Leistikow: With football on hold, Hawkeyes' progress on racial issues must continue
Broderick Binns was beginning his second season as director of Iowa football player development, a 27-year-old trying to find his early-career footing, in the summer of 2017 — when the Hawkeyes unveiled their 18-player leadership group for the upcoming season.
Sixteen white players had been selected, compared to just two Black players — safety Miles Taylor and running back Akrum Wadley — to serve as the team’s leaders, decision-makers and prominent voices.
“That should have been the wake-up call right there,” Binns says now, “that, ‘Hey, there’s a problem.’”
Binns remembers his thought process at the time.
As a Black man who went through (and starred for) the Hawkeye program, he had not experienced racism or mistreatment from Iowa’s coaching staff.
He knew that key players like Leshun Daniels Jr., Jaleel Johnson, Desmond King and Greg Mabin had left after 2016. He assumed returning Black leadership was lacking.
Binns noticed the disparity on the leadership group then, but didn’t speak up or ask, “Why?” Looking back now, in light of this summer’s racial-bias investigation into the Iowa football program, Binns wishes he had.
“I feel bad. I feel like I could have done more,” he says. “I should have done more. It’s tough, no doubt.”
But Binns is thankful to have another chance to make his voice heard and, more importantly, amplify the voices of others. And not just within the football program. Binns, now 31, recently was named Iowa athletics’ first full-time director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).
Binns understands the importance of his role while also understanding that it’s about student-athletes of all races at Iowa expressing their voices, not him.
“In my position, whatever I can do to be a megaphone for them,” Binns says, “is ultimately what I want to do.”
While August’s football headlines were mostly about the Big Ten Conference’s decision to postpone the fall season, the most important long-term story surrounding Hawkeye football is how Kirk Ferentz and his staff can make positive, lasting cultural changes.
Binns feels weight on his shoulders to make sure Iowa football blazes an inclusive and successful trail. He believes Ferentz, in his 22nd season, is the right head coach for this important time. Measuring progress, though, among Iowa assistant coaches will be challenging. No football means less practice time and interaction.
Binns has been encouraged by white coaches who have reached out to him, seeking ways they can have more empathy for all players.
“It would be easier to see this transition if we had a football season, right? When coaches can go out and actually coach, and players could see the change in the coaches,” Binns says. “So, we have to come up with another way that our players, Black and white, can see the change in our coaches.”
To that end, Binns is tasked with making sure all Hawkeye sports teams are welcoming to all athletes.
One of his first actions was to change how the university approached its Multi-Cultural Focus Group (MFG) of athletes.
In the past, one representative per team was chosen. But motivation and attendance at meetings varied. This summer, Binns wanted to make sure everyone in the MFG was passionate about promoting racial diversity. So he sent an e-mail to every athlete at Iowa, and wound up naming 17 eager students to the group. Football is represented by two Black players, defensive back Dane Belton and receiver Desmond Hutson; men’s basketball player Connor McCaffery is among six white athletes in the MFG.
Binns has additionally created three affinity groups — the iHawk group (international students), the minority group (for those who identify as Black or brown) and the LGBTQ+/pride group.
And while meeting exclusively on Zoom limits face-to-face interactions, what better opportunity to make sure all voices are amplified? Racial injustices continue to be a central theme ahead of the November election, particularly lately in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
It was three months ago that many Iowa football players felt inhibited from speaking up after the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. Ferentz's long-standing policy prevented them from tweeting. Floyd's death and ensuing national conversation wound up setting the stage for an outcry among former players for change, one that current players seem to be benefiting from.
Now you’re seeing many outspoken Iowa football players (first-year defensive end Deontae Craig and fourth-year linebacker Djimon Colbert among them).
It helps to see they are backed by prominent white athletes such as McCaffery.
“Iowa City and the state as a whole, that’s just a microcosm of what’s going on (nationally),” Binns says. “Just the voice of the unheard is stronger now. The people in power are starting to listen. The people that have the privilege have been coming out to be our allies. That’s the most encouraging thing.”
Binns is reminded of this wild year of 2020 as he looks back at a newspaper his mother sent him from late January. The main article on the front page reports the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash. In a side column, there’s a story about a new coronavirus spreading quickly in China.
Our world can be turned upside down quickly, and we need to be equipped to handle whatever comes next.
Binns feels that way as he approaches his new, full-time role. He was previously the interim director of DEI but admittedly didn't give it enough attention as his time was consumed with his football job (former Iowa defensive lineman Sam Brincks, who is white, is now interim director of player development).
He thinks his full attention on diversity issues in Iowa athletics can help avoid a repeat of things that led to the early-June upheaval in Iowa football.
“Being in football and seeing the way that happened (reinforces) that yes,” Binns says, “we need to make sure that never happens again.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Here are the members of Iowa's Multi-Cultural Focus Group (MFG)
Michelle Bacalla, women’s tennis
Erika Batista Dodridge, women's tennis
Dane Belton, football
Mika Cox, women’s basketball
Monika Czinano, women's basketball
Samantha Gillas, women’s tennis
JerQuavia Henderson, women’s gymnastics
Mechail Hunt, spirit squad
Desmond Hutson, football
Dana Lerner, women’s golf
Connor McCaffery, men’s basketball
Zoe Mekus, women’s swimming/diving
Jalyn Mosley, women’s soccer
Alexis Sevillian, women's basketball
Amari Sewell, men’s gymnastics
Tomi Taiwo, women’s basketball
Lea Zeitler, women’s golf