Sports

A Cal Football Player Opted Out Because of the Virus. Then Came the Tuition Bill.

Henry Bazakas embodied everything the University of California wants in a football player.

A third-generation Cal student who grew up in Berkeley, Bazakas arrived on campus five years ago as a walk-on offensive lineman. Three times he earned an award for having the team’s highest grade-point average. He and a teammate spearheaded a summer reading program at local elementary schools. He won another award, for his commitment to strength and conditioning while recovering from a torn knee ligament. And last season, after he finally earned an athletic scholarship, he started three games at left tackle.

But none of that counted for much in June, when Bazakas called the Cal football coach, Justin Wilcox, to say that he was opting out of his final season because of health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The call was the beginning of an odyssey that illustrates the normally unseen, cutthroat side of the business of college football, with tensions that have been magnified for athletes by the determined push to play during the pandemic.

Nine days later, Bazakas found his scholarship had been cut off, and he was then billed more than $24,000 halfway through his summer term because the athletic department had revoked the financial aid that it had already paid.

The summer school aid was ultimately reinstated by a university appeals committee, which said the school had violated N.C.A.A. rules by abruptly pulling Bazakas’s aid before giving him an opportunity for a hearing.

Bazakas also asked for his scholarship back for the fall semester, but the appeals panel sided with the athletic department’s decision to not renew it. While most of his teammates arrived at Cal with scholarships pledged for four years, walk-ons, like Bazakas, who eventually earn scholarships may not get them in subsequent years, and Cal had met an N.C.A.A. deadline in July not to renew his.

“It feels like the second I was done playing football, the program was done with me,” said Bazakas, who waited nearly three months for his summer aid to be restored through appeal.

Wilcox, the football coach, and Jay Larson, the senior associate athletic director who administers the football program and directed its arguments against Bazakas’s appeal, declined interview requests about the case. Herb Benenson, an athletic department spokesman, said Bazakas knew that he had not been offered a scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year when he left the team.

This is true, but only partly so. Bazakas had asked his coach several times over six months whether the scholarship would be renewed. He got no firm answer. Wilcox’s decision came through an email from the financial aid office on June 25.

Benenson said the athletic department, even though it argued against Bazakas, agreed with the university’s decision to restore the player’s summer aid. Benenson said the aid was mistakenly canceled because of a clerical error that did not come to light until an inquiry by The New York Times in mid-October, a month after the committee’s ruling.

Bazakas said neither Wilcox nor Larson, nor anyone else from Cal, had contacted him to acknowledge what Benenson characterized as “an honest mistake.”

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Bazakas was billed more than $24,000 in summer tuition and fees even though he had been given a scholarship. The athletic department revoked it, and Bazakas spent three months appealing before it was overturned.Credit…Henry Bazakas

As major college football has lurched through the pandemic in pursuit of billions in television revenue — Cal had its first two scheduled games canceled, then lost Sunday to U.C.L.A. in a game arranged two days before kickoff — not even mandated protections for players have been ironclad.

In August, Washington State receiver Kassidy Woods, who opted out because he has the sickle cell trait, was allowed to keep his scholarship but removed from the team when Coach Nick Rolovich told Woods it would be “an issue” that he was aligned with a player rights’ movement. Utah State Coach Gary Andersen, before he was fired after an 0-3 start, said there was a reason none of his players had opted out. “It’s not an option,” he told reporters. “If you opt out, you’re not with us.”

As players weigh their health risks, an unstated pressure urges them to continue competing to maintain their places in the pecking order for playing time. For those who arrived as walk-ons, a missed season heightens the uncertainty about whether a scholarship will be renewed.

“The way we use our voice, how we play or practice — that’s what determines if we keep our scholarship,” said Gabe Siemieniec, a former walk-on kicker at Cal who transferred to Louisiana Tech before the season in part because he was not sure whether his scholarship would be renewed. “It’s kind of interesting. All the power is in the coach’s hands — you can’t negotiate.”

Programs at the top level of college football may offer up to 85 football scholarships each year with the remainder of a 120-player roster filled by non-scholarship players, or walk-ons.

Walk-ons can be indispensable to even the best programs. In practices, they mimic opposing players to help the starters prepare for the next game. They often lift the team grade-point average and sometimes compensate for recruiting mistakes when they blossom into contributors. The patron saint of walk-ons is Hunter Renfrow, who caught a last-second touchdown to win the national championship for Clemson in 2017.

For walk-ons, a scholarship is not just a financial reward.

It is a stamp of legitimacy earned through sweat and sacrifice in the weight room and on the practice field, and through their play on Saturdays. Scholarships are often conferred in front of teammates in elaborate presentations, which the schools happily promote on social media.

Bazakas recalled the immense pride he felt when Wilcox informed him that he would be on scholarship last year. Bazakas grew up sitting in the stands at Memorial Stadium rooting for Cal. His late grandfather, a Cal graduate, was a season-ticket holder. His father, a financial officer at a tech company, and his mother, an educator, graduated from Cal. His affinity runs so deep that he rejected his mother’s suggestion that he apply to Cal’s archrival, Stanford.

Though Bazakas — who started playing football in high school — drew interest from Ivy League schools and Weber State, he jumped at an offer from Sonny Dykes, then the coach at Cal, to join the Golden Bears as a walk-on.

“That was a dream come true,” Bazakas said.

Bazakas quickly realized how far he was from playing in a game. But he got stronger and improved his technique. By his third season, he had worked his way up to the 70-player travel squad. The next season was cut short by a torn knee ligament.

Last year, after being awarded a scholarship, Bazakas was thrust into the conference opener because of a teammate’s injury and helped the team drive the length of the field for a late field goal to beat Washington. He started three games and also played in a victory over Stanford that ended Cal’s eight-game losing streak in the rivalry.

“It was my proudest moment,” Bazakas said.

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Bazakas during a game against Mississippi in 2019, one of three games he started that season.Credit…Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Bazakas had hoped for more highlights this season. He wanted to compete for a starting position. But he is grateful for the experiences he has had.

“I didn’t want it to end the way it did, but in the scale of 2020, most things aren’t going the way people wanted them to go,” Bazakas said.

Bazakas opted out at a moment of great uncertainty for college football players. Some schools were requiring athletes to sign liability waivers upon returning to campus for summer workouts, and it was weeks before conferences like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conferences said they would honor scholarships for athletes who opted out. The N.C.A.A. did not make it a blanket policy until August. (The standard scholarship agreement says that athletes can have their aid canceled if they withdraw from a team.)

“You’re supposed to make every decision for the team and that’s what you want, but at some point, you’re an individual,” Bazakas said. “You’re not really allowed to advocate for yourself. You don’t realize you can until you’re out of the system.”

Around the time Bazakas opted out, two close friends on the team — offensive linemen Valentino Daltoso and Jake Curhan — were at the center of a movement by Pac-12 players that pushed for more rights for players, including say on health protocols and protections for athletes who chose to sit out a season.

Andrew Cooper, who ran cross-country at Washington State and Cal and has been an organizer in the athletes’ rights movement, said Bazakas’s case was one of many that were discussed as hundreds of players around the country had group conversations over the summer through videoconferencing. (Daltoso and Curhan did not respond to interview requests.)

“Ninety-nine percent of college athletes stay silent about the injustices they experience,” Cooper said. “We’re told, ‘Just be grateful.'” He added: “When it comes down to it, no one is there to protect us, because athletic departments’ financial interests do not align with athletes’ interests.”

Bazakas was among six walk-ons who received scholarships last season and were eligible to return in 2020. Wilcox made it clear that the aid was for one year and that subsequent years could be awarded if Cal had scholarships available.

Two of those players were certain to have their scholarships renewed because of their strong play. Shortly after last season ended, the four others were called into Wilcox’s office, one by one, and left with a similar impression: that their aid was very much uncertain for the next season. Some of their spots, for example, could be taken by transfers who would fill more urgent needs.

The former walk-ons viewed spring practices as their best chance to prove to the coaches they deserved to have their scholarships renewed. But after four sessions, football was shut down because of the virus.

“Everything was up in the air,” Siemieniec said.

The three other players besides Bazakas entered the transfer portal to seek scholarship offers elsewhere. Two transferred, and one, tight end Collin Moore, had his scholarship renewed.

Bazakas, though, was already deep into a master’s program for information and data science, so leaving did not make sense.

But by June, as teams planned for summer workouts, Bazakas began to question whether returning to campus was a good idea.

Bazakas, who stands 6-foot-6, weighed 330 pounds at the time, putting him in a high-risk category if he contracted the virus. His parents are in their 50s, so they could be vulnerable, too. He worried about catching the virus while working out with his teammates, then bringing it home or to people in his neighborhood.

“The thought of going back scared me a lot,” said Bazakas, who had repeated conversations with his teammates, his girlfriend and his family over several months.

Finally, on June 16, the day before Cal announced players could return to campus to prepare for voluntary workouts, Bazakas called Wilcox.

“He was pretty understanding,” Bazakas said. “He said the world is crazy and everyone has to make a choice. He asked, ‘Is there a chance I can talk you out of this or have you made up your mind?’ I told him I had made up my mind. He said, ‘OK, I respect that.’ It wasn’t a long conversation.”

Bazakas said his scholarship was not discussed.

When he called his coach, Bazakas did not know about the key date of July 1, when the N.C.A.A. requires schools to notify athletes of any roster reduction for the next academic year. The date was not mentioned in the financial aid agreement that Bazakas signed for 2019-20. Benenson, the athletic department spokesman, acknowledged that Bazakas had not been notified of Cal’s deadline, but he said Wilcox had told the player not to expect a renewal.

As for summer aid, each school makes its own decisions. This summer Cal tightened its financial belt. The athletic department, which was facing a $55 million deficit if there were no fall sports, largely restricted athletes to one summer class because of virus-related budget constraints, Benenson said.

Bazakas appeared to be an exception. He received a text on May 18 from Joel Derechinsky, the team’s academic coordinator, who asked if Bazakas needed to take all three classes he had registered for during the summer semester.

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In an exchange with the team’s academic coordinator, Bazakas was told his plan to take three summer classes was fine as planned.

Bazakas, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration, replied that he wanted to leave his final two classes for the fall semester during the season. Derechinsky said that would be OK. (Derechinsky declined to be interviewed.)

A month later, Bazakas received notice that he would no longer be on scholarship. One night as he considered whether to appeal, Bazakas checked his student account portal before he went to bed.

He blinked.

It carried two new charges on July 1: $23,506 for summer fees and $631 for the summer stipend. “I was pretty shook,” Bazakas said. “I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to have to explain this to my parents.'”

As September approached, Bazakas filed the final paperwork in his appeal with the help of several family friends, including a lawyer.

The athletic department countered Bazakas’s plea for restoring his summer aid by offering part of it back. Larson, in a Sept. 3 letter to the appeals committee, wrote: “Although we are not required to do so by NCAA rules, we have decided to provide summer aid to cover tuition and fees for one of Mr. Bazakas’ courses.”

The three-person committee sided with Bazakas. It said the athletic department failed to provide a hearing before his aid was revoked, which is required by N.C.A.A. rules.

But Bob Jacobsen, an undergraduate dean who was on the committee, said Bazakas’s summer aid was restored because Cal’s policy does not allow aid to be revoked during a term. When asked why that was not written in the ruling, he said: “This is not a Supreme Court decision where we have to cite it. If the document doesn’t make sense as a public relations document, so be it.” He added: “We didn’t expect anybody would be reading it.”

Benenson said the athletic department learned more recently that its error occurred because Bazakas’s courses were incorrectly classified as beginning in late July rather than in May.

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The appeals committee, in its report, said Cal should not have taken Bazakas’s summer aid away.Credit…Henry Bazakas

The case for a fall scholarship, Bazakas knew, was more difficult to make. He is spending $15,000 to take his last two classes and he will graduate in December.

“I understand the business of football — if you don’t need a lineman as bad as you need a receiver and you take it away,” Bazakas said of the scholarship. “But I never got an answer; I never heard a yes or no. When I talked to Coach Wilcox the last time, I said if I hadn’t stepped away, would I have still gotten my aid? He didn’t answer.”

He added: “That’s the biggest what-if. If I hadn’t opted out, what would have happened?”

Bazakas — who signed off on his appeal letters with “Go Bears!” — said his experience had not soured him on Cal. He has followed the myriad twists his old teammates have endured — in August the Pac-12 postponed football, only to later decide to play after all, albeit with a truncated schedule. Practices have been interrupted and schedules upended. He feels for his teammates.

Last weekend Bazakas — 50 pounds lighter, having shed some of his football girth — sat in front of the TV and did what he had always done. He rooted for the Bears to win.