For the past few months, wide receiver Kassidy Woods has contemplated whether to suit up for Washington State’s football team this fall as the coronavirus pandemic raged through his home state of Texas and much of the West Coast, where he’d be playing the majority of his games in the Pacific-12 Conference.
When Woods was a freshman, athletic trainers discovered he possessed the sickle cell trait – something that could cause complications if Woods was ever exposed to COVID-19, or contracted the virus himself.
The redshirt sophomore maintains the Pac-12 hasn’t done enough to address health and safety concerns since inviting players back to campus for voluntary workouts, and worries he’ll be compromised when the Cougars travel to play games outside of Pullman.
“Because I do have sickle cell trait, and with this COVID it affects the respiratory system, so I just wasn’t comfortable playing at all,” Woods told The Spokesman-Review on Sunday. “And I haven’t heard any plans ensuring we’d be safe.”
Dozens of his peers around the conference have expressed many of the same concerns, and “health & safety protections” were at the crux of the player movement – titled “#WeAreUnited” – that was rolled out Sunday morning by a group of passionate Pac-12 student-athletes threatening to boycott the fall season if the conference doesn’t meet a specific list of demands.
At least one WSU player, Woods, has already opted out, informing first-year Cougars coach Nick Rolovich on a phone call Saturday he wouldn’t be playing because of “concerns with my health.”
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.
Woods shared graphics on Twitter on Sunday morning indicating he was in support of the group, as did WSU teammates Dallas Hobbs, Patrick Nunn, Lamonte McDougle and Syr Riley.
Of that group, at least one other player, Hobbs, has opted out, Woods told The Spokesman-Review on Sunday, and according to a report from USA Today, Nunn’s status on the team is uncertain at the moment. No players have actually been “cut” from the team, which would indicate the forfeiture of a scholarship.
When Rolovich asked Woods if he’d be joining the unity group, the player indicated he planned to. The coach, according to Woods’ paraphrased version of the conversation, explained “That’s going to be an issue if you align with them as far as future stuff, right?”
A source close to the situation assured Woods’ scholarship would not be revoked if he opted out of the season, but that WSU, mainly for health and liability reasons, wouldn’t allow him to participate in workouts and other football-related activities.
WSU declined to comment on the situation, but referred to a statement from the Pac-12.
“Neither the Conference nor our university athletics departments have been contacted by this group regarding these topics,” the statement read. “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.”
Woods told the S-R he’d been removed from a team group text message chat and was instructed to clean out his locker by Monday. The Cougars and other Pac-12 schools are permitted to begin the 20-hour-per-week access period with coaches beginning this week.
“So you took all the actions to cut me,” Woods said. “That’s what happens when you cut somebody.”
It was understood by Woods that his medical concerns wouldn’t jeopardize his future with the Cougars, even if he couldn’t be with the team during the upcoming season, but Rolovich’s comments indicated WSU would handle the situation one way if it’s “COVID related” and another way “if it’s joining the (unity) group.”
Paraphrasing the conversation, Woods claimed Rolovich said the unity group would “change how things go in the future for everybody … at least at our school. So just think about that.”
According to Woods, the coach also said if his player planned to fight issues of racial injustice, student- athlete compensation and other points raised by the unity group, “then there’s two sides here” and suggested that would be “at a different level moving forward.”
Woods said he expected to receive “backlash” for his decision to join the movement. McDougle indicated he was in support of the unity group but later tweeted he wouldn’t allow it to compromise his participation in the upcoming football season.
“I agree with everything the movement is fighting especially the health concerns but not playing this season isn’t an option for me I got ppl that need to eat. so if the NCAA wants to use me as a lab rat it is what it is.”
Hobbs is at the forefront of the movement and serves as one of 12 media contacts for the group. The redshirt junior defensive lineman from Iowa insists widespread, generational change is necessary for student-athletes, beginning with better health and safety measures in the midst of a pandemic that’s been responsible for more than 150,000 American deaths.
“I want to see the conference at its 100% all around the board,” Hobbs said in a message to the S-R. “We lack enforced health and safety standards, putting ourselves and others at risk. I believe we need the basic rights and benefits that will help our future. We are all grateful for what we have but there is so much more that would create generational change.”
Woods wasn’t critical of WSU’s safety protocols, per se, and credited the Cougars for being cautious “compared to many of my other colleagues around the Pac-12.” He added, “I’ve heard stories that it’s much worse than here at Washington State.”
The unity group seemed to cause some division among WSU players Sunday afternoon after defensive back Skyler Thomas tweeted “ima ball player.. if there’s games I’m playing” and “what I came here to do.”
McDougle responded “U know me dawg u don’t think I wanna play? This bigger than FB bruh,” to which Thomas replied “I’m only speaking for myself brotha.” Former WSU defensive back and current UNLV graduate assistant Hunter Dale chimed in, tweeting at Thomas, “And that’s the problem lil bro it’s not just you.”
One way or the other, the introduction of the unity group offers another obstacle for the Pac-12 as it ramps up for its 10-game, conference-only season. The onference announced Friday teams could begin the 20-hour access period Monday and will allow preseason camp to start on Aug. 17.
The player group’s “unity demands,” which are also cited in a story by The Players’ Tribune, include health and safety precautions related to the coronavirus outbreak, the preservation of all existing sports by eliminating excessive expenditures – one of those being the salary of commissioner Larry Scott – ending racial injustice in college sports and society and economic freedom and equity for players.
Underneath a subcategory of “health and safety protections,” the players made the following demands:
• Allow option not to play during the pandemic without losing athletics eligibility or spot on our team’s roster.
• Prohibit/void COVID-19 agreements that waive liability.
Underneath another subcategory, “Mandatory safety standards, including COVID-19 measures,” is the following request:
• Player-approved health and safety standards enforced by a third party selected by players to address COVID-19, as well as serious injury, abuse and death.
The next section demands the protection of all sports, citing the following requests:
• Larry Scott, administrators, and coaches to voluntarily and drastically reduce excessive pay.
• End performance/academic bonuses.
- End lavish facility expenditures and use some endowment funds to preserve all sports. (As an example, Stanford University should reinstate all sports discontinued by tapping into their $27.7 billion endowment.)
The next section of the list cites players’ demands regarding racial injustice and providing financial support for low-income Black college students:
• Form a permanent civic- engagement task force made up of our leaders, experts of our choice, and university and conference administrators to address outstanding issues such as racial injustice in college sports and in society.
• In partnership with the Pac-12, 2% of conference revenue would be directed by players to support financial aid for low-income Black students, community initiatives, and development programs for college athletes on each campus.
• Form annual Pac-12 Black College Athlete Summit with guaranteed representation of at least three athletes of our choice from every school.
The final category pertains to economic freedom and equity and the student-athlete compensation battle that’s been a hot-button topic in college sports for years.
Under the subcategory, “Guaranteed medical expense coverage,” players listed the following demands:
• Medical insurance selected by players for sports-related medical conditions, including COVID-19 illness, to cover six years after college athletics eligibility ends.
Another sub-category is titled, “Name, image, and likeness rights & representation.”
• The freedom to secure representation, receive basic necessities from any third party, and earn money for use of our name, image, and likeness rights.
The final sub-category, “Fair market pay, rights & freedoms” requests fair pay among athletes and broaches the idea of six-year scholarships:
• Distribute 50% of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.
• Six-year athletic scholarships to foster undergraduate and graduate degree completion.
• Elimination of all policies and practices restricting or deterring our freedom of speech, our ability to fully participate in charitable work, and our freedom to participate in campus activities outside of mandatory athletics participation.
• Ability of players of all sports to transfer one time without punishment, and additionally in cases of abuse or serious negligence.
• Ability to complete eligibility after participating in a pro draft if player goes undrafted and foregoes professional participation within seven days of the draft.
• Due process rights.
Along with Hobbs, the Pac-12 players who have seemingly taken a leadership role in the movement include Stanford’s Treyjohn Butler, Cal’s Jake Curhan, Valentino Daltoso and Joshua Drayden, Oregon State’s Jaydon Grant, UCLA’s Elisha Guidry, Arizona’s Malik Hausman, Oregon’s Jevon Holland, Washington’s Ty Jones and Joe Tryon and Arizona State’s Cody Shear.