Broderick Binns was an Iowa football star, then an employee. Can this insider transform the racial culture?
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Broderick Binns was pained by what he was hearing from the young Black man in his office.
The man had come to the University of Iowa on an athletic scholarship, but believed he was being harassed by his peers in the halls of his dormitory and by police officers when he was out in public, simply because his appearance ran counter to the norm on a campus where more than 80% of the students are white. He didn’t feel safe, he expressed to Binns.
“He felt like, because he was a Black kid who had long dreds and wore sweatshirts and baggy clothes, that he was being picked on, that he ultimately didn’t belong here at Iowa,” Binns recalled.
Binns felt helpless as he watched another Black athlete opt to leave Iowa without a degree.
That's the kind of scene that Binns feels called to prevent in his new role as executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Iowa athletic department. It’s a high-profile job that comes at a critical time for the university, which was battered this summer by accusations of racial bias in its football program and has long struggled to raise the graduation rate of its Black athletes. That is why Binns is one of the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2021.
“If you’re leaving Iowa because you felt like you couldn’t be yourself, that’s where I come in,” said Binns, 31, a former Hawkeye football player who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master’s in sports management at Iowa. “The biggest thing for me is to try to make this place be more of a home for our Black student-athletes.”
Binns was named to the newly established position in July, at a time when thousands of Americans were taking to the streets to call for greater racial justice and when the Hawkeye football program, led by Kirk Ferentz for 22 seasons, was facing scrutiny over its treatment of Black players.
Binns, who is Black, is being asked to help transform the football team and the athletic department he credits for helping to mold him. His job requires him to provide racial sensitivity training for coaches and staff members; to help 800-plus Hawkeye athletes stay on track academically and socially; and to raise the school’s graduation rate of Black athletes from its 2018 level of 42%. That was last in the 14-member Big Ten Conference and contrasted with the 81% of white athletes receiving diplomas.
A diversity task force that included Binns uncovered that statistic. Among the group's recommendations was the creation of the very position he now occupies. Only three other Big Ten schools have a similar job — Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Lisa Bluder, who has been the women's basketball coach at Iowa since 2000, believes that Binns fills a need in the athletic department at a time when conversations about race relations are occurring across the country. Bluder quickly invited Binns to start a discussion about what it means to be a minority in America with her team.
"It shows a lot for our administration to hire somebody in that role. I'm sure there's a lot of schools that haven't been able to hire somebody, and we did," Bluder said. "You put your money where your mouth is, right? And so we backed that up and I think he's done a great job for us."
Binns watches anger spill out in his hometown, seizes his new job
Binns had been serving as Ferentz’s director of player development, a role that saw him helping football players navigate life away from the field. He was the self-described older brother who stressed to players the importance of good study habits and punctuality. He helped them fight homesickness and gave parenting advice to new fathers on the team.
Binns enjoyed that work but was eager to assume a larger role in the department. He was named the interim director of diversity, equity and inclusion in 2019, then set out to prove to athletic director Gary Barta that he deserved the permanent post.
That quest took on additional urgency for Binns on May 25. Binns and his wife, Kailey, were headed back to Iowa City from his native St. Paul that day, oblivious to the fact that an incident in neighboring Minneapolis was about to alter the national conversation around race relations. It wasn’t until Binns got home that he saw the video of George Floyd, a handcuffed 46-year-old Black man, calling for help and ultimately dying while a white police officer knelt on his neck.
Binns turned on his television and watched anguished and enraged demonstrators taking to the streets and demanding police reform.
“My neighborhood that I grew up in going down University (Avenue), all destroyed. Buildings were boarded up,” Binns said. “That was tough to see the city burn like that.”
Binns organized a town hall meeting in the athletic department to let athletes share their feelings about what was happening. Barta was impressed. He removed the “interim” label from Binns’ job.
“I got the reins, and Gary let me go ahead and start trying to educate people on these sensitive topics and social injustice,” Binns said.
The “sensitive topics” were hitting not only close to his childhood home but also to the football program he joined in 2008, becoming a star defensive end for Ferentz.
In early June, dozens of former Hawkeye football players, most of them Black, used their social media platforms to decry what they described as incidents of racially abusive behavior and petty rules they felt were intended to force minority athletes to conform to a preferred, white way of behavior broadly labeled “the Iowa way.”
Ferentz’s longtime strength coach, Chris Doyle, was most often cited as the chief perpetrator. The university severed ties with him after a $1.1 million payout.
Ferentz admitted that a double standard existed in his program along racial lines, but said he was unaware of the extent of it. He relaxed his rules.
The university commissioned an investigation of the football program that validated many of the criticisms by Black former Hawkeyes. But the 23-page report largely exempted Ferentz from blame.
Binns said that he had previously heard some of the complaints by former players, but that others caught him by surprise. He said many athletes involved hadn’t brought up the issues when leaving the university. In his new role, he will speak to every Hawkeye athlete who intends to transfer, trying to uncover whether problems related to equity contributed to that decision.
Binns said he had no trouble fitting in from a cultural standpoint during his four-year playing career. He said one unidentified coach would “say some things that were not OK.” But he isn’t interested in revisiting the past.
“It’s not pointing fingers. We are in this together. How can we all be better?” Binns said of the path he wants to take.
“I want the experiences that I had while playing here passed down to student-athletes to make sure that they love this place, that they want to come back and are happy to say they graduated from the University of Iowa. I don’t want the university to ever have to go through this again.”
Binns walks a fine line, trying to reform the very department that molded him
Thirteen Black former Hawkeye football players have sued Barta, Ferentz and the university over what the players contend was a pattern of “targeted discriminatory behavior.” The court filing does not mention Binns by name, but does pointedly question whether his promotion was a sincere attempt to bring about change, or merely a charade aimed at making it look as if the university is taking action.
Can someone who is a product of Ferentz’s program truly transform it?
Binns knows the question is out there. He believes it is his decade of experience as a Hawkeye athlete and employee that has equipped him for this challenge.
He does not believe racism in the Hawkeye football program was systemic.
“I don’t think there was a racist culture. I never experienced anything like that in my time here,” Binns said. “Me saying that is not to devalue how someone else felt. There definitely are ways to be better.”
He believes Ferentz is taking the necessary steps to improve the racial climate. The coach has brought in speakers to train his staff about cultivating a more inclusive environment.
Binns himself met with the football coaches for the first time in December to discuss how to move beyond the problems of the past.
"I look up to a lot of them," Binns said. "So I'm sure it's kind of weird for them to see me in this light. But they were very receptive."
The discussions will continue, Binns said. The football team, like all others, will create a plan related to diversity with specific goals to be met each year.
Binns finds meaning in conversations with women's basketball team
Binns’ work goes beyond football now. He spent the summer establishing “affinity groups” for foreign athletes; for Black athletes; for athletes who identify as LGBTQ.
Binns believes Iowa had a problem going back as far as his playing days with athletes associating only with their own teammates, missing a valuable chance to discover a commonality with those who play different sports. He believes his new groups are popular and are a way for athletes to speak freely about problems they all face and build a support system that will make them more likely to work through any difficulties and remain on campus.
Binns has connected with all of Iowa’s 24 sports teams and is making himself available as a sounding board for any athlete seeking advice. Joe Toussaint, a sophomore basketball player from New York, said he’s happy to have Binns as a confidant, stopping by to see him whenever he wants to chat about the challenges facing someone juggling life as a college student and as a high-profile athlete in a city far from home.
Binns was surprised this year to find himself bonding in particular with the Hawkeye women’s basketball team. Bluder’s squad consists primarily of white players, and Binns found a receptive audience when the topic turned to diversity. That led to weekly sessions as they all read and discussed the book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo.
“I saw that team come out of their shell and actually able to communicate their feelings without being judged,” Binns said.
Alexis Sevillian, a fifth-year senior on the basketball team who is Black, has been impressed with Binns’ vision. A native of Michigan, she has led diversity efforts on the Iowa Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for the past two years.
Sevillian has seen a change on her team since that initial conversation with Binns.
“It has allowed our team to talk about topics that we probably would have never talked about before. Sharing our experiences with race, or the lack thereof,” Sevillian said.
“I think if we stay silent, how can anything change? And that’s regardless of race. That’s for everyone. … I think every team within athletics should do something with Broderick that he’s done for us.”
Sevillian, who is studying for her master’s degree in social work, said it’s too early to measure any success toward building a more inclusive athletic department. But she’s confident things will get better with Binns in charge.
They both think a first priority needs to be creating a more diverse staff in athletics. That would be the surest sign of progress. Only one senior administrator and one head coach at Iowa are Black.
“I hope (Binns) has the freedom to do whatever he wants,” Sevillian said.
“As an African-American in a predominantly white state, a predominantly white institution, there are those fears that you run into, that if you make a wrong decision you could lose your job. They hired him to bring change. To help. And I hope that he does not have those fears so that he could stand for something. And if the backlash that he receives is negative, then that says so much right there.”
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2021" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by newsroom staff from scores of reader and staff nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 3.
Meet Broderick Binns
LIVES: North Liberty
EDUCATION: Bachelor's in psychology, Iowa, 2012; master's in sports management, Iowa, 2019.
CAREER: Executive director for diversity, equity and inclusion in the Iowa athletic department since 2019. Formerly director of football player development at Iowa, 2016-19; graduate assistant football coach at Iowa, 2014-15; teacher and coach of football, basketball and track, Cretin-Derham Hall High School, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2012-13.
FAMILY: Wife, Kailey. Daughter, Brooklynn, 3, and son, Bo, 1.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.