IOWA CITY, Iowa – I can’t wait to see Spencer Petras throw his first pass as Iowa ‘s starting quarterback, or watch Tyler Goodson make defenses miss again.
But I grow closer each day to the possibility that we won’t see any of that happen until Iowa opens the 2021 season Sept. 4 at Kinnick Stadium against Indiana. That is a sobering, but realistic, thought.
Back in March, I figured the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic would be over by now. I was very optimistic that this nation would have it under control, and the 2020 college football season would go on as scheduled.
Now, with the recent spike of coronavirus cases and a nonchalant reaction to the pandemic by a portion of the American public, I’m even getting nervous about winter sports.
Could one of the most anticipated Hawkeye men’s basketball seasons ever go into hibernation? Will Luka Garza be put on ice? Could Caitlin Clark’s debut on Coach Lisa Bluder’s team be on lockdown for a calendar year? Could an Iowa wrestling team denied a NCAA title in 2020 have the door shut in their face again? I wouldn’t bet against anything right now.
Pessimism started to chip away at my optimism in the past month, about the time college athletic teams were allowed back on campus to start voluntary workouts.
That’s because I’ve seen a segment of the American population treat the pandemic like a hoax. Our government, at times, looks like a rudderless ship.
I recently saw COVID-19 up close and personal. A member of my immediate family tested positive. Thankfully, it’s been a positive road to recovery. But this is such a polarized nation right now that some speak of the pandemic as the punchline of a joke. And that’s why I have no faith in seeing footballs in the air this fall.
When I read the story about students in Tuscaloosa, Ala., having a contest to see who could catch COVID-19 first, the idea of not being in Kinnick Stadium this year hit home.
Last Thursday, shortly after the Ivy League announced there would no fall sports, the Big Ten disclosed there would be conference-only games in football.
“We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority,” the Big Ten’s statement read. “To that end, the Big Ten Conference announced that if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports.”
Kevin Warren, the Big Ten Commissioner, also told the Big Ten Network the same day that there was no guarantee that fall sports would take place. Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith has been a voice to listen to during this entire process. Back in May he was optimistic that college football would take place, but said that it was likely attendance would be limited significantly.
Then last Friday, he went on the Big Ten Network and said, “I can’t reiterate enough the fact that we might not play. We just might not. And People need to understand that.”
On the same day that Smith was sharing his opinion to BTN, new coronavirus cases passed 70,000 in a single day for the first time.
That is sobering news for college athletic programs across the country. The financial blow will be stunning.
On June 30, the University of Iowa announced that its athletic budget would be reduced from $127.5 million to $112.5 million. Those figures were made under the assumption that football and basketball seasons would take place with fans in attendance.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta will have his salary package, which would have reached $1 million this year, reduced by 30 percent. Deputy Athletic Director Barbara Burke agreed to a 25 percent reduction in salary. Coaches Kirk Ferentz (football), Lisa Bluder (women’s basketball), Fran McCaffery (men’s basketball) and Tom Brands (wrestling) all agreed or a one-year 15 percent reduction in salary, with the option of contributing that figure back to the athletic department.
Other coaches earning more than $200,000 annually will see a 10 percent cut, while those making between $150,000 and $199,999 will have a 7.5 percent reduction. It will be a 5 percent reduction for those making between $50,143 and $99,999 annually and a 2 percent reduction for those making less than that.
If there is no football or basketball, and no fans in attendance, those cuts will be deeper and more difficult to make.
“Any interruptions or reduction in these seasons would lead to more significant cuts,” Barta said.
The look of college athletics could , and probably will, look drastically different down the road. Athletic departments will have to deal with a loss of TV revenue. And would fall and winter sports athletes in their final season of eligibility be given an option to return for another season? That would deepen expenses drastically.
The elephant in the room is the possibility of dropping sports. Iowa currently has 22 men’s and women’s athletic programs. When the 2019-20 athletic season was cut short in March, the Hawkeyes were marching in unison to one of the greatest athletic years in program history. Only the 1995-96, 1987-88 and 1986-87 seasons can compare.
Schools across the country are dropping sports to deal with the financial realities they face. Stanford recently announced it would drop 11 sports.
In a perfect world, a portion of the football season and the entire winter sports season could be saved to lessen the blow. But the pandemic, and America’s laissez-faire reaction to it, appears ready to deliver a knockout punch.