Pac-12 Players' Threat to Opt-Out Will Be Polarizing; Update: Commissioner Responds

Washington State coach Nick RolovichPhoto by Ron Chenoy - USA Today Sports

Jake Curtis

The demands made by a number of Pac-12 players, who say they will opt out of games and practices if their demands are not met, will be a continuing story with many possible twists and turns depending on how coaches, athletic directors and Pac-12 officials react.

Then the players’ ensuing response to the officials’ reaction will be under the microscope. 

This promises to be a polarizing issue, with hard-line stances being taken on each side of the argument regarding the rights of athletes who receive college scholarships amid the huge amount of money college football makes for the universities.  The COVID-19 safety issues and the Black Lives Matter movement add important current context to what is a test case on how much power athletes have.

Update: Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott responded to the initial demands with a two-page letter to the players in the group. The letter, obtained by Sports Illustrated, begins this way:

Thank you for your note from last night and related documents, which we are currently reviewing and will discuss with our members over the next couple of days. We are eager to hear more about your concerns and very happy to discuss. I will come back to you in the coming days following discussion with our members and student-athlete leaders to schedule a call for this week to discuss the matters that you have raised.  

As I am sure you are aware, we have many channels in place to hear directly from our student-athletes on a regular basis, including both student-athletes who are elected and a part of our governance structure as well as more broadly student-athletes across our campuses. Our student-athletes have been a part of our governance structure since 2015 and have direct input into Conference decisions. I am proud to say that it is a result of this direct communication with our student-athletes that we as a Conference and across our campuses have been able to make so much progress over the past years on behalf of student-athletes  

Scott's entire letter, which includes current Pac-12 policies on a lot of the issues raised by the players, is available by clicking here:

Scott's letter was a response to an email that was sent to Scott on Sunday by players making the demands. A copy of the players' email was obtained by Sports Illustrated, and it began this way:

To Mr. Scott and all Pac-12 athletic directors,

We are contacting you on behalf of hundreds of Pac-12 football players throughout the conference who are very concerned with the risks COVID-19 poses to our personal health and the health of our families and communities. The lack of health and safety standards and enforcement in NCAA sports is already playing a role in COVID-19 cases among athletes throughout the conference. We believe a football season under these conditions would be reckless and put us at needless risk. 

The lack of regard for our health and safety is central to the systemic racial injustices imposed by NCAA sports that disproportionately exploits Black athletes physically, academically, and financially. Black athletes make up the majority of revenue sports rosters but have the lowest graduation rates and are denied basic economic rights and freedoms. 

The players' entire email can be seen by clicking here.

***Click here for a story on how the players' demands had their origin in Berkeley.

The issue has already taken a controversial turn at Washington State, where a player alleges his association with the group making the demands has led to him being taken off the team, although a school official denies the player has been released.

The Pac-12 issued an official statement Sunday evening, which was repeated Monday morning:

Neither the Conference nor our university athletics departments have been contacted by this group regarding these topics. We support our student-athletes using their voice, and have regular communications with our student-athletes at many different levels on a range of topics. As we have clearly stated with respect to our fall competition plans, we are, and always will be, directed by medical experts, with the health, safety and well being of our student athletes, coaches and staff always the first priority. We have made it clear that any student athlete who chooses not to return to competition for health or safety reasons will have their scholarship protected.

There has been no news yet regarding a possible response at Cal, with at least three Golden Bears football players acknowledging their support for the demands detailed on Sunday in The Players Tribune. The wide-ranging demands include health concerns, racial injustice, revenue issues and other topics.

***Click here for a nice breakdown of the demands provided by Jon Wilner of the Mercury News

But in Pullman, Wash., a Washington State player claims he was removed from the team for being part of the group that made the demands, according to a USA TODAY report, which began this way:

A Washington State football player said his status on the team was threatened by the head coach because the player is part of a group of Pac-12 Conference athletes threatening to sit out this season unless demands for “fair treatment’’ are met.

The player, wide receiver Kassidy Woods, said he thinks he has been removed from the team because Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich told Woods to clear out of his locker after Woods on Saturday acknowledged he is part of the athletes’ group with goals including clearer COVID-19 safety protocols and increased testing, racial equality and compensation through name, image and likeness rights.

According to the USA TODAY report, Woods spoke to Rolovich on Saturday, when reports of the demands surfaced but before the demands were published Sunday. Woods said he called Rolovich to tell the coach he would opt out of the season because of concerns related to COVID-19 since Woods said he has sickle cell anemia.

Woods said the coach accepted that, but when Woods admitted he was part of the group making demands, Rolovich told Woods it would jeopardize his future with the team. Woods told USA TODAY that Rolovich told him his scholarship will be honored nonetheless.

However, Washington State spokesman Bill Stephens told the Dallas Morning News that Woods has not been cut from the team and was never cut from the team.

The Morning News also provided a transcript of the telephone conversation between Woods and Rolovich, which Woods recorded:

One except from the Morning-News transcript of the call indicates what Rolovich said after Woods informed the coach he would be joining the players’ movement:

OK, so that’s going to be, that’s gonna be an issue if you align with them as far as future stuff, cause the COVID stuff is one thing. But, um, joining this group is gonna put you on a, on a — that’s obviously, you know, you get to keep your scholarship this year, but it — it’s gonna be different. You know, if you, if you say, ‘I’m opting out ‘cause of COVID and health and safety,’ I’m good. But this group is gonna change, uh, I guess, how things go in the future for everybody, at least at our school. Um, so just think about that is, if it’s about getting paid and not (inaudible) about racial justice and that stuff. Then it’s probably, it’s there’s two sides, there’s two sides here. I’m good with the Sickle Cell and the COVID, and but this, this group is gonna be at a different level as far as how we’re kind of going to move forward in the future. Does that make sense?

Audio of the entire five-minute telephone conversation is available in a story provided by the Spokane Spokesman-Review, which also lists a written transcript of the whole conversation.

A Tweet from Woods’ mother suggests that multiple WSU players have been cut, despite reports to the contrary:

Theo Lawson of the Spokesman Review earlier posted this Tweet from Woods' father:

Lawson’s report in the Spokesman-Review was similar to the USA TODAY report, and included this excerpt:

Woods, who serves as the social chair member for WSU’s Black Student-Athlete Association and represents the football team on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, also feels strongly about other positions taken by the Pac-12’s player union group, including the fight to end racial injustice and the long-standing battle for student-athlete economic equity, either through compensation or name, image and likeness rights.

According to Woods, Rolovich was understanding of the player’s health predicament, but he claims the coach wasn’t as empathetic when it came to his desire to participate in the unity group – something Rolovich said could impact his status on the team in the future.

Spokesman-Review columnist Vince Grippi wrote about the issue in a story with the headline: “A Grip on Sports: There’s battle lines being drawn between the Pac-12 and its football players, with WSU on Sunday’s front lines.”

An excerpt from his column indicates how interpretations can differ:

Telling Woods to clear out his locker Monday was, from Rolovich’s point of view, just common sense. From Woods’ however, it was taken as time-honored code he had been cut from the squad, even though Rolovich repeatedly said he’s OK with the virus-related decision and even told Woods he would keep his scholarship for the year.

Indeed sides are being taken in what promises to being a polarizing issue. Husky Maven, which covers Washington Huskies sports, posted a story with the headline “Proposed Pac-12 Player Boycott Brings Stinging Fan Rebuke” that reports on fans’ views of the players’ actions.

Stephen A. Smith. Paul Finebaum and Jay Williams debated the issue on ESPN:

Finebaum had more to say on Monday on radio station WJOX 94.5 FM in Birmingham, Alabama, according to 247Sports:

"This is something that, I think, we've been expecting for a while for players to start flexing their leverage. It's finally happened. The reaction is, I'm not sure where we go from here. If it's just a release with a handful of players, that's one thing. If it picks up steam from one league to the next, that's a whole other story. Regardless, it's an existential threat to the future of the current status of college football. There's no getting around that it's under siege. There's also no getting around that some of their gripes are extremely legitimate."

This could become a national issue much like kneeling for the national anthem. The key to the movement is whether players from other conferences make similar demands. Otherwise it remains regional to the Pac-12.

At a time when polarization on political issues is at its peak, opinions on this issue presumably will be strong with little middle ground. And the conversation is only beginning.

Follow Jake Curtis of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jakecurtis53

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