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Idaho State player alleging abuse claims he lost eligibility as retaliation; teammates support coaches

Idaho State football coach Rob Phenicie verbally agreed to a three-year contract extension this week. Contract details will be worked out after the season.
Idaho State football coach Rob Phenicie verbally agreed to a three-year contract extension this week. Contract details will be worked out after the season. Courtesy of Idaho State

An Idaho State football player who alleges that a coach hit him out of “anger” hard enough to cause bruising during halftime of a game told the Idaho Statesman this week that he believes he lost a year of playing eligibility as retribution for speaking up.

In a phone conversation Wednesday, Jayson Miller, a defensive back for the Bengals, confirmed to the Statesman that he’s the player in question in an ongoing investigation by the university into alleged misconduct by the coaching staff, including head coach Rob Phenicie.

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Jayson Miller Idaho State University

Idaho State released a statement Tuesday acknowledging an investigation into a complaint by a football player detailing “inappropriate communication from a coach, a lack of playing time, an alleged assault by a coach during an away game, and the student-athlete being incorrectly informed about his eligibility status.”

No coaches or players were mentioned by name in the release, but it referenced an investigation into a coach allegedly “hammer punching” a player at halftime of a game in 2018, and Miller said that was Phenicie. The complaint was filed with the school on Nov. 14, and the investigation began the next day, the school said.

“Hammer punching” is the term used for hitting down on a player’s shoulder pads with a closed fist.

The release also noted that a coach sent the player text messages in late September or early October that included “derogatory ... race and gender-based themes.” The coach, identified by Miller as assistant Jay Staggs, was removed from his position after the school found “wrongdoing.”

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Jay Staggs Idaho State University

Miller shared some text messages with the Statesman, and they included profanity, critical language and a mention that an opposing team had a bunch of “Carltons,” a reference to an African-American TV character who is well-to-do and considered soft.

Staggs was hired to begin coaching at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, but has since “parted ways” with the program amid Miller’s allegations, according to MontanaSports.com

The school investigation is being run by Idaho State’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. As of publication, Staggs has not responded to the Statesman’s requests for comment.

Miller told the Statesman that the day after the alleged assault at a game in California, he was informed that he had no eligibility remaining, despite being under the impression that he had received a medical redshirt year for an injury sustained in 2017.

Idaho State said in its news release that it would honor the player’s scholarship through the spring of 2020, though it was uncertain about his regaining eligibility. The university acknowledged that mistakes were made.

“ISU continues to investigate the reasons and facts behind the eligibility request not being properly processed. Until the investigation concludes, we will not be able to speculate about the situation,” university spokesman Stuart Summer said in a statement.

Miller said that to him, the reason for the eligibility problem is apparent.

“(I believe) losing my year is directly related to coach Phenicie punching me,” he said. “Had that locker room incident not happened, I’d be going through with whatever the football team is going through right now.”

Nearly 50 Idaho State players publicly voiced their support for the coaches on Wednesday, saying that there was no ill will intended by the coaches and that Miller was unhappy about playing time. He is “taking his frustrations out on the coaching staff,” one player told the Idaho State Journal.

Miller appeared in 20 games over his first two seasons on campus, amassing 64 tackles. He had just 12 tackles in six games in 2018 following his return from injury.

“Jayson didn’t play. He wasn’t good enough,” running back Ty Flanagan told the State Journal. “He had better safeties above him.”

Alleged assault

According to Miller, Phenicie entered the locker room at halftime of a game against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo on Nov. 10 visibly frustrated and upset. Miller said the coach then hit him with closed fists on top of the shoulder pads, which in turned caused bruising. Miller provided the Statesman with photos of bruises that he said came from that incident.

Miller said he felt it was inappropriate and done out of anger and frustration, although he does not believe that Phenicie necessarily sought him out. Miller said he approached Phenicie and expressed that the interaction was inappropriate; Phenicie then “hammer punched” him again and said, “you can take it,” according to Miller.

A spokesperson from Cal Poly told the Statesman that the school’s police department received a report regarding the incident in question, but said the report is unavailable while an investigation continues.

The day after the Cal Poly game, Miller said he was approached by Staggs, who told him that Phenicie wanted to “hash out” the events of the prior night.

Upon entering Phenicie’s office, Miller, a redshirt junior, said he was told that he would be “honored at Senior Day” with the rest of the senior student-athletes, implying that it would be his final home game.

Miller, who is listed on Idaho State’s website as having redshirted in 2017, suffered a knee sprain that ended up costing him that season. That would have made 2018 just his third season, meaning he would get to return in 2019.

Miller said he was told that no medical paperwork had been filed on his behalf, so it would be impossible for him to receive his redshirt. He said he was also told that he would be unable to resume his career at ISU but could play at another school.

Idaho State confirmed in its release that the athletic department “did not submit the proper eligibility documentation, and that the student was misinformed of his status at the start of the fall 2018 season.”

Miller said he was asked whether he wanted to transfer, and he said no.

“Why would you ask me if I wanted to transfer? ... I’ll be back here next year,” he said.

Miller said he was told that one school he could transfer to was Azusa Pacific in Southern California, close to his hometown of San Dimas, if his eligibility could be cleared up. It is a Division II school, meaning Miller could play right away since he would be moving down from an FCS university.

“You’re telling me you found out (I was out of eligibility) the day after you punched me? It doesn’t make sense,” Miller said. “I feel like I’m losing my year because of this.”

Idaho State said in a release that it was unsure how the situation would play out.

“We apologize and are doing all we can to pursue that year of eligibility for him now. Whatever the outcome, we will honor our scholarship commitment,” interim athletic director Pauline Thiros said.

Asked whether he would consider playing at Idaho State again, Miller shut the option down.

“I’m not going to put my body on the line for (Phenicie),” Miller said. “I’m not risking my body getting hurt for this man.”

Troubling texts

In text messages provided to the Statesman by Miller, a person identified in the message as Staggs told a group of defensive backs before a game against Northern Arizona that the opposition was “a bunch of Carlton’s.”

The term is a reference to the 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” in which the character Carlton Banks is wealthy, not intimidating, and even considered feminine. In slang the term has also come to be a synonym for an African-American man who more closely follows white stereotypes.

In another text message, Staggs referenced an opposing quarterback as having been spoiled and handed everything in life. He then said the team had to “get after this (expletive)‘s ass,” using a vulgar term for female anatomy.

“There’s a very firm line between things that are locker room talk,” Miller said. “You can’t say a team is ‘a bunch of’ something racist.”

Idaho State said the coach sent texts that contained “derogatory ... race and gender-based themes,” and that a school investigation found “wrongdoing by the coach.”

Support for coaches

Miller said he has received backlash from current players who are upset that Staggs was not retained. “I was informed he was fired because of those text messages,” Miller said. “I didn’t fire him. That’s above me.”

On Wednesday, nearly 50 members of the football team gathered at Holt Arena to voice support for Staggs and Phenicie, according to the Idaho State Journal.

Players said they were upset that Staggs lost two jobs because of an incident they didn’t feel was malicious. They also raised doubts as to whether a punch to the shoulder pads could cause bruising, and said it’s possible that the bruises came from game play.

“(Staggs has) done nothing toward me or toward any other player of color, anything racist,” safety Christian McFarland told the State Journal. “If anything, I would say that he does love us all equally. He looked at us like children, no matter what color you are.”

Players also said they were not interviewed by the school in the investigation into Staggs.

“We have a lot of guys who are willing to speak out about the situation and would’ve loved to defend and tell our side of things,” wide receiver Mitch Gueller told the State Journal. “And that didn’t happen.”

Players interviewed Wednesday also said that Phenicie’s “hammer punches” were for motivation and did not have any malice behind them.

“We would have noticed if he said ‘ow’ or something,” linebacker Luke Holloway told the State Journal. “There was no flinching. Coach Phenicie was trying to hype us up because we were losing. … It was a motivation, like we head-butt each other.”

As far as being motivated to act due to a lack of playing time, Miller said his complaint is about simple respect.

“Me and Coach Staggs had a conversation about my role on the team in the middle of the season, and I accepted and took pride in it,” Miller said. “It’s not about playing time. It’s about ... respect ... (Phenicie) disrespected me and, as a 21-year-old adult, I don’t have to take that.”

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