Coaches at Iowa and Utah really screwed up. What can their programs do now?
Building a safe and welcoming environment to students of all races and backgrounds isn't just the right thing to do. It's a requirement to build a successful program.
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Okay, let’s get to the stories. It’s been a busy past few days.
I think when the Greater College Football Internet talks about recruiting, there’s a great temptation to frame the entire decision-making process a little bit like how it plays out in NCAA 14. Players look at a school’s location, their coaching staff, their history, and their competitiveness, and then pick the team that ranks the highest in those general categories.
And hey, make no mistake about it, all of those things play huge roles in recruiting. But a kid isn’t going to automatically pick the most “prestigious” offer that comes along. Just like with how regular students select colleges, or how the rest of us working stiffs pick our jobs, comfort and cultural fit play huge roles as well.
It’s not really mentioned very much, but there’s absolutely a racial component to comfort and cultural fits. A school that is predominately white, and sits in a community that is predominately white, might have difficulty convincing very good non-white athletes to attend, and might have trouble supporting them once they get on campus. This was historically an issue for Notre Dame. It’s been a issue, at times, for schools in the Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and elsewhere.
It’s not that a high school kid is necessarily worried about overt White Nationalism. But being one of the only students of color on a college campus can take an emotional toll. Are you going to be okay with being stared at in class? With maybe getting extra attention from campus police? With how it might impact your social life? Or the way you can express yourself within your football team?
It is tempting to think of sports, and especially football teams, as some ultimate meritocracy: where different racial, ethnic, religious and political backgrounds are all erased and ignored, as only one’s ability to play matters. In real life, it’s usually a lot messier. College football teams, after all, remain stubbornly part of society.
Over the past few days, we’ve seen a few concrete examples of what it looks like when a predominately white athletic program fails to create a culture where all are truly welcome and supported.
The biggest story might be at Iowa
Kirk Ferentz has been coaching Iowa since 1999, making him almost as much a state institution as presidential primaries and corn. He’s known for a steadfastly conservative style of football, where his team of modestly recruited players, through coaching, toughness and gumption, simply outworks teams enough to win. And it works! Iowa does a great job sending players to the NFL, especially offensive linemen and tight ends, and they’re a perennial Big Ten bowl team.
The old Iowa way of doing things won a lot of football games. But internally, it also caused a lot of problems. Over the last few days, several ex-Iowa football players spoke up on social media to complain about double standards, racially insensitive comments, and outright bullying. CBS has a roundup of several of those stories here. Another former Iowa football player also claimed that the program harassed and mocked him over his learning disability.
The bulk of those stories center around Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle, who has been placed on administrative leave. Doyle denies the allegations.
College football strength coaches are generally not household names, but there’s a chance you’ve heard of Doyle. He’s the highest paid strength coach in the country, pulling in $800,000 a year, more than some FBS head coaches, and more than almost all position coaches.
Doyle was also a national story back in 2011, when the university “admonished him” after his workout plan sent 13 players to the hospital with Rhabdomyolysis. Ferentz gave Doyle the “assistant coach of the year” award that season.
Strength coaches are often the “right-hand man” of the head football coach. It’s the strength coach that sees the actual players more often, helps set the internal culture, and informs the head coach about culture concerns on the team. Given how long Ferentz and Doyle have worked together, and what control freaks head coaches, especially successful ones, tend to be, I think it would be very difficult to believe that Ferentz was completely unaware of things Doyle might be saying to black football players.
What happens to Doyle and Ferentz will be in the hands of Iowa AD Gary Barta (no stranger to scandals himself) and key leaders at the university. If even some of the allegations about Doyle are true, it seems that firing him should be an absolute no-brainer of a decision,potentially along with other Iowa assistant coaches and staffers. But whether the culture at Iowa can be reformed with Kirk Ferentz still on as the head coach is a different question.
Right now, I’m less interested in whether Ferentz remains or not. I’m more interested in the process the school takes to reach that decision.
There’s no getting around that Iowa is a pretty white place. The state’s population is over 90% white and just 3.4% black. The university’s student population is over 80% white and just 3% black. The bulk of the school’s fans, boosters, and powerbrokers are likely to be pretty white.
It appears that an “advocacy panel”, chaired by former Iowa football player Mike Daniels, will be created to examine some of these issues. Ferentz also said he’ll lift the program’s longtime ban on football players having active social media accounts, so they can more freely discuss what is happening in the world. Those are two positive developments, but not enough to correct the deeper issues.
How will the school ensure that any investigations and reports will remain truly independent and with the teeth needed to make tough decisions? How can they prevent cultural blind spots from making players unsafe and unwelcome? How can they make sure that players feel empowered enough to discuss issues with coaches before they escalate?
What needs to happen isn’t just a painful examination of how comments and culture created an unwelcome atmosphere for black athletes, but a re-framing of what kind of voice an athlete is expected to have on the team. The Coach as God, handing down commandments from On High, not to be questioned or collaborated with, is simply not a practical or sustainable model for quality leadership in 2020. And if that doesn’t change, no amount of sensitivity training is going to fix it.
And then there’s Utah
Like Iowa, Utah is not the diverse place in the world. As a state, it’s about 88% white, and just 1.1% black. The University of Utah is a bit more diverse, but it’s still only 1.32% black. Salt Lake City is a more diverse city than the rest of the state, but it’s less than 3% black.
And like Iowa, Utah has suspended a high profile member of their coaching staff. Defensive Coordinator Morgan Scalley has been suspended after texting a racial slur back in 2013. Scalley admitted he sent the text and apologized.
If I had to guess the most likely candidate to replace Kyle Whittingham as Utah head coach, I would have bet on Scalley, a former Ute and longtime coach who has worked for Whittingham for years. If not at Utah, Scalley’s ability as a recruiter, and his ties to a perennially successful defense would make him an attractive candidate for lots of other head coaching positions. His suspension is a pretty big deal.
There hasn’t been the same outpouring of anger from former players on social media, but again, the bigger question to me is less about what Utah does with Scalley, and more about what they discover, or are willing to discover, about their own culture. Was Scalley comfortable enough using racial slurs around other coaches that he’d do so in a text message that was mistakenly sent somebody else? Was that sort of language perceived as okay around Utah’s program? What did Kyle Whittingham know?
These questions are not unique to football, or to Utah and Iowa
Over the weekend, gymnasts at Alabama, Florida and Nebraska raised questions about racial abuse on their teams. An editorial from BYU’s student newspaper discussed the long history of racism within the LDS church and in experiences students of color experience on campus now. And this is all from just the past few days! I would not be surprised to hear other stories from other athletes over the coming months.
Building a culture that welcomes and strengthens all athletes and students, no matter their racial, religious or cultural background, does not happen automatically. It does not happen by hoping for the best. It happens thanks to strong leadership, from players, coaches, and staffers. It happens thanks to tough conversations. It happens thanks to accountability. It does not happen by decree or fiat. And at schools and cities that are not especially diverse in a lot of ways, I suspect that process is going to be more challenging.
I imagine almost every athletic department is having conversations right now with their coaches, players, and leaders about what kind of culture they have, and what kind of culture they want to have, especially given what is happening in the world right now. If you’re an athlete, coach, AD or staffer, I’d love to hear about how those conversations are going. I’d love to know what you’ve learned, or something new you’ve realized. It’s going to be a process for everybody.
One thing I do know is that those conversations are not optional. Coaches and administrators should strive to build inclusive and safe campus communities and athletic programs because it is the moral and just thing to do. But beyond that, it’s also a business necessity.
You cannot expect to recruit and retain the athletes and students you need without it — no matter how long you’ve been doing things.
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