Broderick Binns has always struggled to find dress shirts that properly fit.
The former Iowa defensive lineman from St. Paul has a self-described weird body: A short abdomen, not much of a neck and a wingspan of 78 inches. Six-foot-5 arms on a 6-foot man.
“The one thing you noticed about Brod, beyond him being a nice guy, is his arms,” former Hawkeyes teammate Rafael Eubanks said.
Arms like that give Binns an enormous reach, physically. But the reach he has with people emotionally is what matters most in his new role with the University of Iowa athletic department.
As Iowa’s executive director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Binns has been at the forefront of creating an environment of empathy in a place that has sometimes lacked it. In his role, he strives to reach a variety of people, from those who feel unwelcome to those who could improve in welcoming others.
In 2018, Iowa formed an athletics diversity task force, in which Binns took part. One of the most prominent findings through eventual interviews: Black athletes did “not feel comfortable being their authentic selves [namely around coaches].”
Then this past June, dozens of former Iowa football players used social media to allege racial bias and mistreatment during their time at Iowa. Longtime football strength coach Chris Doyle, whom many mentioned in tweets, reached a separation agreement with the university about two weeks later.
Iowa hired the Husch Blackwell firm to conduct a review, which found the program’s rules “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.” The review, consisting of 111 interviews with current and former athletes and employees, found systemic problems that demeaned Black athletes.
About one month after the tweets, Iowa moved Binns permanently into his role. He had served on an interim basis while working as football’s director of player development.
Binns spent time as an Iowa graduate assistant from 2014-15 after serving on the Cretin-Derham Hall coaching staff. A graduate of the St. Paul private school, Binns earned all-state honors twice. He went on to play for the Hawkeyes from 2008-11, receiving All-Big Ten second team recognition his senior year.
No matter the job or time in life, Binns always has been regarded as a helper, which is why he fits well in this job.
He’s the guy who helped move Eubanks’ sister into her dorm in Iowa City this past fall on short notice because one of her parents was high risk for COVID-19. He’s the guy who shoveled sidewalks and mowed lawns as a kid not for money, but just the satisfaction of selflessness. His father, a pastor, instilled that, leading by example. He would drive anyone without a car to church, seeking nothing in return.
“He just had that helpful spirit that trickled down to all of us,” Binns said.
Binns channels that quality often at Iowa. He helps first and foremost by being available. He meets with athletes one-on-one, striving to foster an environment of sharing. Sometimes that means talking about the day or sports. Other times, they might discuss feeling unwelcome or uncomfortable. Binns makes sure they know he’s in a position to create change and communicate with senior staff.
To encourage openness, he also shares his experiences.
Listening and learning
Binns said Iowa City is not a racist city. He loves to live, work and raise a family there. But while in college about a decade ago, Binns experienced instances of microaggression — comments or actions that subtly or unconsciously expressed prejudice.
Binns would be walking downtown to class and a white female student walking by would clutch her purse. Or, she might have moved toward a friend, away from Binns.
He began to intentionally wear clothing that displayed Iowa athletics.
“To me, that symbolizes that I’m educated, that I’m smart, that I’m not threatening, that I won’t hurt you,” Binns said.
Sharing such experiences has proved to be the most effective technique, Binns said, in reaching others who don’t know what it’s like to be Black. Lecturing on microaggressions doesn’t reach students and staff as well as when Binns shares a story.
“Maybe,” Binns said, “they get a better sense of, ‘Maybe I need to put myself in Broderick’s shoes,’ or, ‘You know what, that’s not right.’ ”
Lately, there have been more active listeners. Before May 2020, Binns said conversations about race seldom happened at Iowa. George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody changed that.
One hundred eighty people from Iowa athletics showed up to the voluntary town hall Binns held afterward. People wanted to learn. So Binns decided to have everyone watch the Netflix documentary, ‘The 13th,’ which highlights systemic racism.
The town halls continue, but not usually with the same high attendance.
“[At first] everyone was like, ‘OK, we need to have these conversations,’ ” Binns said. “But then it fizzles out and the fire goes down. My job is to make sure the fire stays lit.”
That takes different forms. Some days, he reads the book “So You Want To Talk About Race” with the women’s basketball team. Another day, Binns might need to sit down with a coach or staff member and have a tough conversation about how they can rectify a situation.
The most effective tool Binns has employed in these conversations: perspective. Once coaches are made aware of a different experience or viewpoint, Binns said usually that perspective trickles down through the rest of the staff and team.
Normalizing these honest, perspective-sharing conversations has become vital.
“And don’t put all the onus on the Black people because that is how they get burnt out and that’s how they want to leave,” Binns said. “So if you realize as being a Caucasian man or woman that, ‘I need to educate myself. I can’t always run to someone on my staff who is Black and say, ‘Teach us.’ ”
Binns, however, has been willing to take a sizable portion of the educational load.
He compares it to squatting, a strength exercise he liked in college. His maximum lift was 550 pounds.
Binns is willing to call on his figurative back strength if it means helping others.
“Right now, more than ever, we have people listening,” Binns said. “It sucks that it took George Floyd’s murder for people to see or finally hear me out.
“The way I see it, I have a broad back and I can take it on, but more importantly, the people in power are starting to listen. The people with privilege are starting to listen. While I have this time in history, I have to take advantage of it.”