The best and the worst of the Iowa athlete experience, according to school surveys

Athletes voice issues regarding diversity and inclusion, tutoring, joining campus organizations, comfort approaching coaches

This newsletter will hopefully be the first of many in a series called “The best and the worst,” which is designed to highlight the best and the worst aspects of being an athlete at various Division I schools across the country, according to the athletes themselves. Out of Bounds has obtained end-of-year exit surveys from athletes via public records requests and I’ve analyzed the athletes’ responses to identify what they like the most about their school and athletic department, and what needs to be improved.

As this examination of Iowa athletics will show, athlete surveys are far from a perfect lens into a school’s athletic department. What we can learn from survey results depends on the format of the survey itself, the amount of information that is redacted by a university in response to a public records request, and most importantly, the demographics of the athletes who respond to the survey (e.g. the racial/ethnic backgrounds of athletes, the sports they play, the sizes of the roles of the athletes who respond, whether the athletes are on full scholarship vs. partial scholarship vs. a walk-on, etc.).

Survey questions that allow athletes to respond to a question in their own words are usually far more insightful than those that ask an athlete to rate an element of the athletic department on a 1-to-5 scale, without the benefit of providing further context or information.

The 2019-20 Iowa athlete survey responses obtained by Out of Bounds were exclusively presented as numbers – percentages, averages and response totals – rather than open-ended questions.

A notable rise in responses from football players, black athletes

For what it’s worth, 103 football players responded to Iowa’s 2019-20 survey out of 290 total athlete responses, a year after 97 football players responded to the school’s 2018-19 survey. That’s a significant increase because after the 2017-18 school year, just 18 football athletes responded, so almost the entire team made its voice heard through the school’s end-of-year survey after each of the last two seasons.

Football players made up 35 percent of the total respondents to the 2019-20 survey, and black athletes made up 13.7 percent of the responses.

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The number of survey responses from black athletes at Iowa in the last two years is worth highlighting because on Thursday, the law firm Husch Blackwell released a 28-page report on its external review of the culture of Iowa football.

The report states the following as part of its conclusion section:

Yet numerous players described feeling unhappy and unwelcome, citing to a program culture that they perceive requires strict conformity and rigid adherence to the “mold” of an ideal player, a mold that many Black players felt they could never truly fit because it was built around the stereotype of a clean-cut, White athlete from a midwestern background. Additionally, numerous current and former players and coaches of all races described an environment in which a small number of coaches felt empowered to bully and demean athletes, especially Black athletes.

On July 20, on the heels of former Iowa football players making accusations earlier this summer about mistreatment and racial disparities within the program, HawkeyeNation reported that the University of Iowa established a Diversity Task Force that conducted department-wide interviews in the fall of 2018 with former athletes, employees in management positions inside Iowa’s athletic department, coaches, athletic trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches. The Diversity Task Force created a nine-page report that stated in part, “One of the key themes was that African American student-athletes do not feel comfortable being their authentic selves (namely around coaches).”

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It’s fair to wonder if there’s a possible connection between the Diversity Task Force’s interviews and report, and the dramatic rise in survey responses from football players and black athletes from the 2017-18 survey to the 2018-19 and 2019-20 surveys.

As Out of Bounds will detail later in this newsletter, roughly 22 percent of the 290 Iowa athletes who responded to the school’s 2019-20 survey indicated they do not feel “comfortable approaching [their] coach if [they] had a personal concern,” and more than 18 percent answered that they don’t feel comfortable approaching their head coach about a team concern.

One line of the Husch Blackwell report stated, “One current player explained his concern about the program’s commitment to change, stating the players have raised concerns with Head Coach Ferentz in the past and, because he did not do anything at the time, the program may be waiting for things to ‘blow over’ before they revert back to the Iowa Way.”

If nearly a quarter of Iowa athletes don’t feel comfortable approaching their coach with a personal concern, which is backed up by anecdotal evidence in the Husch Blackwell report, perhaps the annual university-issued athlete survey was seen in recent years as a way for athletes to give feedback to the school’s administrators that they couldn’t give directly to their coaches.

Just two years ago, after the 2017-18 school year, you could count on one hand the number of black athletes who responded to Iowa’s athlete survey.

A transparency officer from the school told Out of Bounds in an email, “Based on direction from our attorneys, ethnicity data has been redacted when the number of respondents was less than five.” The number of athletes who identified as African American on Iowa’s 2017-18 survey was redacted.

Of the 133 athletes who responded to Iowa’s survey after the 2017-18 school year, 119 athletes, or 89 percent, were white. Six identified as “Asian American” and seven said they were an international student, which leaves just one Iowa athlete who responded to the school’s survey who was black, native Hawaiian, Hispanic/Latino, an Alaska native or American Indian, or two or more races.

That means the survey results from 2018 are based almost entirely on the experiences that white athletes had at Iowa.

Those five racial or ethnic backgrounds mentioned above – “African American,” “Native Hawaiian,” “Hispanic/Latino,” “Alaska Native or American Indian” and “two or more races” – were redacted in at least one of the last four years as white athletes at Iowa consistently made up the overwhelming majority of respondents.

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The best parts of being an Iowa athlete, according to the survey

There were 13 items in the survey that had an average score of at least 4.5 (out of five). Five of the 13 items were related to the school’s strength and conditioning staff, and a sixth item related to the condition of the school’s equipment.

However, accusations made by former Iowa football players show that the school’s strength and conditioning staff was far from perfect. The school signed a separation agreement worth more than $1 million with former football strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle in mid-June after former players accused Doyle of mistreatment. Doyle earned $56,000 per year when he was hired in January 1999, according to pay data obtained by Out of Bounds, and his salary grew to $800,000 by the end of his employment at Iowa, where he was previously the highest-paid strength and conditioning coach in the country.

An under-discussed part of the college football arms race is strength and conditioning programs. Doyle was making $351,000 annually until Sept. 1, 2014, which meant that in his first 15 years or so at Iowa, Doyle’s salary increased by $295,000. In roughly his last five and a half years at the school, his salary increased by $449,000.

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Three of the 13 items with the highest average scores on Iowa’s 2019-20 athlete survey related to Academic Services and a fourth was about advising/priority registration.

Two of the top six scores related to the interaction with, and support from, teammates.

Here are the items on the survey that had scores of at least 4.5:

  • 4.63 – Interaction with teammates

  • 4.62 – Promptness of Strength and Conditioning Staff

  • 4.62 – Professionalism of Sports Medicine Staff

  • 4.60 – Accessibility of Strength and Conditioning Staff

  • 4.58 – Professionalism of Strength and Conditioning Staff

  • 4.58 – Support shown by teammates

  • 4.57 – Professionalism of Academic Services

  • 4.53 – Overall experience with Strength and Conditioning Staff

  • 4.53 – Notification about advising and priority registration

  • 4.52 – Effectiveness of Strength and Conditioning Staff

  • 4.52 – Overall experience with Academic Services

  • 4.51 – Accessibility of Academic Services

  • 4.50 – Condition of equipment

The worst parts of being an Iowa athlete, according to the survey

The following items had the five lowest scores, among the items that were scored in a 1-to-5 format, as tutoring appeared to be one of the biggest concerns among Iowa athletes:

  • 3.77 – Effectiveness for improving study skills and organization at tutoring

  • 3.81 – Effectiveness for exam preparation at tutoring

  • 3.84 – Overall effectiveness of tutoring

  • 3.87 – Communication you received about campus organizations

  • 3.88 – Food selection at refueling stations

It’s worth noting the scores for the items that related to the school’s Counseling Services staff, Nutrition staff and athletic department administration were redacted, which unfortunately prevents us from seeing how Iowa athletes feel about those important support services.

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However, there were numerous yes-or-no questions on the survey that had troubling responses, particularly ones that related to the comfort of athletes approaching their coaches with concerns, the ability for athletes to get involved in campus organizations, and diversity and inclusion.

  • 52.9 percent responded “Yes,” when asked, “Did your athletic participation prevent you from participating in campus activities? (an increase of 2.9 percent from the previous school year)

  • 22.4 percent responded “No,” when asked “Are you comfortable approaching your coach if you had a personal concern?” (an increase of 6.8 percent from the previous school year)

  • 18.2 percent responded “No,” when asked “Would you approach your coach if you had a concern related to your team?” (an increase of 4.7 percent from the previous school year)

  • 18.2 percent responded “No,” when asked, “Did you believe your experience at Iowa expanded your views on diversity and inclusion?” (an increase of 4.0 percent from the previous school year)

  • 14.8 percent responded “No,” when asked “Are you comfortable approaching your position/event/assistant coach(s) if you had a concern?” (an increase of 4.6 percent from the previous school year)

  • 14.8 percent responded “No,” when asked “Would you approach your position/event/assistant coach(s) if you had a concern related to your team?” (an increase of 2.8 percent from the previous school year)

  • 12.1 percent responded that the book distribution process was a “poor experience,” among the 140 athletes who were applicable to the process

  • 4.4 percent responded “No,” when asked, “Were you made to feel welcome and like you belonged at the University of Iowa?” (an increase of 0.8 percent from the previous school year)

  • 4.1 percent responded “Yes,” when asked, “Have you witnessed or been subject to bullying or hazing on your team?” (an increase of 1.6 percent from the previous school year)

  • 3.7 percent responded “No,” when asked, “In general, when provided the opportunity, were your interactions with individuals who were of a different race or ethnicity positive?” (an increase of 0.8 percent from the previous school year)

Even while the percentage of athletes who responded that they had “witnessed or been subject to bullying or hazing” or had generally not had positive interactions with individuals of a different race or ethnicity were low, the year-over-year percentage increases are concerning, especially when viewed through the lens of recent allegations made against the Iowa football program.

Consider how the percentage of Iowa athlete survey respondents who said they generally did not have positive interactions with people of a different race or ethnicity increased, coinciding with the increased number of responses from football players and from black athletes.

Out of Bounds compiled the following data from the last three years of Iowa’s athlete surveys, which show an increase in athletes acknowledging diversity and inclusion concerns after a higher number of football players and black athletes responded to the survey.

While you’d be happy with a 95-percent score on a test in college, it’s hard to be as positive about a number that’s in the low or mid-90s when it’s about people, not an exam score, especially when those numbers are moving in the wrong direction.

While the format of Iowa’s end-of-year athlete survey has changed some over the years, some of the concerns highlighted in the Hawkeyes’ 2019-20 survey results are not new.

In fact, some of the results are very similar to Iowa’s survey results from five years ago.

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In Iowa’s 2014-15 survey (shown below), the average score for “You felt comfortable discussing personal issues with your head coach” was 3.6, with the lowest possible score being 1 and the highest being 5. The version of the question that was directed towards the school’s assistant coaches had an average score of 3.8.

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Ninety-four athletes out of Iowa’s 461 respondents in 2015, or 20.3 percent, responded “disagree” or “strongly disagree” to feeling comfortable discussing personal issues with their head coach. In Iowa’s latest survey (shown below), 22.4 percent of respondents said they aren’t comfortable approaching their head coach if they had a personal concern.

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Seventy athletes, or 15.1 percent, indicated “disagree” or “strongly disagree” when presented with the statement “You felt comfortable discussing personal issues with your assistant coach(es)” in 2015. This year, 14.8 percent of respondents said they didn’t feel comfortable approaching an assistant coach if they had a concern, as shown below.

Of the 290 Iowa athletes who responded to the school’s latest survey, 18.2 percent said their experience at the school did not expand their views on diversity and inclusion. That percentage was 17.6 percent after the 2015-16 school year.

The question for Iowa athletics moving forward is whether – after the separation with Doyle and a public outcry about mistreatment from current and former football players – the school’s athletes in the 2020-21 school year and beyond will respond that they’re more comfortable approaching their coaches with personal and team concerns, that a higher percentage of them are having positive experiences with people of a different racial or ethnic background, and that more of them feel welcome and a sense of belonging on campus.

The final paragraph of Husch Blackwell’s report reads:

We recommend that the University work with Athletic Director Barta and Head Coach Ferentz to create action steps aimed at improving the culture of the program, eliminating biases, encouraging student-athletes to report concerns of mistreatment, and amplifying the University’s policy statement against retaliation within the football program.

Husch Blackwell recommended that Kirk Ferentz, who has been Iowa’s coach since the 1999 season, and Gary Barta, who has been the AD since 2006, encourage athletes to report concerns of mistreatment and “amplify” Iowa’s policy against retaliation in the football program, but at least one athlete told Husch Blackwell players had raised concerns to Ferentz, but “because he did not do anything at the time, the program may be waiting for things to ‘blow over’ before they revert back to the Iowa Way.”

At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Barta told reporters there are “no personnel changes planned” after Husch Blackwell issued its report.

While there could, and maybe should, be a separate discussion about whether Iowa should separate from any other longtime athletic department staffers since they arguably are the culture, if cultural issues and biases persist – which they have already, according to current and former players and Iowa’s 2018 Diversity Task Force report – then it won’t be good enough for any future review of Iowa athletics to talk about simply creating action steps.

The next steps to improving the culture of Iowa athletics, if needed, would need to be much more drastic and they would simply need to be taken swiftly, rather than outlined with buzzwords in a report.

Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.