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In lawsuit filed against Nick Rolovich, former Washington State player alleges retaliation, reckless disregard of constitutional rights

Washington State Cougars wide receiver Kassidy Woods (17) reacts during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, August 31, 2019, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 58-7.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Former Washington State wide receiver Kassidy Woods has filed a lawsuit against Nick Rolovich one year after a phone call involving the player and coach was leaked, making national news at the height of college football’s player empowerment movement and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Woods’ lawsuit, which was filed on Aug. 20 in the player’s home state of Texas, claims “Rolovich’s acts were racist, intentional, malicious, willful, and in gross and reckless disregard of Woods’ constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit also alleges the treatment that Woods received and the acts of Rolovich “were in direct retaliation for the exercise of civil rights secured by the Free Association protected afforded by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The Spokesman-Review did not learn of the lawsuit until after Rolovich spoke to reporters following WSU’s practice on Wednesday, but the school later issued a statement: “WSU Athletics is aware of the complaint and will not comment on any pending or ongoing legal matter.”

The Cougars open the 2021 season at 8 p.m. Saturday against Utah State.

Last summer, Woods alleged that his participation in the Pac-12’s player-led unity movement “#WeAreUnited,” and decision to opt out of playing for WSU in 2020 due to health concerns, jeopardized his future with the football team. In a recorded phone call, Rolovich told Woods “there’s one way we’ll handle (the opt out) if it’s COVID related, then there’s one way we’re going to handle it if it’s joining this group.”

Woods entered the NCAA transfer portal in September 2020 and now plays for Northern Colorado of the Big Sky Conference. In the leaked phone call with Rolovich last summer, Woods, who has the sickle cell trait, claimed he was opting out of playing in 2020 due to concerns regarding COVID-19.

According to the lawsuit, WSU staff members asserted “campus was the safest place for players,” although prior to Woods’ arrival on campus, he learned his roommate had tested positive for COVID-19. The lawsuit claims the roommate informed Woods of his exposure and that “roughly” 10 WSU football players had tested positive at that time.

“His roommate felt that Woods should know about the positive cases even though Defendants strictly ordered the players to keep silent to the media and others – including players who had not yet reported back to Pullman – regarding positive COVID-19 cases that were occurring within the program,” the lawsuit reads.

As a result of Woods’ decision to opt out of playing in 2020, he was told to clean out his locker and that he would be unable to participate in team activities because it would send “mixed messages to the team,” Rolovich said. On Aug. 2, 2020, Woods and five other WSU players who indicated they’d be aligning with the “#WeAreUnited” group were removed from a GroupMe messaging chat, according to the lawsuit.

“WSU would later allege that these ‘precautions’ were taken for players who were sensitive to exposure to COVID-19,” the lawsuit read. “However, the fallacy of that argument is obvious; at the time of this Complaint, there are no reported cases that can be found of transmission of COVID-19 through Zoom, Xos, iMessage, or GroupMe chats. COVID-19 transmission is entirely impossible through virtual communications.”

In the lawsuit, Woods alleges that since campus was closed to nonathletes, “there were no options available to Woods to even receive meals normally provided to players during the preseason period as part of the contract for athletic services.”

WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun denied Woods’ involvement with the #WeAreUnited movement led to his removal from the football team and reiterated that the player’s scholarship wouldn’t be impacted by his decision to opt out of competing in 2020.

In the lawsuit, Woods claims Chun “often appeared bored” in an Aug. 13, 2020, Zoom call in which the player’s family “explained their frustration and concern regarding basic issues such as Woods’ ability to obtain meals while on campus” and Chun “expressed that WSU’s stance in support of Rolovich was entrenched and unwavering.”

Since July, WSU’s second-year coach has been the subject of heavy scrutiny since announcing his decision not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine “for reasons that will remain private.” A new mandate in Washington requires all higher ed employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or provide a legitimate health or religious exemption.

While Rolovich has stated multiple times he would “follow the mandate,” WSU’s coach and Washington’s highest-paid state employee has refused to clarify whether that means he’ll get the vaccine or file for an exemption.