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Monday, September 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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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

WSU receiver Kassidy Woods (17) runs the ball during a practice on Friday, August 2, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU receiver Kassidy Woods (17) runs the ball during a practice on Friday, August 2, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • For what it’s worth, if you are an aficionado of old-time country-rock, there is a ‘60s song that captures perfectly what’s happening in the Pac-12 – and Washington State – right now.

•••••••

• Back in 1967, when Stephen Stills quietly expressed his thoughts in a Buffalo Springfield song, little did he know the views expressed in the first two lines of “For What It’s Worth” would reverberate so deeply in 2020.

Yes, there’s something happening here, and what it is ain’t exactly clear.

Boy was Stills’ right. In more ways than one.

We’ll skip with the thoughts on the world at large this morning and hone in on Pac-12 football, specifically what happened in Pullman on Saturday and Sunday. There’s enough to unpack there to keep us busy for the rest of the week.

To recap: Saturday, ESPN got wind of a movement among a group of Pac-12 football players to hold the conference authorities accountable in a diverse group of areas, from COVID-19 protections, through social justice and financial considerations. The sports network posted a story about it.

Sunday morning, the group, under the banner of #WeAreUnited, published a manifesto in The Players Tribune outlining their demands. And it included a promise: “#WeAreUnited in our commitment to secure fair treatment for college athletes. Due to COVID-19 and other serious concerns, we will opt-out of Pac-12 fall camp and game participation unless the following demands are guaranteed in writing by our conference to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons.”

That’s the macro view. The micro began playing out almost immediately on social media, most notably Twitter. Throughout the conference, players voiced their support of the movement and its goals, even while other teammates made it clear they were playing no matter what. It was social media gold.

Then, from Pullman, came the news at least one player, Kassidy Woods, felt his stance in support of the group’s goals had resulted in his being cut from the football team.

Woods, a redshirt sophomore, has developed into one of the Cougars’ leaders, serving as a social chair member for WSU’s Black Student-Athlete Association and is a member of the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. He also carries the sickle cell trait, which makes him more vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus.

So Saturday night, before the group’s demands were made public, he called head coach Nick Rolovich to let him know he was opting out of playing this season, due to his COVID-19 health concerns.

The ensuing telephone call is what caused the tempest in Pullman.

Rolovich made it clear Woods’ virus concerns were not a problem. The school’s policy is simple: Anyone who feels they cannot play due to health reasons can opt-out, keep their scholarship of the season and there is no problem. Though Rolovich didn’t articulate it well in the call (recorded by Woods, something we will address in a minute), a player who decides to opt-out for health reasons probably should be separated in large part from the team. WSU, or any school, has an obligation to honor the player’s concerns and help them isolate themselves from any group setting that would cause worry. Locker rooms are a given. Other workout facilities might be OK, though, since the players have already been utilizing them in what seems to be a safe manner. A player could be worried more by on-field interactions or the confined spaces during travel than anything else, but the school must error on the side of caution to avoid liability.

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.

But that’s not the main point of contention about the call. Reading a transcript of the audio (Woods supplied the audio to the Dallas Morning News), the receiver’s support of the #WeAreUnited movement was also on Rolovich’s mind.

Whether Rolovich was speaking against the demands themselves, which would put Rolovich on opposite sides from some of his own players, or the ramifications of those demands is unclear.

The former would be devastating in many ways for the coach. The latter would be honest, truthful advice that coaches throughout the conference should be addressing with their players.

It’s obvious some of the demands (most notably, “distribute 50% of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports”), if adopted, would force financial changes on Pac-12 schools. Would that mean fewer football scholarships at a school like Washington State? Possibly. It’s certain, however, no one would be able to predict what those changes would be.

If you want, it’s not hard to interpret Rolovich’s comments in this educational manner. It’s also easy to interpret them as a threat, a warning to disassociate yourself from the movement, if that’s your predilection.

However the conversation is interpreted, just having the Washington State football program front and center nationally Sunday, with the discussion on social media as deep and reflective as you could imagine, is problematic for the school.

All of the goodwill Rolovich built up in his first few, pandemic-stifled months with the Cougars, is threatened. A spat about a movement that includes social justice concerns is not in any school’s best interests. But that’s exactly what happened.

• What is problematic for Woods is he recorded what anyone would consider a private call, without the consent of the other party. And then disseminated it publicly.

Just recording it without both parties’ consent is a violation of Washington State law. And opens Woods up to civil penalties.

Of course, Woods may not have known that. Federal law (as well as the law in Woods’ home state of Texas) allows the recording of conversations with just the consent of one of the participants. But Woods was in Pullman and this state demands all participants must know the conversation is being recorded.

What does that mean? Say Washington State decides to cut ties with Rolovich, citing the conversation as part of the reason. It’s outlandish, sure, but not completely out of the realm of discussion. If that happens, Rolovich would have grounds for legal action against Woods, though exercising such strategy wouldn’t seem a wise move for any coach.

Still, it’s a good lesson for everyone. When I am on a phone call with anyone who may be a source for a story, I always ask, with the recorder running, if they mind if I record the conversation, allowing that it ensures I quote them correctly. But it also satisfies the requirements of Washington’s statute. It’s a lesson pounded into journalists. It’s not one taught to the average person. Maybe it should be.

•••

WSU: There is a lot to digest here, of course. We linked this above, but again we link Theo Lawson’s coverage of the Woods story here as well. … John Blanchette’s column delves into the movement itself and how it can play out for the Pac-12. … There was other news yesterday, including Gardner Minshew being put on the NFL’s reserve/COVID-19 list. Theo has that story as well. … Around the Pac-12, as one could imagine, the #WeAreUnited demands received coverage up and down the West Coast and into Arizona and Utah as well. There was national coverage as well. It was big news on a slow news day. … Twenty five years ago, Utah came close to having a really special season. … Colorado will have a quarterback competition this fall. … In basketball news, Arizona State received some really good news. Remy Martin will return for another season. The Sun Devils immediately become one of the conference favorites.

Golf: The Lilac City Invitational finished up Sunday and our Jim Meehan was there to document the results. Libby Kamrowski has a photo report from The Fairways.

Indians: The New York Times delves into Spokane’s nickname.

Mariners: Dave Nichols was still in Seattle for Sunday’s game with the A’s, and he has this Out of Right Field column. … The M’s fell 3-2, with Oakland picking up all three runs on a two-out home run that never should have happened. With no one on base, Tony Fields took what should have been called strike three – replays showed it well within the strike zone – but was called a ball instead. He ended up walking and two hitters later came Ramon Laureano’s game-deciding blow. … Kyle Lewis just keeps on hitting the ball hard. Daniel Vogelbach, despite an RBI yesterday, isn’t.

•••       

• I am headed out to play golf this morning. I’ll have my mask. I’ll use a towel to take the pin out, if I ever take it out. And, because I am playing with young, strong guys, including my son, I will hit from the gold tees to practice safe social distancing. It’s a sacrifice I am willing to make for others. Selfless is my middle name. Until later …

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