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University of Iowa reaches $4 million settlement with Black athletes

The settlement ends a lawsuit filed by former members of the Hawkeyes football team who claim coaches created a racially hostile environment.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The University of Iowa has agreed to pay $4.175 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by 13 African American student-athletes who accused the university’s football coaches of racism and bullying.

The settlement announced Monday comes in a case originally filed in state court in November 2020 but subsequently moved to federal court in Des Moines. It accused Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz of ignoring or enabling race discrimination against Black players by other coaches, including Ferentz’s son, assistant coach Brian Ferentz, who allegedly called one plaintiff “dumbass Black player” in front of the team and coaching staff during an open football practice.

“Being an African-American athlete in the program was a daily struggle that put immense pressure and trauma on African-American student-athletes merely to survive each day,” the athletes asserted in an amended version of their complaint. They claimed two coaches frequently used the N-word and made comments such as “what gang is he in” when referring to Black athletes, along with “you are not smart at all," “stupid motherfucker," and “go back to the ghetto." One coach allegedly said a Black athlete looked like he was going to “rob a liquor store” while wearing team-issued Iowa football apparel.

In May 2021, U.S. District Judge Stephanie Rose issued an order denying in part and granting in part the university’s motion to dismiss the case. Rose, a Barack Obama appointee, called the athletes’ allegations “searing” and said the case should move to trial on the remaining civil rights counts she did not dismiss.

“They allege coaches directed vile racial epithets at them,” the judge wrote. “They allege they were criticized for their hairstyles, clothing, and vernacular, often in front of their teammates. They allege rules were enforced against them and other African-American players but were not enforced against their white teammates.”

In addition to the $4.175 million payment to the plaintiffs and their attorneys, the settlement agreement also calls for implementation of a diversity plan in the university's athletics department and tuition support for former athletes who have not completed their undergraduate education. The settlement will be paid from a combination of state general revenues and the athletics department.

A state board that considers paying claims against the state, which is composed of the Iowa state treasurer, state auditor and director of the Iowa Department of Management, approved the settlement in a meeting Monday afternoon.

State Auditor Rob Sand, however, voted against approving the deal. In a letter to the two other members of the board, Sand said he would not approve it unless University of Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta is fired.

Noting that the university has previously paid out nearly $7 million in damages in four recent discrimination cases, Sand said, “Enough is enough. Clear personal accountability is necessary. I will not support taxpayers funding this settlement unless Gary Barta is no longer employed at the university and forfeits any severance or similar pay.”

In a statement provided to the Des Moines Register on Monday, Barta said the athletics department “remains committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for every student-athlete and staff member involved in our program.”

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