Iowa football race bias suit nears settlement with tax money

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) – A proposed settlement for more than $4 million has been reached in the lawsuit brought by former Iowa football players who alleged racial discrimination in coach Kirk Ferentz’s program.

The office of State Auditor Rob Sand disclosed the proposed settlement on Monday, and he said he would oppose using taxpayer money to pay a portion of the settlement unless university athletic director Gary Barta is fired.

The three-member State Appeal Board will vote Monday afternoon on whether to approve the use of $2 million in state money for a settlement. Sand is a member of the board along with state treasurer Roby Smith and Department of Management director Kraig Paulsen.

A message was left for Tulsa-based attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, who brought the lawsuit on behalf of about a dozen Black former players in 2020.

In a response to a request for comment from Barta, the athletic department put out a statement attributed to him: “The Athletic Department remains committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for every student-athlete and staff member involved in our program. The Hawkeyes over-arching goal to win every time we compete, graduate every student-athlete that comes to Iowa, and to do it right, remains our focus.”

Barta has been Iowa’s athletic director since 2006. In a statement to the appeal board, Sand noted four discrimination cases totaling nearly $7 million in damages under Barta’s watch. The largest of those was $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit in 2017 over the firing of former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. The money used to pay that settlement came from the athletic department, which does not rely on taxpayer funding.

“I can’t imagine a private company that would still have someone at the helm after four discrimination lawsuits under that person’s leadership,” Sand said at a news conference. “So to me there has to be additional accountability there. The athletic department, they’ve got the funds for it. The broadcast deal brings tens of millions of dollars every year going forward. I don’t know why they can’t cover their own mistakes and pay for their own mistakes instead of having taxpayer’s do it.”

Barta, Ferentz, his son and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and former strength coach Chris Doyle were dismissed from the lawsuit last week, which was considered a sign a proposed settlement was imminent.

The lawsuit filed in November 2020 involved 13 Black former players including former star running back Akrum Wadley and career receptions leader Kevonte Martin-Manley. They alleged they were demeaned with racial slurs, forced to abandon Black hairstyles, fashion and culture to fit the “Iowa Way” promoted by Kirk Ferentz, and retaliated against for speaking out.

The players initially sought $20 million in damages plus the firings of Barta and the Ferentzes.

Doyle agreed to leave Iowa five months before the lawsuit was filed after widespread accusations that the longtime strength coach used his position to bully and disparage former players, particularly those who are Black. Iowa agreed to pay Doyle $1.1 million in a resignation agreement.

In 2020, before the lawsuit, the university hired the Husch Blackwell law firm to review the program after dozens of former players, most of them Black, spoke out on social media to allege racial disparities and mistreatment. Their activism came as protests against racial injustice swept the nation following the death of George Floyd and after attempts to raise concerns inside the program resulted in only minor changes.

The report said that some of the football program’s rules “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.”