By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – We saw a side of Gary Barta on Monday that should provide some hope.
We saw Barta’s human side, and with that we saw a person who truly cares about doing the right thing, and who feels horrible for the racial disparities that have festered in the Iowa football program for years.
“One thing I wanted to do, and it’s real important to me, is to say I’m sorry to former student-athletes, coaches, staff, current student-athletes, anybody who’s had a negative experience with Iowa football,” Barta said. “When I say negative, if you felt mistreated, misled, discriminated against, whatever the case, I truly am sorry.”
Barta met with the media in order to explain the $1.1 million settlement that was reached with Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, and to share what steps are being taken to change the culture within the football program.
The press conference lasted for nearly one hour, but it was hardly a typical press conference as Barta became emotional while addressing the ugly topic of racism
Iowa’s Director of Athletics on at least two occasions started crying at the podium and eventually had to ask for a Kleenex to wipe away his tears and to blow his nose.
It was a surreal moment during surreal times.
It was a reminder that Gary Barta is human, and right now, he’s hurting and he feels terrible for the current and former student-athletes who have suffered from the toxic environment in which racial disparities and bullying were common.
Barta felt that steps were being made within the athletic program to address racial inequality and to create a more accepting environment.
“Prior to last week, I knew we were doing these things and I had convinced myself that we were doing enough,” Barta said. “And frankly, the past few weeks has been a wakeup call for me I know, for others in the department.”
Former Iowa center James Daniels led the wakeup call by saying on Twitter that there were racial disparities in the Iowa football program.
Daniels’ tweet helped to embolden other former Iowa players to speak out about how they were mistreated and the story continues to evolve with one disturbing accusation after another.
An independent review is currently being conducted and Barta said it would take weeks, and not months, to be completed.
“On the one hand, we don’t need an independent review to tell us we have issues,”Barta said. “We know we have issues and we have begun taking steps to improve and move forward.
“However, the independent review is important to look into specific concerns that have arisen and been brought forward to identify or clarify and maybe expand on some of the things that we are aware of.”
Barta struggled to compose himself when addressing the topic of racism.
You could’ve heard a pin drop as Barta fought back tears while searching for the right words to say about a topic that has gripped and divided our nation for over 400 years.
Barta started crying as he talked about hearing stories from some of his peers who are black and how they were warned as teenagers about the dangers of driving while black.
He also had to pause on two occasions while making the following comment:
“I was a student-athlete and I’ve been now involved in college athletics for many, many years,” Barta said. “And over the years, I’ve had numerous conversations about racism, social injustice. But I would describe those as probably more surface conversations.
“I think a lot of people are willing to say that racism is ugly and a bad thing. But the conversations that we’ve all been having nationally, and that we’ve been having, have gone so much deeper than that.”
The Iowa fan base is split when it comes to Barta.
Some fans would point to his handling of the Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum discrimination cases, which ultimately cost Iowa $6.5 million, as examples of Barta failing to do his job.
Jurors found that school officials discriminated against Meyer, a former UI athletic administrator, based on her gender and sexual orientation, retaliated against her for speaking out and paid her less than a male counterpart.
Barta fired Griesbaum as the Iowa field hockey coach in 2014 and that led to a three-year legal battle that proved costly and brought shame and embarrassment to the athletic program.
Griesbaum was fired for what was described as a culture of bullying and intimidation.
And now the football program is facing similar accusations, and yet, Barta still gave Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz a vote of confidence on Monday.
“Each situation that I deal with, or that we deal with is unique,” Barta said. “So I’m going to judge this situation on what comes forward in its unique sense.
“What is in common, and this sounds simple, is students-athletes having an opportunity to have a great experience academically, athletically and socially is critical. And that’s the case whether it’s field hockey or football. And I’m going to wait and see what comes back. I’m going to take that in to account compared to other information that I have and we’ll make decisions based on that.”
The settlement with Doyle is just one step in a rebuilding process that will take a considerable amount of time and effort.
The Iowa players and coaches had a team meeting early last week that was described as emotional, raw, powerful and heated at times.
The meeting is being described as a turning point and the current team is being described as more unified than ever.
However, it will take a lot more than one or two meetings to cure what ails the Iowa football culture.
This is the start of a long and painful journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
It’s also Kirk Ferentz’s biggest challenge as the Iowa head coach.
Ferentz had his doubters when Iowa lost 18 of its first 20 games under him, and he has his doubters now.
But Ferentz also has an athletic director who cares about doing the right thing. Those weren’t fake tears that rolled down Barta’s cheeks on Monday.
They were tears from a man who is devastated and embarrassed by what has occurred within the football program.
Barta was asked on Monday if he ever saw any red flags or warning signs that would’ve pointed to a potential problem.
“Did I ever see anything that raised a flag as it pertains to this? The answer is no,” Barta said. “Did I see coaches yelling and screaming? Yes. Yelling and screaming is going to occur in coaching.
“The way I always differentiate it is if someone uses a bad word, that doesn’t cross the line. If someone yells really loud, that doesn’t cross the line. Where I see crossing a line is when it becomes personal and not about whatever it is that’s trying to be corrected.”
The accusations against Iowa football are personal.
The culture under Kirk Ferentz has gone from being highly respected and admired to now being being highly suspect.
How could a head coach with so much control, and who is known for his incredible attention to detail, allow this to happen under his watch?
Kirk Ferentz has a lot of explaining to do, while Barta has some difficult decisions to make.
Both of their legacies will be impacted greatly by how this controversy is handled, and they realize that.
But that isn’t why Barta became emotional on Monday.
He cried for all the right reasons. He cried because he sympathizes with all the student-athletes whose experience as a Hawkeye football player left so much to be desired.
Barta cried because he’s a decent human being. And right now, Iowa needs some decency to help with the healing process and with moving forward.