BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 06/29/2020

Thiel: UW haircut a tip of the college virus-berg

Thanks to the virus, UW athletics cut 15 percent of its new budget. And thanks to young people’s urge to party, some program collapses seem on the way.

Fans have grown used to Husky Stadium in the dark. Now the UW athletics department will likely be in the red. / Sportspress Northwest file

This month the NCAA is distributing about $225 million to member schools. Cool — until it is realized that the expected payout was $600 million. The difference is due largely to the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament because of the coronavirus and all the clean protocol in the stadium, you can click here for read the new protocols.

Now you know why the University of Washington athletics department gave itself a 15 percent haircut Friday.

Cuts to the operating budget for the fiscal year beginning Wednesday will save about $13 million from a budget of $138 million, according to a release by the department. About $5 million will come from a minimum five percent pay cut to all 22 head coaches of varsity programs, as well as athletics director Jen Cohen. Assistant coaches will be cut three percent, along with two- to four-week furloughs for all professional, classified and union staff members, totaling 156 employees.

From powerhouse programs like UW down to the small Division III schools, the cuts are the tip of the virus-berg.

“Like most organizations this pandemic has taken a real financial toll on our athletic department,” Cohen said in the release. “We’ve done everything we could over the last few months to manage the cost-saving efforts as best as possible. As we look to the upcoming year we see challenges ahead, and we know that we need to implement additional mitigation strategies.

“And so these actions we’re taking in salary reductions and operating expense reductions, they’re painful, but they are absolutely necessary for us to have a collective path forward as an athletic department, not just for this year but for years to come.”

The release was quick to point out that none of the 22 programs were cut, avoiding for now what Division III Seattle Pacific University did earlier this month, per the Seattle Times, with its women’s gymnastics team — shut it down for good because of the financial impact of the virus.

UW followed a similar slash in April at Washington State, where AD Patrick Chun, President Kirk Schulz, football coach Nick Rolovich and men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith all agreed to temporary five percent pay cuts. The overall campus budget was cut by 359 jobs and three academic programs were eliminated.

Said Schulz on a Zoom conference to faculty and students around the state: “There is no doubt this has been the most difficult year in the life of Washington State University.”

During a Board of Regents meeting in May, Cohen said the impact from the pandemic on the athletics budget ranges from “kind of manageable to devastating.”

That range will become more precise in August, when the call will be made about whether all, some or no fans can attend the heralded football opener against Michigan Sept. 5.

If it can be played at all.

On Friday, a Division II HBCU school in Atlanta, Morehouse College, canceled its entire season, citing player safety.

“I’m afraid and confident in my fear that we’ll see more sports be dropped, whether it’s programs or entire seasons canceled,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told the New York Times minutes before the Morehouse news. “And that’s really sad because we’re talking about opportunities that these student-athletes love to participate in, and it’s really, really important to their life and their growth and development.”

Driving Emmert’s fears is the cohort he’s attempting to serve — young people. The massive spikes in confirmed cases nationally over the past week, particularly in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, are being blamed primarily on young people partying in bars, then infecting each other as well as older people more prone to covid-19.

In part because of the mixed messages between President Trump — who cares only about the economy and his re-election — and his own public health officials, the U.S. has seen more cases in the past week than in any week since the pandemic began.

It’s true that at the moment, many individuals and businesses small and large are being crushed more drastically than big-time college sports. But their reliance on football TV income to support each school’s entire athletic program will have its reckoning in September, when desperation for revenue meets the need for player safety.

The only real hope for games is whether people across the nation can re-gain momentum lost from the early success at flattening the curve. As July arrives, signs point in the opposite direction. Reliance upon 21-year-old partyers for responsive leadership never has been anyone’s notion of a coherent plan.

In mid-April, Chun, the WSU ahletics director, was already in an eyes-closed cringe.

“As we present a budget, we’re going to have to model out, what does a delayed football season look like, what does a truncated football season look like?” Chun told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. He said can’t even think about a no-football season.

“I’d argue there’s no point in us to even budget a no-football season,” Chun said, “because it’ll be destructive for our athletic program if there’s no football season.”

Then again, given the many corruptions of college athletics, the notion of collapse and re-birth may be the silver lining. The ability of the enterprise to resist reform is perhaps third only to the Republican and Democratic parties.

The Boston Globe recounted a story from a book by Robin Lester on the history of football at the University of Chicago. The Chicago superintendent of schools accused shameless college coaches at Chicago and Michigan of “practically stealing boys out of high school for athletic purposes” before they could even earn their diplomas.

When did he level his accusation? In 1903. Two years later, Harvard hired its first paid football coach, at almost twice the average salary of a full professor. It has been ever thus.

The out-sized impact of sports on colleges has been endlessly chronicled, lamented and ultimately shrugged off. The regrettable possibility of a pandemic-imposed puncture of the swollen blister may be the only way to heal.



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  • sandy johnson

    RIP Elson Floyd, whose name snuck in there mid-column.

    • James

      Amazing what dead people can do.

      • woofer

        No wonder his image was so fuzzy. That’s a long way for the signal to travel.

        • James

          Maybe he’s living in cyberspace?

    • art thiel

      Had it right on first reference.

      Glad we all had our fun. Thanks ever so much for not remarking on the rest of the column.

  • Kirkland

    I’m mostly concerned about the players in this football haircut. They finally won the right to profit from their name-image-likeness rights, and there seemed to be gaining momentum for other much-needed items like stipends. Now with the pandemic, they may not get as much of those benefits as they should because the schools and sponsors could claim — and not without justification — financial distress.

    You could argue that the increasing importance of other player developmental methods like the G League, junior hockey and MLS academies will reduce the need for intercollegiate athletics; however, a number of NCAA sports don’t offer much in the way of professional careers (volleyball, field hockey, lacrosse, rugby) and the number one goal for the players is that scholarship. Given the cost of college now and the large amounts of jobs that require degrees, it’s worrying for those small-sports athletes whose scholarship futures are up in the air.

    P.S. That U. of Chicago note was interesting, as they were one of the most noteworthy of the early college football programs before ending athletic competition in the 1930s. The program has since returned, albeit at the non-scholarship Division III level.

    • art thiel

      The athletes and their programs will all suffer from losses in donations, advertising and sponsorships. The non-rev sports at all schools are somewhat vulnerable to elimination. UW cash reserves, WSU and most programs do not.

  • Quackhead

    This is by no means an in-depth analysis of the sports budgets in question, but the recent NCAA payout reflects 37.5 percent of the originally anticipated $600 million per school, while the current projected operating budgets (using Washington as exampled in Art’s article) are in the range of 9.4 percent in terms of a “haircut” going forward.
    I recognize that the NCAA’s payment is only one piece of the pie, but a an overall 9.4 percent cut seems optimistic.
    Sounds like a thumbs-in-the-dike with fingers crossed scenario in view of Covid Wave #2.
    I hate to be that guy, but, well . . .

    • art thiel

      I’m that guy too. So there’s two.

      We can’t have covid wave 2 until 1 is done. And 1 is far from done.

  • Seattle Psycho

    I just don’t see how you do it. Players/teams are going to get infected. I understand the importance of the money football and basketball bring to the universities but what happens when a team can’t suit up for game 4 and another team cancels the season? Since these are still “non-paid amateur athletes” best thing to do (my opinion) is cancel it now. If the show must go on, conference games only.

    • art thiel

      That’s the big question: Is college football prepared to put safety and fairness ahead of cash? And who makes the call that one team’s covid-19 absences (including players in quarantine) makes for competitive imbalance? I wouldn’t trust the coaches, ADs or commissioners unless the evidence was overwhelming.

  • jafabian

    I question if cutting salary and lower tier athletic programs are nothing more than a quick fix and if schools need to manage their finances better overall. Also just how much have they gone to their state governments for assistance though I imagine those states are inundated with those kind of requests since the Federal Government can’t be counted on. I feel for the SPU women’s gymnastics team. It’s sucks when you go to a school with hope and promise and then get the rug yanked out from under you.