Posted September 18, 2022 by Adara Opiola
"The present climate has given the University of Iowa Athletic Department an opportunity to improve its inclusivity."
On November 12, 2020, 13 former University of Iowa Football players filed a five-count action in federal district court against the University of Iowa, Board of Regents for the State of Iowa, Kirk Ferentz, Brian Ferentz, Christopher Doyle, and Raimond Braithwaite. These five counts allege three violations 42 U.S.C. Section 2000d: (1) Racially Hostile Education Environment, (2) Retaliation, and (3) Violation of Title VI – Systemic Pattern and Practice of Discrimination, and two 42 U.S.C. § 1983 violations: (4) Deprivation of Rights Under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 By Persons Acting Under Color of State Law and (5) Conspiracy to Deprive Persons of Equal Protection Violative of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3).
However, the Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss and successfully dismissed six plaintiffs, Kirk Ferentz, Gary Barta, and three counts from the suit.3 The remaining counts are (1) Racially Hostile Education Environment and (4) Deprivation of Rights Under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 By Persons Acting Under Color of State Law. Discovery has proven problematic for the plaintiffs because there are alleged inconsistencies between the Complaint, deposition testimonies, and sworn answers to interrogatories.4 Trial is scheduled for May 6–18, 2023, but the plaintiffs’ case is in danger of a judgment because both Brian Ferentz and Christopher Doyle have filed Motions for Summary Judgment individually.5
Regardless of the overall outcome of this case, the present climate has given the University of Iowa Athletic Department an opportunity to improve its inclusivity. Husch-Blackwell, LLP was hired by the University to conduct an internal investigation of its football operations.6 The report was released to the public in July 2020 and determined, “in sum, the program’s rules perpetuated racial culture and biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity. The program over-monitored players to the point that they experienced heightened anxiety and maintained a culture that allowed a small group of coaches to demean players.”7 However, following the report, Head Coach Kirk Ferentz took responsibility for failing to make the necessary changes and met with several players about combating the issue.8 One of the main adjustments they made was altering the “Iowa Way.”9
Husch Blackwell’s report states,
[T]he Iowa football program has historically adhered to a philosophy (the ‘Iowa Way’) that mandates uniformity and discourages individualism. Many Black players expressed difficulty adjusting to the program’s culture as a result, explaining that they were required to conform to a ‘mold’ that appeared to be built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, White athlete from a midwestern background.10
Since, Ferentz has made several adjustments to their culture, such as allowing players to wear hats and earrings.11 Additionally, Ferentz admits that he made mistakes with inclusivity by not continuing to check in with Black players about their perceptions and experiences.12 It seems that since these allegations were brought to Ferentz and staff’s attention, the Iowa Football program is attempting to make the adjustments necessary to better improve the student-athlete experiences of their Black players.
However, what options exist for minority student-athletes who feel discriminated against? The present case against the University indicates that legal recourse for discrimination may be difficult for student-athletes because it is difficult to articulate a valuable claim and quantify an injury. An overarching issue for civil rights in the legal system is quantifying damages that will incur change and making it worth the costs of litigation. Another option for minority student-athletes is to leave the program and transfer to another school. In the last few years, the NCAA has made it easier for athletes to transfer by giving immediate eligibility to first-time transferers, even to intra-conference and rival schools.13 Despite this, the issue is not resolved by an athlete leaving the toxic environment because there are many factors that go into an athlete’s decision to initially commit to a school and to transfer, such as playing time, competitors, and education. Considering the opportunities college athletics provides, microaggressions in the athletic environment put minority student-athletes, often 18- to 23-year-olds, in a quarrel between loyalty and what is best for them. These options do not provide adequate recourse for discriminated student-athletes. The best recourse is hopefully what we are seeing in the University of Iowa’s program: a commitment to further the mission of diversity and inclusion.
Photo courtesy of hawkeyeswire.usatoday.com.
 Complaint at 1, Wadley et al v. University of Iowa et al, No. 4:20-cv-00366 (S.D. Iowa filed Nov. 12, 2020), [https://perma.cc/G5EJ-6ARA].
 Id. at 47–57.
3 Order on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss at 21, Wadley et al v. University of Iowa et al, No. 4:20-cv-00366 (S.D. Iowa filed Nov. 12, 2020), [https://perma.cc/SXC2-57T9].
4 See generally Brief in Support of Brian Ferentz’s Motion for Summary Judgment Regarding Section 1981 Claims, Wadley et al v. University of Iowa et al, No. 4:20-cv-0036 (S.D. Iowa filed Nov. 12, 2020), [https://perma.cc/7Q4Z-S9GQ] (referencing inconsistencies between plaintiffs’ depositions and answers to interrogatories).
5 Id. at 1; Christopher Doyle’s Motion for Summary Judgment Regarding Section 1981 Claims at 1, Wadley et al v. University of Iowa et al, No. 4:20-cv-0036 (S.D. Iowa filed Nov. 12, 2020).
6 Husch Blackwell, LLP, Report of External Review – Football Program Culture, University of Iowa 1 (July 30, 2020).
7 Id. at 25.
8 Adam Rittenberg, Internal Report Alleges Racial Discrimination Against Black Athletes at Iowa, ESPN (July 20, 2020).
10 Husch Blackwell, LLP, supra note 6.
11 Rittenberg, supra note 8.
13 NCAA, NCAA Division I Board Adopts Changes to Transfer Rules (Aug. 31, 2022).