The Eastern Kentucky University Athletics department has been in the spotlight over the past month as the coronavirus has impacted the return to sports and raised player concerns, leading to multiple athletes stepping away.
EKU Athletics welcomed back student-athletes on June 15 and the first positive COVID-19 tests came back on July 2 as Director of Athletics Matt Roan and Bryan Makinen, executive director of public safety, announced that three students and three athletic staff members had tested positive for the novel virus.
Within weeks, more positive cases were reported after the Eastern Progress inquired about the results.
EKU Athletics confirmed in an email statement on July 17 that there were 10 more positive cases, making the total 16.
As the month of August began and students prepared to return to campus for the fall semester, EKU football kicker Landon White made allegations on social media that the football program has not protected student-athletes and that player safety was at risk. White announced that he had quit the team due to his concerns.
In the post, White wrote, “No matter what you hear the facts are the facts, with the main fact being the coach and some staff, do not care about player safety.”
White’s post continued, “This is a tough day for me, but somebody has gotta tell the truth on what us athletes are going through during this pandemic.”
In the days following White’s allegations, more players followed and stepped away from the program due to COVID-19 concerns.
Graham Ashkettle was the first player after White’s announcement to quit the team. Ashkettle addressed the issue surrounding the football program’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After talking with my family and loved ones, I decided this morning and told coach Wells that I would be opting out of what would have been my final season at EKU, as I will be graduating in the spring. This is what's best to both protect my family and my own future,” Ashkettle wrote.
Ashkettle continued, “I was not completely comfortable with the adherence to the covid-19 measures at EKU, and I expressed these to coach Wells when I met with him. Some concerns were more due to the lack of personal responsibility some people have. Wearing a mask is important, especially indoors, during this pandemic and some people did not think that it was.”
Tre Turner was the third player to quit the football team due to the pandemic. Dillon Denault and Steven Crowder were the last two players to quit the team, but Crowder has not commented on his departure.
Ashkettle, Crowder, Denault and Turner were all starters last season for the Colonels.
Ashkettle was a second team Academic All-American this past season. The redshirt junior earned second team All-OVC recognition and appeared in 10 games.
Crowder was a third team All-OVC linebacker by Phil Steele and chosen to the 2019 Academic All-District Team. The senior from Mount Olive, Alabama totaled 63 tackles, including 9.5 tackles for a loss and 2.0 sacks, forced one fumble, recovered one fumble and had one pass break-up. He tied for 29th in the OVC in tackles (5.2/game) and tied for ninth in tackles for a loss (9.5/game). Crowder had a season-high 11 tackles at Louisville.
Director of Athletics Matt Roan released two statements within a matter of a couple days, Aug. 5 and 6 addressing the allegations made against the program.
In his first public statement, Roan said, “Eastern Kentucky University Athletics is aware of online statements recently made by a former student-athlete. First and foremost, the health, safety and overall well-being of our student-athletes will always be a primary priority. Head Football Coach Walt Wells and I have met continuously to ensure that football operations continue to adhere to local, state and health organization guidelines. We completely agree that egregiously or willfully ignoring safety guidelines, or our established protocol by any of our athletic programs, staff or students is a serious issue and will not be tolerated.”
Roan's statement continued, “Our programs returned to campus on July 6. In preparation for summer participation, every student-athlete and sport-specific coach and staff member was tested for COVID-19. Furthermore, any student-athlete reporting to campus for activity for the first time in August has been, and will continue to be, required to receive a negative test result prior to their return. To coincide with the recent commencement of preseason practice, weekly testing will be performed consistent with resocialization requirements. When a student-athlete, coach or staff member reports symptoms to EKU Sports Medicine, that individual has been immediately monitored, tested and quarantined, if necessary.”
In his statement, Roan said that EKU staff and coaches remind student-athletes to practice social distancing – including conducting meetings virtually – wear proper masks, practice good hygiene and contact EKU Sports Medicine if they are feeling ill.
A day later, in a late night statement, Roan gave more details on the testing procedures and addressed player safety concerns.
“I want to be very clear that the well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and campus community is my top priority. Any insinuation or statement to the contrary is misinformed and misguided. Their health and safety are always at the forefront of every decision our staff and I make, and ‘student-athlete focused’ is the number one value of our department. My role as the AD is to support student-athletes in their academic, athletic, and personal pursuits. Our Colonel family is the most important thing to us and it is that family of people, their hard work and care for one another that is our recipe for success, and I assure you student-athletes top that list of family members,” Roan said.
Roan stated that testing for the entire football team was originally scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 4. But due to the possibility that the NCAA Board of Governors could have canceled fall championships during their meeting that day, the decision was made to reschedule the testing.
“Full testing will be conducted on Wednesday, August 12. The football team will be tested each Wednesday after that based on NCAA resocialization guidelines. I appreciate our staff’s commitment and perseverance in securing testing despite occasional obstacles. The alleged non-compliance will be examined line-by-line, all of the facts will be revealed in full and appropriate action will be taken,” Roan said.
The Director of Athletics said that he first became aware of White’s concerns in his Instagram post and immediately invited the University to begin an independent review of athletics’ compliance.
“In order to protect the legitimacy of that review and final report, I am unable to contact Mr. White, and I have directed Head Coach Walt Wells do the same. I wish these concerns had been brought to each of us directly, prior to the post,” Roan said.
The Eastern Progress has reached out to University officials to learn more about the compliance review.
For a look back at the Eastern Progress' original coverage of this on-going situation, click here.