Questioning The Iowa Way: Black players speak out on program’s racial inequities


More than a decade later, Amari Spievey is still troubled by what he saw that day. The former All-Big Ten cornerback for Iowa knows it could have been him.

It was spring of 2009. Iowa’s Derrell Johnson-Koulianos had been late for a meeting, and Chris Doyle, the team’s longtime strength and conditioning coach, decided the wide receiver would receive a very public punishment. At practice, Doyle ordered Johnson-Koulianos to jog around the field with a large yellow trash can covering his head. Players, coaches and recruits attending the practice with their parents watched as Johnson-Koulianos circled the field.

“I felt so humiliated for him,” Spievey told ESPN. “I was humiliated. That felt like me running. … It still bothers me.”

LeBron Daniel, a defensive end for Iowa at the time, watched the scene unfold with his teammates.

“We all just looked and were shaking our heads,” said Daniel, one of eight people at the practice who verified the incident to ESPN. “During water breaks, guys would be talking about, ‘Hey, what the F is that?’ A humiliating thing.”

Someone even took a photo, which Doyle would later display in his office, sources told ESPN.

“When kids would go in there, you’d see this picture,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “He has it up there like he’s proud, like a trophy.”

Spievey, a third-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, says he believes the incident reflected something deeper about the program under coach Kirk Ferentz.

“I guarantee if [Johnson-Koulianos] was white, [Doyle] would’ve never done that,” Spievey said. “There have been white players getting in trouble, too. They never had to do what DJK had to do. I wish I spoke up. I regret that.

“We didn’t have a voice there.”

Amid the swell of athletes who have been speaking out against police brutality and social injustice since the death of George Floyd while in police custody on May 25, more than 60 former Iowa players have spoken publicly about a football culture they say demeaned their racial identity. The player-led campaign, distinguished by both its size, organization and effective use of social media, has thrust Iowa into the national spotlight. The allegations began June 5, when former Iowa offensive lineman James Daniels, now with the Chicago Bears, tweeted, “There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”

The players’ comments included specific allegations of mistreatment by Doyle, the nation’s highest-paid strength coach, who reached a separation agreement with Iowa on June 14. Doyle, who led Iowa’s football strength and conditioning program throughout Ferentz’s 21-year tenure, received more than $1.1 million (15 months’ salary) on his way out. At the time of his departure, Doyle released a statement saying, “I am confident that my record and character will be confirmed in the course of the independent review.”

Iowa hired the Husch Blackwell law firm to conduct an external investigation of the program, the findings of which are soon expected to be released. Last week, Hawkeye Nation, a website dedicated to Iowa sports, published a 2019 internal report that outlined several allegations of racial discrimination within the department against Black athletes.

Over the past month, ESPN spoke with 14 former Iowa players and three former athletic department employees, most of whom described a culture where Black players felt isolated and were held to a different standard than their white teammates. When ESPN reached out to the university for comment on those individuals’ allegations, the school declined to comment until the Husch Blackwell review was completed, saying in a statement to ESPN: “Coach Ferentz looks forward to the report from the independent review group and will be available for comment once that review is made public.” Doyle declined to comment for this story through his attorney.

“There’s been a systematic issue there. Whether they’ve known about it, or whether or not how deep these accusations are, there are truths to all of them,” former wide receiver Marvin McNutt said. “The Black players feel [coaches and staff] didn’t always have our backs, and they didn’t really understand our culture, or like it.

“I’m glad to see some of these things could actually have a voice at a time it needed one.”

With Doyle’s departure, the focus shifts to Ferentz, the longest-tenured coach in the FBS, and whether the program has put Black players in a position to succeed.

According to data from the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, Iowa ranked 60th among 65 Power 5 schools — last in the Big Ten — in graduation rates for Black athletes in all sports between 2014 and 2018. Only 40% of Iowa’s Black athletes graduated, compared to 77% of all athletes, a differential that also ranked last in the conference. Hawkeye Nation also reported that Iowa enrolled 31 Black scholarship football players between 2013 and 2015, but only eight graduate from the school.

Players who spoke to ESPN said Ferentz has heard the allegations about Iowa’s treatment of Black players for many years. McNutt says that, early in his career, he and other members of Iowa’s leadership group met with the coach about discrepancies in discipline between white and Black players.

“We saw a lot of our fellow Black teammates put in a situation where they were one-and-done,” said McNutt, who played at Iowa from 2007 to 2011. “We would talk to Coach Ferentz and say, ‘We need to come up with a better system to handle these incidents.’ … We felt Black guys were leaving or having to transfer, and the white guys are able to stay and figure out community service or something.”

But more than a decade after the meeting, former Iowa players say those issues persisted and Black athletes operated under a double standard. (Iowa denied ESPN’s request to speak to players on the current roster.)

“A lot of former Iowa players say they had different experiences, but I can say that the majority of the Black athletes were treated different than their white teammates,” said former Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos in April. “Don’t get me wrong, the University of Iowa presented me the best opportunity to make it to the NFL. Just, throughout the journey, you gotta ask yourself: How much of my identity am I willing to sacrifice?”

‘They wanted us to be white Iowa kids’

The All-American Room at Iowa’s Hansen Football Performance Center is a multipurpose area where the team congregates for meals and other events.

“There’s always a Black table, a white table. At the Black table, this was the stuff we talked about every single day,” James Daniels in June told “Washed Up Walkons,” a podcast hosted by three former Iowa players. “The main root of the problem is that Black players did not feel like they could be themselves in the facility. It felt like that Black players had to conform to being the white, Iowa try-hard football player.

“When Black people go to the facility, they should feel safe there.”

But Black players who have spoken out often didn’t see the facility as a safe place. In June, junior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin described a walking-on-eggshells environment, calling Iowa’s football facility “an atmosphere where I couldn’t be myself or where you had to look out and kind of watch your back.” Former safety Geno Stone, drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the seventh round of April’s NFL draft, tweeted, “Walking into the facility everyday I felt like we all had to put a mask on and be someone we were not.”

Black players said success within the program hinged on assimilating to The Iowa Way, a reference to the program’s “smart, tough, physical” motto.

“Iowa culture is — and we saw it on the wall every day — smart, tough, physical, disciplined, hard-nosed, put your nose to the grindstone and work, be early, and many more,” said Tyler Kluver, a former Iowa long-snapper who is white and hosts the “Washed Up Walkons” podcast. “Those are the pillars of Iowa culture.”

But The Iowa Way, as many Black players describe it, also meant conforming to a white football culture and suppressing their own, whether it be their hairstyle or how they spoke or dressed.

“I’ve talked with guys and they talked about how they were made to conform to what Coach Ferentz wanted or what they expected white players to be like,” former offensive lineman Dace Richardson said. “We had a lot of guys on our team that had personalities and they weren’t allowed to be their natural selves. I never had issues with that because I kind of just conformed to what the team wanted.”

Spievey said Ferentz wanted players to be “robots,” programmed to make the coaches comfortable.

“We couldn’t wear earrings, we couldn’t wear hats, we had to dress a certain way,” Spievey said. “They wanted us to be white Iowa kids. [They] wanted us to fit that mold. We couldn’t be us. We had to be like them.”

Iowa’s overall lack of diversity likely contributed to those challenges. A four-time Big Ten coach of the year with two league titles and 17 bowl appearances, Ferentz has never had a Black offensive or defensive coordinator in his 21-year tenure and in 11 of those season only had two Black assistants. Thirty percent of Iowa’s current football roster is Black, at a university where Black students represent 3.3% of the student body. (Iowa’s Black population is 4.1% for the entire state.)

“It’s a culture shock,” Spievey said. “There’s only a few Black people there. When Doyle is making comments about our culture and our people, it’s uncomfortable. We’re already uncomfortable.”

Hawkeye Nation also reported that of the 33 players Iowa brought to Big Ten media days from 2009 to 2019, only 10 were Black — the fewest of any school in the conference. There were two years when Iowa only brought white players, while every other Big Ten school always included at least one Black player.

“It was almost like they were trying to portray the perfect white guy that represented Iowa football,” former cornerback Jordan Lomax told the “Washed Up Walkons” podcast. “Guys were like, ‘If I want to go to Big Ten media days … I’ve got to at least dress different or act different or be different, because I’m trying to get to that level.’ We see that. We’re like, ‘Why can’t one of us go? Why can’t more of us go?’

“It’s just a constant theme. And that kills guys psychologically.”

McNutt recalled how when Black recruits visited Iowa City, they would meet with a panel of Black players and ask them questions, such as where they would get haircuts or where they would hang out on a mostly white campus. Lomax said any issues Black players had with the program were only shared with close teammates — after they got to campus.

“I just told [recruits], ‘Look, it’s a different culture, a different environment here,'” Lomax explained on the same podcast. “But of course I’m not going to go into a lot of detail because I don’t want [people to say], ‘Lo’s out here discouraging recruits to come to Iowa.’ It’s that weird dynamic here, where it’s like, can you really be vulnerable? Can you tell the truth? It’s tough. I’m telling recruits, ‘I have my guys, I love being here with them. Now, do we have to deal with some other stuff when we go into the football complex? Yes, but I wouldn’t change my decision at all.'”

Several former Black players who spoke to ESPN also said they often faced more severe discipline than their white teammates, and fewer chances before being punished. According to the 2019 internal report on race in Iowa’s athletic program, several athletes interviewed said “punishments are not equal based on race.”

A current Iowa player, senior cornerback Matt Hankins, tweeted last month that after he spit on the turf “out of habit” in 2019, Doyle kicked him out of practice. “The very next day a white player spit on the same indoor turf in front of Doyle but nothing was done,” Hankins tweeted. Former players Terrence Harris and D.J. Johnson alleged that Black players at Iowa were subjected to random drug tests more often than their white teammates.

Shortly after reporting to Iowa in June 2019, walk-on wide receiver Javon Foy was stopped by police for speeding and having too many people in his car. Foy said he passed a Breathalyzer test and didn’t receive a citation, but Iowa coaches were alerted. He was suspended for preseason camp, and then his return date was repeatedly pushed back. Foy left the program earlier this year.

“A few weeks after [the traffic stop], several of my white teammates got caught in the dorms drinking, and they received tickets, fines for it,” Foy said. “I found out they just received pencil rolls [a common on-field punishment]. [The coaches] stalled me out, they said I could come back in the fall, but then they felt I was a danger to the program. … There had been several players with way worse trouble than me in that time, and just came back and were fine.”

During the 2008-09 academic year, James Ferentz, the head coach’s son and a Hawkeyes offensive lineman, received two alcohol-related offenses. The first, in October 2008 for underage possession of alcohol, resulted in a season-long suspension and community service. In April 2009, Ferentz and two white teammates were arrested for public intoxication and suspended for spring practice. All were reinstated in June 2009, and Ferentz would become a multiyear starter.

Some former Iowa players didn’t believe discipline hinged on race. Micah Hyde, a defensive back now with the Buffalo Bills, said communication breakdowns between players and coaches was a bigger factor. Kluver saw most problems for Iowa players surface early in their careers, and didn’t personally witness a disparity in discipline for Black players.

“We just didn’t give them [enough time], white or Black, when they entered the program, to acclimate to the weather inside the facility,” Kluver said.

Few Iowa players during Kirk Ferentz’s tenure clashed with coaches more than Johnson-Koulianos, a record-setting receiver. He said the garbage can incident was among the handful of indignities he experienced, including Doyle frequently disparaging his “silver spoon” background. (Though Johnson-Koulianos’ adoptive father is a white physician, he was born to a teenage mother and struggled for most of his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio.)

“The constant mention of … me never working for anything, when in fact, I lived in poverty the first half of my life, how could you not know that? Why are you using that against me and penalizing me for that?” Johnson-Koulianos told ESPN. “It was so much anxiety to go to practice in the facility every day, with the scrutiny and the constant badgering and putting down. It was just overwhelming at times.”

Iowa dismissed Johnson-Koulianos in December 2010 after he was arrested on five counts of drug possession; four charges would later be dropped and a misdemeanor marijuana charge was expunged from his record. He wasn’t allowed to participate in Iowa’s pro scouting day in 2011. Johnson-Koulianos in 2013 criticized Ferentz and the program in a series of tweets, prompting Iowa to release a statement saying Johnson-Koulianos “made some unfortunate decisions” during his college career.

Johnson-Koulianos’ allegations are receiving renewed attention amid the recent widespread outcry for change. ESPN has verified that other former Hawkeye football players, including at least one current NFL player, encouraged Johnson-Koulianos to again share his story after other players started speaking out. But the issues between Johnson-Koulianos and the program continued long after his time in Iowa City.

Last fall, Broderick Binns, a Hawkeyes defensive lineman from 2007 to 2011 and then Iowa’s director of player development, messaged Johnson-Koulianos on Instagram about the 10-year reunion of their 2009 Orange Bowl team. (Iowa’s 2009 squad was being honored during the Oct. 12 home game against Penn State.)

Johnson-Koulianos responded by saying he had not been invited, adding, “Don’t want to cause any drama.”

“You haven’t been getting the emails??” Binns replied on Instagram, according to messages reviewed by ESPN. “Open to any ’09 player! You made our team what it was… caught a lot of TDs and broke records. It’s been 9-10 years … I understand it, but you are invited just like anyone else and are welcome to come and celebrate an awesome year!”

Johnson-Koulianos booked a flight. The week before the game, Ben Hansen, Iowa’s assistant director of football operations, asked how many tickets Johnson-Koulianos needed, according to an email obtained by ESPN. But two days before the game, Johnson-Koulianos said he received a call from Hansen and Binns saying Ferentz had reviewed the list of attendees and instructed them to inform Johnson-Koulianos he wasn’t welcome.

“I spoke to a couple of people about that,” Richardson, the former offensive lineman, said of Johnson-Koulianos’ absence. “That was kind of disheartening. He was part of the ’09 team, just like everyone else. It sucks that he has some bad blood with the Iowa program. But we can’t just erase someone from the record books. … Everyone deserves another chance. After 10 years, I felt like it was time to forgive and try to just move on.”

An Iowa spokesman disputed Johnson-Koulianos’ accounts but declined to provide more specific detail. Iowa also declined ESPN’s request to interview Binns for this story.

Johnson-Koulianos, now an assistant coach at Division II Bloomsburg University, said he didn’t plan to speak out again about his time at Iowa until others contacted him in June.

“They reached out and said, ‘You have to, you of all people had the worst experience,'” Johnson-Koulianos said. “Being 10 years removed and hearing other guys with similar encounters and similar experiences, it’s sort of made me reevaluate the entire experience. And now I see there was an issue with the way [Ferentz] dealt with Black kids. And I don’t understand why, because those Black kids were the same Black kids that won a lot of football games for you. Why don’t you want to embrace them, and let them express who they are?”

Johnson-Koulianos said Husch Blackwell, hired by Iowa to conduct the external review, has not contacted him to document his experiences.

The challenges Iowa football faces are compounded by the school’s struggles to find an administrator who oversees efforts to improve the racial climate on campus. Since 2017, Iowa has had four associate vice presidents for diversity, equity and inclusion. The position remains vacant.

Jane Meyer, who served as Iowa’s No. 2 athletics administrator from 2001 to 2014, says she thinks the racial issues with Iowa’s football program are part of a larger pattern inside the athletics department. Meyer won a discrimination lawsuit against the school in 2017.

“I will never know how [Black players] feel, I can only relate because it is part of the bigger lack of acceptance within that department,” Meyer told ESPN. “If you are different or if you speak out, you are not accepted.”

‘If Kirk Ferentz is the CEO, Chris Doyle is the COO’

In December 2016, Kirk Ferentz said Chris Doyle was “the most important coach in our program, including me.” And no one had promoted The Iowa Way for the past 20-plus years more than Ferentz and Doyle.

“If Kirk Ferentz is the CEO, Chris Doyle is the COO,” said former Iowa safety Diauntae Morrow. “We don’t have very much control, and we know that coming in. … This is the only chance we have to make something of ourselves, so we’re not going to mess that up by pissing the wrong person off.”

Doyle’s success and year-round access to players made him uniquely influential. He measured and tracked players’ development, doled out punishment and had Ferentz’s ear about who could help on game day.

Doyle also had full unwavering support from Ferentz. In January 2011, Doyle came under scrutiny when 13 players were hospitalized because of rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue that can cause kidney damage, following a strenuous workout. Not only did Doyle remain following a review of the workout, but in April 2011, Ferentz named him the first recipient of Iowa’s “Assistant Coach of the Year” award.

Some players believed Doyle’s authority could never be questioned.

“No one checked him on it,” former linebacker Terrance Pryor said. “Not the players, not the coaches, and not his staff.”

But many of Iowa’s NFL alumni credit Doyle for their development, and some players who spoke out in June did not dismiss his talent in interviews with ESPN. In all, Iowa had 75 players drafted during Ferentz’s first 20 years as head coach.

“For athletes, and particularly Black athletes, when we come to Division I schools, we’re thinking, ‘This is our ticket, this the way that we’re going to make it out,'” Pryor said. “We tend to have laser focus on that, and when we deal with a lot of the racial inequalities that may arise, we kind of just say, ‘Man, put your head down and go forward.'”

While rehabbing an injury at practice, Pryor said Doyle jokingly asked if football wasn’t the right sport for him. Doyle suggested rowing as an alternative, before saying Black people don’t like water and boats.

“He said it as a joke, but it was a joke that shouldn’t have been said,” Pryor said. “I don’t know if the guy woke up saying, ‘You know, I’m going to make a Black player feel bad today.’ … It could have been a subconscious bias.”

After being put on paid administrative leave June 6, Doyle in a statement denied that he “ever crossed the line of unethical behavior or bias based upon race.” But several former players recounted comments Doyle made directly to them. Others, such as Cleveland Browns defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a two-time Iowa captain, tweeted that he heard Doyle make “questionable racial remarks” to players.

Doyle wasn’t the only staff member accused of inappropriate behavior.

Former Iowa running back Akrum Wadley alleged that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, Kirk’s son, asked him if he planned to rob a liquor store or a gas station whenever he saw Wadley wearing a team-issued wool cap. LeBron Daniel said whenever he returned to Iowa with a new tattoo, he would hear jokes about how hard it would be for him to find a job.

Kirk Ferentz emphasized an open-door policy, but some players were still hesitant to approach him. “You almost see Coach Ferentz like a movie star,” McNutt said.

Yet during the 2017 season, James Daniels and other Black players met with Ferentz, where they mostly brought up general issues about bias, such as clothing restrictions or the type of music played in the weight room. Daniels told the “Washed Up Walkons” podcast the players didn’t relay specific racial incidents like the ones cited on social media in June, but did say Black players generally felt mistreated. Since June, Ferentz has repeatedly said he thought the team had a healthy culture.

Kluver said players were reluctant to bring up issues about Doyle.

“They knew Doyle and Kirk were best friends, No. 1 and No. 2 for years on years on years,” Kluver said. “So that’s why [Black players] never brought the specific, really tough issues to Kirk.”

What comes next

Continuity defines Iowa football, which has had only two head coaches since 1979. The program’s strength coach of 21 years is gone, but the former players want changes beyond Doyle’s departure.

After the players’ social media posts, Iowa moved quickly to form a committee of former players to advise the program on race, led by former Hawkeyes offensive lineman David Porter. Athletic director Gary Barta promoted Binns, the former Hawkeys defensive lineman, to executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the athletic department. Ferentz lifted the longtime ban on players using Twitter, saying it was “stupid.” The week after Daniels’ tweet, Iowa held several emotional team meetings, which Ferentz and players described as important and beneficial.

“We must be more inclusive and aware,” Ferentz said on June 12. “I thought we had a good, healthy team culture. … The biggest question to me is: Why the blind spot? And I think every person has a blind spot. I’m sure every leader has a blind spot.”

Whether Doyle became Ferentz’s blind spot is a central question. Players said Ferentz largely stayed out of Doyle’s weight room, but they knew how close the two were in guiding the program. LeBron Daniel, who since early June has participated in several Zoom calls with former Iowa players, said “a good number of guys feel like Doyle was the fall guy.”

“Coach Doyle is the longest-tenured coach with Coach Ferentz, so what does that say?” Morrow said. “You’re working with the guy for that many years, you mean to tell me you don’t know what type of person he is? I’m not calling for anybody’s job, but you’re not innocent, Kirk.”

Morrow transferred to Toledo following an altercation with Doyle in January 2009.

The attrition rate of Black players in the program remained an issue.

“After James [Daniels] left for the draft his third year, I was the lone Black dude from the class of 2015 still at Iowa,” Ojemudia said. “Basically, all the friends I started out with were gone mainly because of the reasons guys are speaking up [about] right now.”

In 2018, Barta formed the UI Athletics Diversity Task Force, in response to poor graduation rates among Black male athletes. The following year, the group released its first report across all sports, finding “specific themes” impacting Black athletes, including “perceived” issues with communication between coaches and players and discrepancies in disciplinary actions for Black players. While Iowa’s staff was aware the department had a problem retaining Black players, the report also said “coaches reported being ‘surprised’ to hear such low graduation rates.”

The report highlighted trust issues between players and personnel, which department staff said appeared to be worsening. “We are more likely to question, place blame, or assume guilt, particularly on the part of African American student-athletes,” an athletics staff member told the task force.

Ferentz said he read the Diversity Task Force report “many times,” met with a group of Black players last August and relaxed some rules about appearance in the facility. He intended to meet with players again in December but did not, explaining he “bypassed it. … I felt we had a pretty healthy culture last December.”

Loyalty to Ferentz among many players persists, and most of those ESPN spoke with said they do not want to see him lose his job.

“Coach Ferentz is the best person for it to happen to because you know he’s going to take the time to listen to his players — present or former players,” Hyde said. “I think that a lot of the guys who are speaking out, I think it’s not about removing Coach Ferentz from his job, I think it’s more about raising awareness.”

Some former players think the advisory group led by Porter also could play an important role, and Ferentz says the early feedback has been helpful. The tumult since June hasn’t impacted recruiting, as Iowa ranks 20th in ESPN’s national rankings with 17 players committed, including two ESPN 300 prospects.

Ferentz last month said he accepted blame for any issues in the program, and for any players who had bad experiences at Iowa. Barta, who has served as Iowa’s athletic director since 2006, said on June 15 that he remains confident Ferentz can make adjustments and continue as head coach. Without appropriate accountability structures in place, Meyer, the former administrator, isn’t so sure.

“I am glad that the athletes are speaking up,” she said. “But the only way to see real change is to change leadership, because the current administration and football coach cannot have this many ‘blind spots.’ It is clear they have not, will not and cannot change.”

Foy is no fan of Ferentz, but he said current players have told him the environment within Iowa’s football building is improving.

“They’re not stripping you of your individualism,” Foy said. “There’s definitely a chance now because Coach Ferentz is definitely on his 10 toes, trying to be as careful as he can. … He’s doing his best to make these changes, because the nation’s watching him.”

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