Pac-12 Players Say Commissioner Was Dismissive of Their Virus Concerns

When a group of Pac-12 Conference players who are threatening to opt out of the football season met with Commissioner Larry Scott on Thursday night, they had two primary objectives: pushing for more-frequent coronavirus testing and protecting the eligibility and status of players who choose not to play for health reasons.

On both fronts, the players said, they made little progress.

They said Scott told them the conference was powerless to mandate uniform testing standards. They also described the commissioner as often condescending, unprepared and unwilling to meet with them again — telling them that subsequent discussions would be with the conference’s medical advisory board.

The players said Scott criticized their statement on The Players’ Tribune as a “misguided P.R. stunt.”

“He boasted how progressive the conference has been in giving the players a voice, but the way he treated us didn’t reflect that,” said Otito Ogbonnia, a junior defensive tackle at U.C.L.A. He was one of 18 players who participated in the Zoom meeting in which Scott was joined by athletic directors Mark Harlan of Utah and Ray Anderson of Arizona State, as well as Chris Merino, the conference’s assistant commissioner of compliance.

“I don’t think he thought of us as people who were making a legitimate case,” Ogbonnia said of Scott.

Valentino Daltoso, a senior offensive lineman at California, added: “It was not very productive. We did not come away with many answers. He made it very clear that he does not want to meet again.”

The players’ characterization of the meeting, in their first public comments late Friday night in a group interview with The New York Times, contrasts with media reports in which the meeting was termed as “productive” or “constructive” by unnamed sources.

The players also said they were rebuffed when Jevon Holland, a junior defensive back at the University of Oregon, asked near the end of the nearly 90-minute meeting if they could have lawyers present. When Scott equivocated, he was pressed by Holland for a yes or no answer. According to the players, Scott said lawyers could talk to lawyers but “this isn’t a negotiation, it’s a discussion.” Anderson — who formerly worked as an N.F.L. executive — informed the players that he was a labor lawyer and that they were not employees, a position the N.C.A.A. has long fought to assert.

Scott declined to comment through a conference spokesman. The spokesman provided a letter Scott sent to the players summarizing their call, which was sent before the athletes had spoken with the Times. The players also expressed their criticisms to Scott directly about their conversation in a follow-up letter.

The athletes have pushed for testing protocols that are similar to the N.F.L.’s and assurance that players would not be ostracized should they choose to opt out of playing. But their decision making abilities have been clouded because universities and conferences nationwide have not established unified standards. On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first Football Bowl Subdivision league to say it would not play this fall. The Big Ten pared back its practices.

When the players announced their #WeAreUnited movement last Sunday, it came with a detailed list of grievances that were centered around Covid-19 protections but also called for funding racial justice initiatives, expanding medical coverage and extending economic freedoms, which included a demand that 50 percent of each sport’s conference revenue be distributed to its athletes.

In the following days, similar organizing efforts sprouted up among Big Ten and Mountain West players, though those efforts have centered around only health and safety protections should football be played during the pandemic. (Ohio State players disassociated themselves from the Big Ten movement, saying they supported the health measures implemented by the school, which had required its players to sign liability waivers when reporting for summer workouts.)

The Pac-12 players’ objectives were emphatically endorsed Friday by the University of California Academic Senate, which said that playing football during a pandemic raised racial and social justice concerns in a sport whose players are primarily Black. The Senate urged conference leaders and incoming U.C. President Michael Drake, the former Ohio State president whose term as the chairman of the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors ended this week, to engage with the players.

“If university administrators, coaches, N.C.A.A. executives, and other college athletics stakeholders fail to address and engage with the players’ demands, particularly those for increased health and safety protections during this global pandemic,” the U.C. Academic Senate statement said, “it would signal that they have decided to prioritize their own self-interests and revenues over the well-being of athletes.”

When the players met with Scott on Thursday night, they wanted to have a better understanding of what it meant to opt out — or opt in.

If they chose to play, they wanted the same level of testing that the N.F.L. negotiated with its players — daily testing for the first two weeks of training camp, with every-other-day testing after that and more frequent tests if the infection rate among the team surpasses 5 percent. That far exceeds the once-a-week testing the N.C.A.A. called for this week or the minimum requirement the state of California announced Friday in its return-to-play guidelines of once-a-week testing for 25 percent of the team.

Knowing that some schools might balk at the cost of such regular testing, the players urged the conference to ask Stanford, whose medical school recently received federal approval for pooled testing, which greatly increases testing capacity and efficiency, to make it available to the conference’s other schools at wholesale cost.

“This virus doesn’t look at if you’re a professional or amateur; it has the potential to harm,” Daltoso said in explaining why the players want the same protections the N.F.L. is providing when teams begin blocking and tackling and cannot social distance. “We play a full contact sport; I think guys made it very clear that working out is not the issue. We’re 10 days away from practice — we don’t need guidelines, we need mandates, rules that schools all across the conference need to follow.”

The players said Scott told them the conference could not impose testing standards on its universities, and referenced a 17-page pamphlet the conference produced laying out recommendations. If schools do not follow the recommendations, the players said Scott told them: “We hope to discuss that.”

“That’s not enough,” Daltoso said. “We’re asking for the schools to follow concrete mandates.”

The need for such mandates was underscored, the players said, by recent cases in which players have had lengthy and arduous recoveries from the virus — including the case of Brady Feeney, a freshman lineman at Indiana whose mother posted on Facebook that he was facing possible heart issues and his blood work had troubled doctors.

The players said Scott several times urged the players to opt out if they were uncomfortable playing, but that, they said, brought its own concerns. Two players at Washington State, receiver Kassidy Woods and defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs, said that after they aligned themselves with the #WeAreUnited group, Coach Nick Rolovich told them they would be treated differently, and they could not see doctors or trainers or use the dining hall and had been removed from a team messaging app. (Hobbs participated in Thursday’s call.)

On the call, Harlan, the Utah athletic director, told the group that Utah players who opt out would be allowed the same access to mental health, food and health services that the rest of the team had, but that using team facilities to stay in shape could be problematic.

But Nick Ford, a senior offensive lineman at Utah, said that when he sought clarification about whether the policy that Harlan laid out applied more broadly, Scott told him that players who opted out were “not allowed to cherry-pick from services.” Ford added that Scott criticized him directly, saying Ford was “talking out both sides of my mouth.”

The Pac-12 Council meets Monday to craft its recommendations on eligibility, which the N.C.A.A. Division I council will determine Wednesday. But with practices scheduled to begin as soon as Aug. 17, the Pac-12 players were not optimistic they would have assurances in place.

“My confidence is very low that they’re going to be able to figure out these measures,” Ford said.

The players responded late Friday night with a letter to Scott, which was shared with The Times, expressing their disappointment “that you are not taking this matter seriously.”

“Our deepest fear is the Pac-12’s negligent return to play may result in a member of our Pac-12 family dying due to Covid-19,” Holland said in the letter.

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