wrong. As the seasons passed, he began to believe that coaches would find a reason to punish him no matter what. And he felt that any resistance to how he and other Black players were treated would be perceived by some coaches as an “attitude problem” that warranted even more punishment.

“It’s just, you can’t win,” Wadley said. “I was watching a movie about when they used to make African Americans guess how many jelly beans were in the jar in order to vote. There were hundreds of jelly beans in the jar. That’s what I felt like. You can’t win.”

Wadley signed with the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent in 2018 but didn’t make the final roster. He played with the short-lived Alliance of American Football and the XFL, and is now training for another NFL opportunity. He can’t afford therapy, so he and his former teammates talk to each other.

“Everything we went through was just crazy. On a daily, it was just bad. And at the time, we didn’t really — we was going through it and everything, but it wasn’t much we could do.”

He just had to take it. Sometimes that meant standing in the middle of that Hawkeye Challenge, as the sum total of his struggles as a young Black man was tallied up against him.

“Everybody gathered around, you’re in the circle,” Wadley said. “It was made to — it’s like they laughing at you, really. It affects me to this day.”

“Everything we went through was just crazy. On a daily, it was just bad. And at the time, we didn’t really — we was going through it and everything, but it wasn’t much we could do.”

— Akrum Wadley

I asked if the lawsuit could provide closure for him. “I feel like it’s deeper than that,” he said. “We want to make sure that nobody else has to go through that type of stuff no more.” And he wants something else as well:

“It just really eats up at me that, it’s just the coaches, they fail to take accountability. Like they half-ass want to take accountability. They say they want to make changes, but they don’t fully take accountability to what was actually going on in there.”

I interviewed Wadley twice in December after being approached by Solomon-Simmons. The first interview was Dec. 17. On Dec. 20, I emailed Steve Roe, Iowa’s assistant athletic director for communications, to seek comment from Kirk Ferentz and others. Roe declined to make Ferentz available before the bowl game, or commit to an interview afterward. University lawyers did not respond to my request for comment.

Roe gave me an email address for Broderick Binns, who played for Ferentz from 2008 to 2011 and was his director of player development from 2016 to 2020. Binns, who is Black, is now Iowa’s assistant athletic director for diversity, equity and inclusion.

In a telephone interview, I asked Binns what he thought of Black players saying they were treated unfairly. “I can’t tell those guys how they should feel, right?” Binns said. “If a coach says something to them and they interpreted it that way, who am I to say, ‘No, they are wrong.’ I feel like that’s not my place to do that.

“There were some vivid stories, some vivid examples of what some Black student-athletes were saying about what happened to them,” Binns said. “And I think ultimately that’s just on us. We just had to be better, and we weren’t in that regard.”

In one sense, Binns is taking responsibility, on behalf of his university, for the racism within the program. “We just had to be better” is accurate. But as I looked more closely at how people at Iowa have spoken publicly about what happened, Binns’ statement felt like it fell short of what is needed to fully make things right.

I would soon realize that overall, Iowa is willing to admit that players perceived racial problems within the football program. Iowa is acknowledging what the athletes say happened to them. But Iowa is not ready to talk about what Iowa did to them.

Kirk Ferentz, 66, has led Iowa’s football team for 23 years, the longest tenure in the top division of college football. Immediately after the accounts of racism surfaced on social media, he said he was “saddened” that players had not come to him first, but pledged to “listen and take to heart the messages we hear.”

Since then, Ferentz and other school officials have chosen their words carefully. They take “responsibility,” in general terms. They speak often about “moving forward” and “doing better.” They apologize for what players say they experienced, but not for inflicting those experiences on them.

They do not like to use the word “racism.” Perhaps all this avoidance is due to the lawsuit, but even if so, it feels like a double standard when it comes to accountability.

Iowa commissioned the Husch Blackwell law firm, which works with many NCAA athletic departments, to interview players and coaches. Husch Blackwell’s report verified that many Black athletes, and some coaches and white players, said Black athletes were treated unfairly due to their race — which is the definition of racism.

Iowa Hawkeyes running back Akrum Wadley carries the ball against the Boston College Eagles during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27, 2017, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But the university did not ask Husch Blackwell to determine whether the descriptions of racism were true — only to collect and summarize the stories. Specific allegations against several staff members of what the report called “mistreatment” were not included in the public report, but confidentially handed over to the university and kept sealed. The report concluded that “the program’s rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases.”

When a system of rules perpetuates racial biases, that is the definition of systemic racism. Iowa’s system of rules was created and enforced by coaches — yet the wording of the report gives the impression that the rules created themselves.

After the report was released, Ferentz issued a statement that laid blame on “our culture that mandated uniformity caused many Black players to feel they were unable to show up as their authentic selves.” He called his players’ descriptions of racism “allegations of uneven treatment.”

At a July 30, 2020, news conference to discuss the report, athletic director Gary Barta was first at the microphone. He acknowledged that “we’ve made mistakes.”

Then came Ferentz. “First of all, I am responsible as the head coach,” he said.

OK, responsible for what?

“I want to apologize to those players for any pain, any frustration that they felt at a time when I was trusted to help develop them as a better player, better person,” Ferentz said.  

I wonder how many points Wadley would have lost in the Hawkeye Challenge if he said, “I’d like to apologize to those coaches for any pain, any frustration they felt at a time when I was trusted to gain weight.”

The only person who said the word “racism” was a reporter who asked, “Do you believe there was systemic racism in your football program?”

“I’m not an expert in what systemic means,” Barta replied. “Did we have a culture that was not fair? Yeah. Yeah, I believe that. I’m not ready to use a term for it, but we have to have an environment where everybody feels like they’re being treated fairly and equitably, and we’ve learned that that wasn’t happening across the board.”

All these comments fit the pattern of my conversation with Binns, the assistant AD for diversity who called the descriptions of racism, among other things, “vivid stories.” All these statements are classic examples of not taking full ownership, and they subtly shift blame to the players.

Yes, the Iowa football program is making changes. But those changes have to go further than hairstyles, advisory boards, sidestepping statements, or letting one bad coach sail into the sunset while another one remains.

I told Binns that he was in a tough position as a Black man put forward by a white institution to answer for racism. I asked if the athletic department had accepted full accountability for a racist environment. “I think you have to acknowledge where you’ve gone, where you’ve been, to know where you’re going,” he said. “And that’s always the hard part. And it’s harder for some people to admit than others. … It seems like Coach Ferentz has taken responsibility and said, ‘Yeah, you know, I messed up.’ ”

I asked about Wadley and the Hawkeye Challenge.

“Seeing a bunch of Black guys with negative points up there, yes, that hurt,” Binns said. “That sucked as a former Black player within the program. And if I’m not mistaken, I believe the next year, because it was brought up in our staff meeting, I believe the next year we didn’t do that anymore. But I guess the damage was already done in some regards.”

“It was very awkward and it hurt. … But I’ll just tell you from my standpoint, the way that I see it, being on time has nothing to do with race.” (Wadley told me he did not have any lateness issues.)

“I’m not trying to say that Akrum was wrong,” Binns said. “That’s how he felt. He felt bad being up there. And he felt like he was a star of the team, he was scoring touchdowns. But at the same point in time, if you show up late, you show up late.”

What happened to Wadley at the Hawkeye Challenge reminds me of the dynamic in too many schools across America, from kindergarten through 12th grade, where Black children are disproportionately punished. Most people assume that these Black kids just have worse behavior. They don’t want to consider that white teachers might give a white child detention for something that would get a Black child suspended. Or that after years of trying to cope with an unfair system, sometimes Black kids stop trying.

As one Iowa athletics staffer said in the Husch Blackwell report: “We are more likely to question, place blame or assume guilt, particularly on the part of African American student-athletes.”

It reminds me of what Black parents and grandparents always told us — that the deck is stacked against us, so the best response is to be twice as good. Understand that being Black in a white environment means being on your best behavior, or suffer the consequences.

But the momentous protests of 2020 were about equality. They were about eliminating the kind of systemic racism that demands superman standards for everyman rewards. They were about calling racism what it is, not “allegations of uneven treatment.”

Yes, the Iowa football program is making changes. But those changes have to go further than hairstyles, advisory boards, sidestepping statements, or letting one bad coach sail into the sunset while another one remains.

Compensating players for what they experienced would be an important step. Just as important would be for the Iowa football program to actually call racism by its name.

“We’ve always prided ourselves in running a program based on discipline and accountability,” Ferentz said in that 2020 news conference.

That’s what the Hawkeyes Challenge is supposed to be all about. Will Iowa football continue its hypocrisy? Or can it do everything that is necessary to heal?

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.

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