Howe: Facebook Photos Show Cultural Divide

The week that many Hawkeye fans couldn't wait to end finished with a press conference featuring head football coach Kirk Ferentz and AD Gary Barta on Friday. They were asked many questions about the now locally famous Facebook photos. Columnist Rob Howe talked with the Iowa officials about their perceptions of the images. It helped confirmed how backgrounds affected how we viewed them.

One of the main topics of discussion this week turned out to be the images of several Iowa football players on Facebook. In fact, you could argue more people were talking about the photos than the credit card scandal.

The rush to judgment of these young men based on their outfits and activities really has frustrated me. Luckily, HN Publisher Jon Miller helped me realize from where it was some of those folks were coming.

I grew up in a city. I'm used to seeing diversity in cultures regularly.

I'm not saying that makes me a better person than anybody with less exposure in that regard. We all know what's in our hearts and minds, and there are good and bad thoughts everywhere. Some of the people that are discriminated against become programmed to discriminate and stereotype.

I must admit that these photos impacted me very little when I first saw them. I was a little amazed with how much they annoyed a large segment of the Hawkeye Nation.

Then, again, thanks to Jon explaining it to me, I realized that even though I've lived in Iowa for 10 years – a quarter of my life – many of my thoughts are based on my experiences growing up. When Jon saw those photos, he saw one thing and I saw another.

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz understands this concept. He tries to get it across to his players. While you, the athlete, might not think what you're doing is out of line or out of your norm, you need to think about your possible audience, in this case, Iowa football fans, many of which have limited exposure to city culture.

Again, I'm not slamming anyone or playing the race card. Our thoughts are molded by our experiences. That's it.

"The bottom line is that we live in Iowa," Ferentz said on Friday. "We may not all be from Iowa. I'm not from Iowa. But we live here. It's important no matter where you are to understand where you live and what people appreciate and don't appreciate. I'm not suggesting that anybody compromise or change unless they're doing something wrong."

Ferentz answered several questions regarding the behavior of his players in the Facebook photos. He asked his athletes what their parents would think of them, suggesting they did trouble him, but he also understood that there was a cultural divide.

"It's concerning, but I'd be careful about being too judgmental about people," Ferentz told reporters. "We live in a very diverse society."

Iowa AD Gary Barta, who joined Ferentz at Friday's press conference, seemed less tolerant of the photos than did his football coach. Barta was raised in the Midwest and spent time in Cedar Falls, South Dakota and Wyoming. Ferentz grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and worked in Cleveland and Baltimore.

"I've seen several pictures this week that, in Gary Barta's world, I'm uncomfortable with," Barta said. "What we have to do as an institution is remind student athletes that they're representing us every time they're in public, then deal with, individually, on a case-by-case basis, if we feel someone has stepped over a line, deal with it."

Again, that's perception. While neither guy enjoyed the resulting reactions to the photos, they view them based on their experiences.

Remember those Miami teams with Jerome Brown, Warren Sapp, Michael Irvin when they wore fatigues and came up with calling the school "The U." How would that have played in Iowa? In Miami, that sold tickets and the fans ate it up.

With more than 100 players on his team, many from different parts of the country, Ferentz appreciates diversity and called it one of the "neat things" about sports and football. But as culturally diverse as the team might be, the state of Iowa is not.

Iowa fans are passionate and expect certain play and conduct from their players.

"I really don't think its win at all costs at Iowa," Ferentz said. "The fans have never been that way. But it's hard to respect a team that doesn't play hard or hustle. And there's an obligation off the field, too, certainly. Nobody wants to spend their hard-earned money to buy tickets and be disappointed by the way a team acts off of the field or how they act on the field. That's a coach's obligation to share those messages."

For those people that rail on Ferentz for making $3 million a year, these are the parts of his job that often get overlooked. It's an incredibly difficult balance. You don't want a kid to change, but you don't want him to offend your fan base. As we saw this week, it's not always smooth.

The Iowa players have received extensive tutelage on the pitfalls of social networks. They were warned that what goes public might affect how they are perceived by fans.

It very well could be the case that Douglas, Bowman and the others were sleeping through those sessions. Maybe they didn't take them seriously. But at least a part of them probably thought it wasn't that big of a deal. They grew up with these images all around them.

But it does matter what people think of you. Most of us try to portray the best image we can every day. And Iowa athletes need to be aware of their audience.

I can say I'm still a little troubled by some of the reactions and comments thrown at these kids this week based on those photos. But I now understand how some of them were formed.

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