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Gonzaga’s Mike Roth: ICE ruling ‘causing lot of panic’ for international student-athletes and coaches

UPDATED: Tue., July 7, 2020

Reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year Filip Petrusev is introduced to the cheering crowd  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Reigning West Coast Conference Player of the Year Filip Petrusev is introduced to the cheering crowd (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Add another potential obstacle to the stack of concerns facing Gonzaga – and nearly every Division I athletic program – trying to find a safe path to staging sports this fall and winter amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued new guidelines Monday that would force international students to leave the country if their schools only offer online courses this fall.

International recruiting, including Ronny Turiaf, Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura, has elevated the talent level on Gonzaga men’s basketball rosters through the years.

“Definitely concerned about it,” GU athletic director Mike Roth said. “I know it’s causing a lot of panic and concern among international students and student-athletes and our coaches, along with plenty of (athletic directors) out there.

“We had our weekly WCC athletic directors’ call (Tuesday morning) and you look around the conference and there are a whole bunch of international athletes.”

The new federal mandate could become much ado about nothing or have a big impact on multiple programs at GU and countless other schools.

Gonzaga is planning on students returning to campus and offering in-person and online courses while following safety protocols, according to president Thayne McCulloh’s June 3 update on the school website. McCulloh wrote that GU will be flexible and that some classes will be online-only and some could be a hybrid (in person on some days, remote on others).

“That is still the plan,” Roth said. “The issue is when international students read this they jump right to, ‘But what if we go back to online because we were online in the spring.’

“As an institution, we’ve been ‘all hands on deck’ for a couple months of intense planning for how we’re opening the dorms, the classrooms, food services, fitness center, the facilities and getting back to a sense of new normal. As long as that part doesn’t change, it doesn’t affect us at all.”

There were six international students on the Zags’ roster last season, including West Coast Conference Player of the Year Filip Petrusev (Serbia), WCC Tournament MVP Joel Ayayi (France), first-team All-WCC selection Tillie and talented younger players Pavel Zakharov (Russia), Martynas Arlauskas (Lithuania) and Oumar Ballo (Mali).

Petrusev, Ayayi and Corey Kispert have until August to decide if they’re staying in the NBA draft or returning to school, but another factor in their assessment is weighing COVID-19’s influence on the college season.

GU women’s basketball has players from Romania, Australia and Canada. Italy, Mexico, Japan, Guam, Great Britain, Sweden, Indonesia and Moldova are among countries represented on GU team rosters last season.

Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara men’s basketball both list five international players on their rosters. Arizona, scheduled to visit GU in December, has six international players.

The timing of ICE’s announcement follows several unsettling weeks as COVID-19 cases increase in the Inland Northwest and numerous areas nationwide.

“It’s the last thing coaches and student-athletes needed right now,” Roth said. “There’s such a heightened level of concern even from just 3-4 weeks ago. We opened up campuses after the NCAA allowed some voluntary workouts to begin if schools met state and local criteria.

“So across the country there was a really positive upswing. Now in the last few weeks we’ve seen this new surge and new hospitalizations, and let’s face it, spikes locally. Everyone’s level of concern has gone up pretty significantly.”

Roth expressed concern two months ago regarding travel issues for international student-athletes.

“We’d love to see a downward trend (in COVID-19 cases) in a hurry,” he said. “Now you throw this with international student-athletes on top of it and a kid is still stuck in their home country and you can’t get here already and they’re working on it, and then they’re going to turn around and maybe send you back, it starts to be very demoralizing.

“But we’re going to maintain a positive attitude with our student-athletes. We’re going to figure this one out.”

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