Two Illinois Players Taunt Idea of Summer Workouts Being “Voluntary”

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In less than a week, two projected starters on the Illinois football roster for the upcoming 2020 season have taunted the idea the the on-campus workouts during the June and July months are being labeled as voluntary.

Despite the public stance of University of Illinois athletics officials, specifically athletics director Josh Whitman, that players would not be punished for choosing to skip these workouts for any reasons but most obviously because of concerns over the coronavirus, two Illini players are voicing derision at that naidea.

A few days after seeing his senior teammate speak his mind on issues he’s seeing with the NCAA’s lack of authority involving player issues, Illinois star wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe took to social media Friday night to express concerns over a host of topics.

Arizona cornerback Malik Hausman took to Twitter on Tuesday to question why he and his teammates were currently on campus for summer workouts with the strength and conditioning staff despite the University of Arizona president Robert Robbins saying that campus would be unlikely to open under the current public health conditions. Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona, told National Public Radio this week the state of Arizona is essentially doubling the number of cases every two weeks. Over the past week, it has averaged about 3,500 new cases a day. On Wednesday, Arizona hit a new record, with more than 4,800 positive cases with more than 1,700 people having died because of the virus.

Hausman simply retweeted a statewide reporter relaying Robbins comments about being unlikely to re-open for on-campus, in-person classes for the fall semester if this trend of COVID-19 positive cases continued. Hausman added a comment of “So why me and my team on campus then?”

On Friday night, Imatorbhebhe retweeted Hausman’s comment and adding the words “Cause it’s ‘Voluntary’, essentially pointing out the hypocrisy of calling a team workout “voluntary” when coaches and staff members are constantly evaluating depth chart spots, starting positions and leaderships roles for the upcoming season.

When announcing the plan in late May to open campus to football and basketball players for these summer workouts starting in early June, Whitman said to reporters that participation by the athletes would be strictly voluntary with no competitive or financial aid penalty for declining to participate. When asked about possible pressure for the athletes to return without being fully comfortable with the school’s COVID-19 safety protocols, Whitman said he was specifically mandating every athletic department employee including coaches to avoid that tactic.

“We need to understand that this is a different time,” Whitman said in May. “We need to continue to allow people to make choices that are in their best interest and in the best interest of those around them.”

Imatorbhebhe’s main concern during his series of tweets was the lack of communication with authority figures at the NCAA over players’ issues in terms of not having legal representation or a union, safety regulations and playing a full contact sport in the midst of a vaccine-less virus creating a worldwide health pandemic. Imatorbhebhe’s tweets, which included a future player revolt if questions were at least not heard, comes a few days after Illini senior-to-be linebacker Milo Eifler expressed similar feelings on social media and with local media. Eifler’s issues mostly dealt with the NCAA and the lack of leadership regarding the idea of playing football during the current coronavirus pandemic.

“I just want to know the NCAA knows what’s going on right now," Eifler said to local and statewide media Wednesday. "They know that we’re kind of at risk for continuing with practicing and with the playing of sports. I’m sure from their perspective, sure they would want a college football season to happen. Do they know what we’re really going through? I’m working out with my team and doing all of this, but we’re still at risk. We’re not superheroes. I want the NCAA to know that and be more vocal.”

Eifler made a similar comment to Imatorbhebhe about the workouts being considered voluntary when speaking to reporters via a Zoom video conference Wednesday from his required on-campus quarantine location.

“It’s a hard decision,” Eifler said Wednesday. “It is voluntary but at some, what is voluntary when you want the whole team to be there. Is that necessarily voluntary? It’s that in-between stage where you have one foot in and one foot out.”

Imatorbhebhe, who led Illinois last season in receptions (33), receiving yards (634), and touchdowns (nine), sent out tweets Friday evening calling for a student-athlete representation group similar to what professional sports, such as the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and the National Hockey, has with player unions.

“There needs to be an NCAA Players Association! We have absolutely no representation when it comes to decision making,” Imatorbhebhe tweeted Friday night on his @JoshBhebhe account handle.

Josh Imatorbhebhe led Illinois last season in receptions (33), receiving yards (634), and touchdowns (nine). Imatorbhebhe transferred to Illinois after graduating in three years from Southern California.Michael Allio/USA TODAY Sports

Imatorbhebhe transferred to Illinois after graduating in three years from the University of Southern California in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Southern California Provost Charles Zukoski announced Wednesday night the school will no longer bring all undergraduates back to campus for the fall semester and will move to mainly online classes, reversing an earlier decision to welcome students back for a hybrid model.

While playing his final two years of eligibility at Illinois, Imatorbhebhe is currently pursuing a master’s degree in strategic brand communication at the Illinois School of Business. After flirting with the possibility of entering the 2020 NFL draft, Imatorbhebhe announced early in the spring he would be returning to the Illini for one final season of college football.