UNLV senior defensive end Nate Neal noticed how the football players in the Pac-12 came together last week to seek more stringent safety regulations during the coronavirus pandemic heading into the 2020 season.
He noticed how the players in the Big Ten followed suit. Now players in the Mountain West have a platform as well.
Neal helped lead the formation of Mountain West United — a coalition of football players within the conference seeking certain assurances before they play this season. College athletes across the country have continued to realize their power this summer and are mobilizing amid the uncertainties of the 2020 season.
One thing is certain, though.
No players. No product.
“We have a voice,” Neal said. “Some people feel like they have to be quiet because their scholarship is on the line. Things like that. In reality, we are a huge part of the NCAA. We’re a huge part of how sports can even go on.”
Neal said it’s about letting players in the Mountain West know that they “have power. You are a brand. And you’re more than just an athlete. You’re more than just a number.”
During a 25-minute phone interview Friday, Neal made sure to emphasize that UNLV is keeping its players safe.
The program’s prudent approach to the coronavirus has fostered a sense of trust within the Fertitta Football Complex. Players are subjected to weekly testing and daily temperature checks, and they adhere to strict cleaning and social distancing measures.
Neal, however, wasn’t sure if his conference counterparts felt the same about their schools. So he started connecting with players from different programs in the Mountain West last weekend through a messaging application called Telegram.
He created a group chat in which they could express their thoughts and concerns about playing through the pandemic. More than 300 players eventually joined the chat, laying the foundation for Mountain West United.
“I feel like my team is doing a good job. I want to make sure the rest of the teams are doing a great job,” Neal said. “Nobody had heard anything. We weren’t sure if we could opt out, what that meant. … Some guys were saying that their coach was telling them ‘If you’re not playing, you might have to find a new home.’ Things like that.
“Enough guys were speaking to that or enough guys seemed worried where, even if I do feel safe here (at UNLV), I don’t want to play some team that’s not doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Neal added. “And I don’t want those guys to have to deal with that either. Something has to be in print so everybody knows that this is the standard. That way there’s no ambiguity about what’s OK, what’s fair, what’s allowed.”
Players at other Mountain West schools did not respond to requests for comment.
After soliciting feedback from players around the league, Neal composed a draft of the message that was eventually posted to Twitter on Thursday night. Players collectively finalized what they believe to be reasonable parameters for play, centered around strict coronavirus testing — along with eligibility and scholarship guarantees.
Neal said he spoke with Rebels coach Marcus Arroyo before the players released their statement.
In a statement on Saturday, Arroyo said, “We keep an open dialogue with our players, whether individually or in a collective group, such as MW United. They are heard. Our players know their safety and our protocol are, and will remain, our priority.
“As the head coach, I have emphasized to them that when we say we are family — we mean it.”
The Mountain West responded with a statement Thursday night, indicating that the issues they raised are already being addressed. Neal said he’s confident the conference is going to meet the players’ needsbefore games begin.
Neal also said he’s going to continue to attend practices. He said he believes players throughout the league won’t sit out the season unless their requests aren’t met before games begin.
But in the meantime, they now know they have a voice.
In a statement Saturday, UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said, “Our student-athletes are thoughtful leaders. And if they choose to become involved in this conversation, we of course support them using their voices for what they believe as the Mountain West continues to evaluate and engage in this dialogue.”
Mountain West United requests
Testing, prevention and safety
— Athletes will receive COVID-19 tests every week and at least 72 hours before each match as instructed by the NCAA
— Staff members, including coaches, trainers and anyone in contact with athletes, will receive COVID-19 tests every week
— Football facilities will follow strict cleaning protocols with adherence to CDC guidelines
— Contact-tracing protocols willl be enforced with adherence to CDC guidelines
— Proper accommodations and safety standards for alternative outdoor facilities will be put in place to adhere with social-distancing guidelines
Eligibility and scholarship
— Athletes who choose to opt-out of season due to COVID-19 concerns will receive a hardship waiver to grand them an additional year of eligibility, regardless of athlete’s timeline on five-year clock
— Athletes who contract COVID-19 during season and miss more than 30 percent of competition will receive hardship waiver to grand them an additional year of eligibility, regardless of athlete’s timeline on five-year clock
— In event of cancellation of over 50 percent of scheduled season, all athletes will receive hardship waiver to grant them an additional year of eligibility, regardless of athlete’s timeline on five-year clock
— Preserve scholarship (including tuition and fees, room and board, and cost-of-attendance stipend) and roster spot for any athlete who is granted hardship waiver due to COVID-19
— Ban and void all COVID-19 liability waivers
— Ensure coverage of all out-of-pocket medical expenses related to COVID-19 incurred by athletes for five years after exhaustion of eligibility
— Whistleblower protection for athletes and staff who report suspected violations to COVID-19 safety protocols