Exclusive: Pacific Islander, football leaders call on Utah State to take action against racism

‘These events cause great concern for us on several different levels,’ group says in signed statement

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former coach Ron McBride attends the Lone Peak vs East game in their class 6A semifinal game at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.

Leaders in the Utah’s Pacific Islander and football communities spoke out Wednesday, condemning recent biases allegedly perpetrated by university president Noelle Cockett while considering hiring Frank Maile as the next Aggies football coach.

Former longtime Utah and Weber State coach Ron McBride and BYU alum and Utah Jazz broadcaster Alema Harrington were among the leaders with NFL, college and high school football pedigrees or who are members of local government that signed a statement sent to The Salt Lake Tribune. The statement asked for USU and the state to admit their biases and address them.

“As members of Utah’s football community, proud Pacific Islanders, and friends and colleagues of Frank Maile,” it said, “these events cause great concern for us on several different levels.”

Cockett came under fire after players said she raised cultural and religious objections to hiring Maile — who is Polynesian and a Latter-day Saint — as the Aggies’ 29th head coach. The statements were reportedly made during a Dec. 8 video meeting the players’ leadership council had called with Cockett and athletic director John Hartwell to advocate for the hiring of Maile, who was serving his second stint as interim head coach. Maile played for USU and had been the Aggies’ defensive coordinator since 2016.

On Dec. 12, USU announced it hired former Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson to coach the Aggies.

The statement said, “Cockett asked the players if they felt Maile’s religious and cultural background would impact the University future football recruiting. Players were then asked about their own religious backgrounds and perceptions coming to USU.”

The Tribune has not confirmed Cockett’s exact remarks nor whether players were asked about their own backgrounds. The players later unanimously voted to boycott their Dec. 12 season finale at Colorado State to protest the comments. Stadium’s Brett McMurphy first reported the remarks and boycott.

“I am devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background,” Cockett said in a statement at the time.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University, makes a comment while participating on a panel with Utah's five female university and college presidents on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.

The Utah Board of Higher Education, which oversees public university and college presidents in the state, last week authorized an investigation into Cockett’s remarks.

The team’s leadership council also charged, in a letter provided to Stadium, that USU’s football equipment manager used a racial slur against one of the team’s Black players last December. That incident, they said, was not initially acted upon. A subsequent investigation during the summer resulted in the equipment manager remaining in his position. The school said he was disciplined.

“These actions by Utah State University have already caused a troubling ripple effect among our state’s high school seniors who are making decisions about where to play college football next year,” the leaders’ statement said. “We are hearing reports of both students and parents wondering if they will feel welcome at Utah State University.”

USU, in response, voiced its support for the investigation and called for patience in awaiting its conclusions.

“Utah State University is committed to promoting diversity and providing an inclusive learning and working environment,” it said in a statement.

The school’s response also laid out diversity initiatives USU has adopted over the past four years under Cockett’s leadership. Among them are creating the Center for Intersectional Gender Studies and Research and the Latinx Cultural Center and starting an Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Council this summer.

The statement from football and Pacific Islander leaders was signed by McBride, Harrington, former Super Bowl champion Edwin Mulitalo and Alta High coach Alema Te’o.

“I support Frank,” McBride told The Tribune Wednesday night.

Millcreek City Councilwoman Bev Uipi was the only signee without football ties.

Harrington wrote in an email to The Tribune that he added his name to the statement because he feels it is his duty to speak out against “unfair and unlawful practices that continue to be a barrier in our lives.”

“Based on what has been reported, I feel that it is important to lend my voice in support of hiring that is non discriminatory,” he wrote. “If someone is being persecuted or discriminated against based on religious affiliation or ethnic background, we have to stand up and say that ‘this is not acceptable.’”

Two names that were originally on the letter were those of BYU football coach Kalani Sitake and the Cougars’ recruiting director, Jasen Ahyo. But the BYU coaches said Wednesday that they never consented to their names being used.

“I mistakenly thought all names has been approved,” said Lindsey Ferrari, a publicist with the firm Wilkinson Ferrari & Co.

“I [later] received a text saying that BYU Coaches Kalani Sitake and Jasen Ahyou had not given approval to use their names. ... I take full responsibility for this mistake.”

The group noted in its statement that at a press conference last week announcing Utah’s Compact on Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Gail Miller addressed the crowd and reversed her 2019 comment that Utah doesn’t have a racism problem. She said it has come to her attention that the state does have a racism problem and needs to face it.

“We hope,” the statement said, “Utah State University will face it as well.”