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Utah State Cancels Game After Players Raise Concerns

Jason Scott

Utah State University canceled its football game against Colorado State scheduled for Saturday, when USU football players decided to protest following comments made by university President Noelle Cockett earlier in the week. 

According to Stadium, Cockett expressed “concerns about interim head coach Frank Maile’s religious and cultural background.” Maile is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The comments were made Tuesday in a Zoom call. Afterwards, players were reportedly “dumbfounded,” leading a player conducted an anonymous, players-only survey asking teammates whether they had concerns regarding what they heard during the call. 

Stadium reports that about three-fourths of the team had responded to the survey by Thursday, many of them claiming to be concerned about perceived religious bias by Cockett against Maile. By Friday morning, a players-only meeting concluded with the team unanimously agreeing to sit out of the season finale over the issue. 

“On Tuesday, December 8th, the Utah State University Football Leadership Council held a zoom meeting with Noelle Cockett, President of USU and John Hartwell, the Athletic Director,” a team statement read in part. “The purpose of the meeting was to have a say in the search for our new head coach. During the meeting, we voiced our support for Interim Head Coach Frank Maile. In response to our comments, their primary concern was his religious and cultural background. Players, stating their diverse faiths and backgrounds, then jumped to Coach Frank Maile’s defense in treating everyone with love, equality and fairness.”

The team statement also outlined an instance of racial discrimination, where it was alleged the head equipment manager used a slur toward a Black member of the team. The team statement said that the goal of opting out of the game was to call attention to “ongoing problems of inequality.” 

The University announced the cancellation on Friday.

“I am devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background,” Cockett said in the statement. “Throughout my professional career and, especially, as president of USU, I have welcomed the opportunity to meet directly and often with students about their experiences. Regardless of how difficult the conversations might be in the coming days, I remain committed to giving our students a voice.”

Maile, on Sunday, released a statement of his own:

“It is my understanding — from members of the team leadership council who attended a meeting with Utah State President Noelle Cockett and Athletic Director John Hartwell — that I was not ultimately considered for the position of head coach at Utah State (my beloved alma mater) because of concerns that my religion and Pacific Islander culture would negatively impact the University’s future football program," the statement read, as reported by KSL Sports. I have twice served as interim head coach and have gone through the interview process but was not notified of a formal hiring decision until after Noelle Cockett and John Hartwell met with the team."

“As disheartened as I am to learn that this kind of religious and cultural bias exists (because I am Polynesian) at Utah State University, I am equally heart-broken for my players – many of whom are seniors who were preparing for the last game of their collegiate experience. I want to express my upmost respect and admiration for their decision to stand up for what they believe in — and I’m truly honored that they would stand up for me."

On Saturday, the Utah State University Board of Trustees held a meeting to discuss the concerns the student-athletes raised. It was decided during that meeting that the school would conduct an independent investigation into the incident.

“We take this matter seriously and understand that facts and details matter,” said Jody Burnett, chair of the Board of Trustees. “The players’ statement did not provide details about what was said. As a result, we will be working with an independent investigator to understand what was said during the meeting and the context for the alleged statements. Consistent with our university culture, USU is committed to listening to students, and we will handle this matter with integrity, fairness and open minds.”

It was announced on Saturday that Blake Anderson had been tapped as the team’s new head coach. The player statement made clear that they took no issue with the hiring decision.

“We want our message to be clear that this has nothing to do with the hiring of Coach Blake Anderson, the recently-named head coach of the program. We are sure he is an excellent coach; we look forward to meeting him and his staff.”

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