It’s been a horrendous football season at Utah State University. The team lost its first four games and the fifth game was canceled by COVID-19. The head coach was fired. The starting quarterback was kicked off the team. And then the coup de grace: Last week the players refused to play their season finale to protest alleged statements made by school president Noelle Cockett about assistant coach Frank Maile.

Now there’s a full-blown controversy that will last months. Maile has retained an attorney.

According to news reports, as well as conversations with former coaches, a player and a USU professor who has been involved with the athletic department for years — all of whom requested anonymity to protect their position with the school — here’s what happened:

On the evening of Dec. 8, there was a Zoom call between players, Cockett and athletic director John Hartwell. The players had requested it. They felt that Maile, the interim head coach, wasn’t getting enough consideration for the head coaching position. During the call, Cockett told her audience — and there were over 50 players on the call — that a chief concern was Maile’s religious and cultural background. Maile is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a Polynesian who grew up in Sandy. One player also noted that Cockett said the last time the school hired a Mormon from Utah “it didn’t work out too well.” No one seems to know to whom she was referring.

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There are slightly varying remembrances of the precise quote, but all have the exact same message and Cockett has issued no denials. She simply expressed being “devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background.”

How else could they be interpreted?

And who makes such remarks, especially in this super-sensitive era?

USU’s board of trustees announced it will retain an independent investigator to review the concerns raised by the football team.

Much of the fallout has been directed at Cockett, but why was she put in such a position in the first place and was she simply articulating the situation as explained to her by her athletic director?

According to the players, the reason they requested the meeting with Cockett instead of Hartwell is because he had lost their trust with his handling of several situations — most notably, when an equipment manager was reinstated after allegedly being suspended for using a racial slur (which led to the creation of a university class this fall for football players that focused on racism); they also were upset with the way Hartwell fired Gary Andersen, in the middle of a season. The players felt that Hartwell had not taken them seriously when they complained about the reinstatement of the equipment manager and therefore would not seriously consider their efforts to lobby for Maile.

If Cockett had been wise — or if Hartwell had jumped in and helped her during the call instead of leaving her to discuss things that may have been outside of her expertise and comfort zone — she simply would have told the players that the school wanted to hire someone with more head coaching experience and a proven record of success. Instead, she wandered off into the weeds and allegedly cited religious and cultural reasons. The new coach had already been hired anyway (Blake Anderson was introduced to the team Saturday morning).

“I am convinced the words she used are the ones Hartwell used with her,” says the professor, “but he did not attempt to assist her or respond in any way.”

It is difficult to know where to begin a response to Cockett’s statements. If the alleged statements are true, they not only reveal bias, but are remarkably uninformed. The rebuttals to these statements are obvious, but let’s do them anyway. Kalani Sitake, the head coach of nationally ranked 10-1 BYU, is both a member of the aforementioned church and a Polynesian. Ditto for Ken Niumatalolo, the Navy head coach. Kyle Whittingham, the highly successful head coach at Utah, is a member of the same church and a Utah native.

Referring to Cockett’s statements, a current player says, “It makes no sense. Can you imagine saying we hired a Catholic before and that didn’t work out so now we can’t hire Catholics?”

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The Deseret News reached out to three former coaches to see if they would go on the record about their experiences at USU. James Wilson, a successful tennis coach who left the school abruptly last year, replied, “I’m sorry I can’t help you. I signed a nondisclosure agreement.” Gregg Gensel, the highly successful track and field coach, says he was required to sign an NDA when he was forced out of his job in 2017. Such NDAs are not common practice.

The players took some time to consider Cockett’s words before taking action. Two days after the Zoom call, they met after practice to discuss a response. “Everybody wanted to play,” said a player, “but … this was a way to make a statement.” The players announced they would not play the game scheduled for two days later.

Contacted by the Deseret News, Maile, who coaches defensive linemen, apologized and said his lawyers have requested that he not make public statements other than the prepared remarks he released on Dec. 13, which said, among other things, “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 utmost 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.”

“Coach Maile is a father figure for a lot of the players,” a player told the Deseret News. He said that recently, after one of the offensive linemen became a father, “Coach Maile came in the film room and left him two boxes of diapers. It wasn’t even one of his defensive linemen. That’s the way he is.”

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