LOGAN, Utah — The former interim head coach of Utah State University's football team spoke out and called for an "independent investigation" after players chose to not play their final game of the season due to comments from university leadership.
The comments were allegedly made by USU President Noelle Cockett Tuesday during a Zoom call to discuss the hiring of a new head football coach following Gary Andersen's dismissal. Cockett, athletic director John Hartwell and members of the Football Leadership Council were on the call.
According to a report from sports outlet Stadium on Friday, players on the council told Hartwell and Cockett that they supported then-interim head coach Frank Maile, whose several years on the Aggies' staff also included being an assistant head coach, co-defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and another stint as interim head coach in 2018.
The players told Stadium that Cockett's and Hartwell's "primary concern was [Maile's] religious and cultural background," although exactly what was said and by whom was not further specified. The players said they didn't believe the Zoom call was recorded.
The players later met together to discuss their concern over the comments and unanimously decided to opt out of Saturday's game between USU and Colorado State.
They also made it clear that their boycott was not related to the hiring of Blake Anderson for the job of head coach, which was reported in the days prior to the players' announcement and confirmed Saturday by the university.
Cockett refuted the allegations of bias, saying in a statement:
“I am devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background. 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.”
The university said it will meet with players to hear their concerns and address them in an "open dialogue."
Maile, however, put his full support behind his players and called for an investigation into the situation Sunday following the canceled game.
"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," he said in the statement sent out by a public relations firm. "I want to express my upmost [sic] 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."
Maile said he hopes the "painful and unfortunate situation" will turn into a positive step in the USU community's anti-discrimination journey.
"To accomplish this, Utah State University Trustees should demand a thorough and independent investigation of religious, cultural and racial discrimination throughout the Utah State University," he said.
The USU players also told Stadium that this was "not the first time issues of repeated discrimination have happened," citing an incident in December 2019 when they say the team's head equipment manager used a racial slur against a player. They claim the incident was disregarded until "pressure resurfaced to investigate" in the summer, but he remained employed. The university also addressed this, saying they hired an outside investigator to look into it and "took disciplinary action." What that action was was not specified.
FOX 13 has reached out to the university to inquire if Maile is still employed in his assistant coaching positions following Anderson's hiring, to which they responded: "Consistent with standard coaching staff transitions, all members of our previous football coaching staff were effectively relieved of their duties as of 9:45 am on December 12, 2020, after meeting with new head coach Blake Anderson."