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‘There’s a huge lack of trust': SMU star Johnasia Cash opens up about why she hasn’t returned to campus

Cash didn't sign the school's liability waiver that's required to participate in voluntary workouts.

The root of Johnasia Cash’s distrust of SMU started at about 5 p.m. on June 12. It was three days before she would return to campus for voluntary workouts.

It was at that time that she and all the 75 returning athletes received an email asking them to sign a document. They were instructed to have it returned by 11:59 p.m. that evening, according to Cash.

At first, Cash didn’t think much of it. Student-athletes get a lot of documents to sign, after all.

But this was a waiver.

In the women’s basketball team’s group chat, people began warning others to read it over before signing. They believed signing this form would waive SMU of any legal liability or medical costs associated with athletes contracting COVID-19 while participating in workouts, Cash said.

“People are not going to read every word before they sign that,” Cash said. “Because they already feel ... OK, I could trust my school, I could trust what they’re sending me. This all is something to protect me.

“But in my eyes, I felt like this form wasn’t used to protect me, but in a sense to protect them.”

In responding to Cash’s comments, SMU spokesperson Brad Sutton said the school allowed athletes five days to sign the waiver, up until workouts started June 17. He added that athletes received the waiver when it was ready.

However, text messages reviewed by The Dallas Morning News from director of basketball operations Lindsay Scariatelli and assistant director of compliance Kevin Lock to women’s basketball players explicitly state an 11:59 p.m. deadline on June 13.

This is the liability waiver that student-athletes are required to sign before beginning voluntary workouts.
This is the liability waiver that student-athletes are required to sign before beginning voluntary workouts.(The Dallas Morning News)

Cash is a senior, and the most accomplished player in the women’s basketball program. She led the team in scoring at 11.1 points and was third in the conference at 9.4 rebounds per game.

But she did not sign the waiver, and thus was not allowed to enter campus for voluntary workouts. Instead, she has been working out in her apartment complex close to campus and the grassy area outside.

Student-athletes that do not sign the waiver will not lose eligibility or their scholarship.

“As we developed our plan for student-athletes to safely return to campus and resume voluntary activities, we consulted with an array of internal and external colleagues,” athletic director Rick Hart said in a statement. “The inclusion of an acknowledgment form emerged as a best practice among peer athletics programs, as well as other organizations and facilities such as schools, gyms and daycares. Our intent in providing the document is to confirm that our student-athletes acknowledge that there is risk associated with co-existing with a pandemic, particularly since they will be operating under our protocols for only a short period of time each day during this voluntary summer workout period.”

Cash believes SMU is not providing a safe environment for student-athletes, not doing enough testing, and has been disingenuous about the ramifications of the liability waiver.

“Like we’re putting our lives on the line to come work out to prepare for a season,” Cash said. “This is our life. We’re what? 18-to-22 years old? These are our lives that we’re putting on the line.

“And I don’t feel some of our administration or our coaches -- you know, they’re parents. And I feel like they should see us on a parent’s perspective. If I was your child, which you told my parents that you were gonna treat me as, one of your own, one of your children, when I signed up to come here.

“If you’re treating me as your child, would you put your child’s life on the line? Would you do that for your own child?”

Cash said that coaches and Hart held an “emergency” Zoom meeting after athletes and their families expressed concern over the waiver. She said her coaches, Rick Hart and administrator Susan Vollmerhausen were “baffled” by what was on the waiver.

“It just confused me because shouldn’t you already know what was on here,” Cash said. “Now it just looks like they’re just making us sign things and you’re not reading it before they give it to us. Now you’re just making us sign stuff. … How are you protecting me if you don’t even know what I’m signing?”

Cash said Hart promised that day he would look over the waiver and talk with the university’s lawyers to potentially make some changes.

One of the main points of contention was that the first line of the waiver requires student-athletes to acknowledge that “I was given the opportunity to ask questions regarding the COVID-19 virus and my COVID-19 virus-related questions were answered.”

Cash said no such opportunity was presented until that meeting, after the waiver was distributed. Sutton said two Zooms were conducted by administration to address concerns, but they weren’t until June 25.

“We didn’t have no meeting or nothing like that, before that, or nothing like that,” Cash said.

Cash also was confused by the apparent contradiction to the yearly forms student-athletes fill out that acknowledge they’re covered by SMU’s insurance for injuries and illness. Cash felt as though this waiver waived SMU’s requirement to cover COVID-19-related illness.

Sutton said SMU clarified in a memo to student-athletes that “Athletics will pay for all costs over and above the insurance coverage offered by a student-athlete’s parents for COVID-19 expenses incurred as a result of participation in SMU Athletics.”

Additionally, the waiver required anyone declining to return to sign off on applying for a medical hardship waiver, which would essentially end their season.

Cash said the next day at a follow-up meeting -- that didn’t include parents -- the athletes were told that no changes would be made to the waiver. Instead of agreeing to the medical hardship, Cash decided to just not submit the form.

Sutton acknowledged the two calls took place.

“Many questions were asked and answered – either during the first call or in the follow-up call,” Sutton said in an e-mail. “Several parents thanked them for the time and attention that was devoted to their questions and concerns. Rick stated during the first call that he would circle back with Legal Affairs and others to confirm that the document, as written, was indeed the final verbiage, something he confirmed in the second call. It would not be changing and would be required to participate in voluntary activities.”

This first liability waiver form is only valid for summer workouts. When fall comes around, there will potentially be another choice to make. Cash doesn’t believe there will be a season. And if it isn’t safe, she likely won’t play in one regardless.

SMU has tested 154 student-athletes and conducted 169 total tests over the first month of workouts. Cash said it’s not nearly enough. Sutton said their protocols are “well-aligned with national practices.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it might appear Cash had more authority to make the choice not to sign it. She’s arguably the team’s best player. She provides senior leadership and will almost certainly have a roster spot if she chooses to return.

But that doesn’t make it easier for her. In fact, it makes it harder.

“I’m a senior, and as a senior, you’re supposed to be that leader for these young girls coming in and for the returners coming in,” Cash said. “How are you supposed to lead if you’re not even here?

“I want to be that leader for us. But it’s hard when you get put in that position like this to basically say, ‘OK, we want you to put your life on the line or don’t come.’”

Cash believes the best course of action right now is to prioritize social distancing, mask-wearing and eradicating the virus over any sort of workouts.

And she doesn’t feel as though she’s had a voice, or that other athletes have a say in how a potential return happens.

“I do feel like there’s a huge lack of trust,” she said.

Despite that, she’s represented SMU with pride for three years, and desperately wants to do that again.

“I will be proud to put my jersey back on and proud to represent this university like I do every single day,” Cash said. “I’m proud to be a Mustang.”

“If it’s not forced I’m all for it. I’m all for it. But if it’s forced and it’s just like we some, like we some test dummies, I’d rather not even play.”

In professional sports leagues, athletes agree on return plans via their unions. At SMU and at other schools around the country, athletes don’t have that same formalized say.

While she’s reticent to play, and reticent to return, Cash is not reticent to speak out. And by doing so, she hopes to see student-athletes like herself have more authority in the decision-making process.

“I just feel like we need to come together, players, coaches and administration and we need to figure it out,” Cash said. “I don’t feel like us as student-athletes should be left out of the mix of what happens with our future.”

Find more SMU stories from The Dallas Morning News here.

Sam Blum, Staff Writer. Sam covers SMU athletics and the Texas Rangers for The Dallas Morning News, and previously covered Auburn University athletics for AL.com. He's also covered University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. He graduated from Syracuse University.

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