College athletes have begun challenging a longstanding pillar, that the college sports industrial complex must hum along — as if straight from the pages of “Das Kapital” — on the fuel of exploited labor. Their labor.
Yet, to better understand how the modern-day dynamic works — and why players are more stridently calling for a voice in matters like social justice, how their images are used, straight-up pay and playing during the pandemic — all that’s necessary is to listen to a five-minute, nine-second recording of a phone call between Nick Rolovich, the new football coach at Washington State, and Kassidy Woods, a redshirt sophomore receiver.
It lays clear — not with an iron fist, but a velvet hammer — just who is in charge.
It begins amiably.
“What’s up, coach?”
“Kass, how are you doing? What’s up?”
Woods, who was competing for a starting position, had called to tell Rolovich that he was opting out of the season. Woods explained that he had been diagnosed with the sickle cell trait when he enrolled at Washington State and with so much uncertainty about the coronavirus’s lingering effects, he did not feel comfortable playing.
“I’ve got nothing wrong with that,” Rolovich replied.
Then he asked Woods a question: was he joining the Pac-12 Conference unity group?
Rolovich was referring to the Pac-12 football players who announced Sunday they were threatening to sit out the season unless their demands, including more concrete health and safety protocols and measures that would amount to a redistribution of much of the wealth that players generate for their schools, were met.
“Yes, sir,” Woods said.
Well, the coach said, that would be a problem.
Woods’s scholarship would be honored for this year, as is required for anyone who opts out for health reasons, but if he was part of this organized effort, it was going to be handled differently, the coach said. Woods could not work out with the team because it would send a mixed message and his locker should be emptied by Monday.
Rolovich then urged Woods to tell others they would face the same consequences. (Dallas Hobbs, a redshirt junior defensive end, soon found out he needed to empty his locker, too, he said.)
And then the conversation concluded as if it they had discussed dessert options in the dining hall.
“All right. Appreciate you, coach,” Woods said.
“How’s your family?” Rolovich asked.
“They’re doing good. I already talked to them about it,” Woods answered.
“Cool,” said Rolovich, who closed the call by saying he would see Woods on a team Zoom call on Sunday night.
When I spoke with Woods on Monday — he had sent me a recording of the phone call on Sunday night — he said he was devastated, but resolute. He had hoped to become a starter this season and work toward a career in the N.F.L., and had no complaints about his place on the team.
Indeed, Woods was emerging as a leader. He (along with Hobbs) represented the football team on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, served as the social chair of the recently formed Black Student-Athlete Association, and represented Washington State at the Black Student-Athlete Summit in January at the University of Texas. And Woods also served as the team’s unofficial barber, commandeering a chair in the Cougars’ athletic complex and putting to use the skills his mother, a hairdresser, taught him.
The Games Resume
Sports and the Virus
Updated Aug. 3, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- On all but the two biggest courts, automated line calls will replace human judges at the U.S. Open to reduce the number of people on site during the pandemic.
- Mets star Yoenis Cespedes is healthy, but has decided to opt out of the 2020 baseball season for Covid-related reasons.
- Britain tried to bring fans back to indoor sports. It lasted a day.
He’d been introduced to Washington State President Kirk Schultz through a Black Student-Athlete Association video conference call and had built up a relationship with the athletic director, Pat Chun.
But by Monday, Woods said he felt abandoned.
He’d called Chun hoping he could still be part of the team, but Woods said the athletic director backed the coach. (Rolovich and Chun declined an interview request.) What also upset him, he said, is that several teammates were cowed into not opting out because he said they felt threatened.
“A lot of them have reached out — ‘Man, I’m sorry,’” Woods said. “If you’re here for me, just opt out. If we all did, what is he going to do — cut everybody from the team? You say you love me, say I’m your brother, but me and Dallas are pretty much ostracized from the team.”
He added: “It’s all about the movement. Me and Dallas have been nothing but a service to Washington State. Our coaches don’t have anything bad to say about me. I don’t have anything bad to say about them except for dismissing me for being part of this movement.”
Woods said his disquiet goes back to late June, when a teammate he was living with texted several days before Woods headed back to campus to say he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Woods said nobody from the school notified him — or of any other cases.
He also expressed discomfort with signing a liability waiver when he reported for voluntary workouts on July 1. And when Washington State announced on July 23 that virtually all learning would be remote, Woods said he and his teammates wondered why they were on campus preparing for football.
I asked, if his relationship with Rolovich was good, why did he feel the need to record the call?
Even though he and Hobbs had spoken with Rolovich about the unity group’s broad plans without any pushback, Woods said his growing distrust over the waiver, the way he found out about the roommate's test and the practices while students were attending remotely left him unsure how the conversation was going to unfold. He wanted to have a record for his parents to hear.
“I knew I was standing up for something,” Woods said. “You don’t really know how it’s going to go.”
Woods’s feelings of abandonment, though, are not complete. He said he has received support from players around the country. And his parents and his six siblings have firmly encouraged him. In fact, his mother, Jerline, made public her son’s circumstance as a rebuttal to a reporter who tweeted that no players had been cut.
“You’re putting all this on your back — a target — maybe teams don’t touch you,” said his father John Woods Jr., a basketball captain at Missouri in the late 1990s, who encouraged his son to make the recording public.
But he said that times are different.
“He’s just standing up for his First-Amendment rights that need to be addressed,” his father said. “He didn’t do anything wrong and he stands by that. Twenty-five years ago, we wanted to do that, but now they’ve got this platform where it’s OK.”
He continued: “We can’t just dribble, be quiet, run, you’ve got your scholarship you should be happy. You can’t get away with that and intimidate players into not saying those things and make them feel like, ‘oh, it’s me.’ Those days are over.”