Chip Kelly’s tenure as a Bruin has been spotty to say the least.
Going 7-17 through two seasons, sparking a transfer exodus and drawing criticism from alumni for a seemingly weak stance on racial injustice isn’t the strongest resume. Kelly has often sparred with the media by criticizing straightforward questions, giving contradictory answers and fostering unstable relationships with local beat reporters.
But, for the first time in what feels like forever, Kelly is finally saying the right stuff – all it took was a global pandemic.
Thirty UCLA football players drafted and signed a letter raising several concerns and demands about the team’s return to voluntary workouts amid COVID-19 starting Monday. The Los Angeles Times published the letter in an enterprise article midday Friday, highlighting the players’ desire for concrete scholarship security and a third-party health official to oversee the team.
The LA Times’ initial tweet sharing the article tied the letter to Kelly and his players’ mistrust in him.
It turns out that blame was misplaced.
Rising junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, one of the players who signed the letter, came out in defense of Kelly on Twitter on Friday. He said the letter had nothing to do with the team’s trust in their coach and that Kelly agreed with all of the demands they made.
Kelly may have had a target on his back, but Thompson-Robinson is right – now is not the time to take shots at him.
In a teleconference with the media April 9, Kelly emphasized the importance of player safety and protection throughout the offseason and regular season, if there is one. He even went as far to say he doesn’t believe it would be safe for players to take the field in the fall if it isn’t safe for fans to be allowed in the stands.
Kelly has regularly stood on the side of science and caution throughout the pandemic, which is more than other coaches can say.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy – who has also recently come under fire for wearing a One America News Network T-shirt – made a push for a May 1 return of spring football back in April. Several University of Alabama football players tested positive for coronavirus when they returned to team workouts in early June and 23 Clemson University players tested positive for the virus Friday, but neither Nick Saban nor Dabo Swinney – the respective coaches – have made a statement on the matter.
The players who wrote and signed the letter were simply taking precautions and making sure their return to campus was fully insured and thought out. Their ability to take a stance, use their leverage and uphold their rights as players is honorable, and it is something more student-athletes should look into.
It is not a damnation of Kelly, but rather a show of mistrust in the system as a whole.
Student-athletes don’t get paid a salary and they aren’t part of a union. Meanwhile, athletic departments hold unmatched power when it comes to the players’ academics, schedules and scholarships, and that power has been abused time and time again by coaches and administrators in different sports across the country.
Former UCLA football coach Jim Mora is being sued by former players for forcing them to play through serious injuries and shaming them for seeking adequate medical treatment and rest.
Kelly, on the other hand, has proven to be far more open and ready to listen. He and new director of athletics Martin Jarmond met with players over Zoom Friday, and Jarmond said concerns were addressed and communication will continue to be encouraged.
In a sport with a reputation of propping up and maintaining a “tough guy” mentality, Kelly’s ability to mold his program on the fly and value his players’ voices stands out in a positive way.
It would be shocking if the Bruins returning to campus don’t get the whistleblower protections, third-party oversight and financial security the players demanded in the letter, not only because it seems logical and safe, but also because Kelly seems to be fighting this battle arm-in-arm with them.
Kelly has not been a winning coach since he stepped foot in Westwood. He hasn’t even been a likable one most of the time.
But with so much uncertainty and stubbornness in the college football world, Kelly should be commended for his ability to adapt and maintain a productive dialogue with his players off the field.