By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta held an hour-long zoom conference with members of the media on Monday in order to address two main topics, both of which are disturbing, disappointing and discouraging.
It was just this past Friday that Iowa announced that four sports would be eliminated after the 2020-21 school year due to the financial impact from the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The sobering announcement to drop men’s and women’s swimming, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics came barely a week after the Big Ten Conference had cancelled fall football due to medical concerns about the highly contagious and mysterious coronavirus.
Barta said he and University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld both were in favor of waiting longer to make a decision about fall football.
However, the presidents voted on Aug. 11th to cancel fall football, and now Big Ten athletic departments are forced to deal with the financial shortcomings.
“Understand, there are still medical questions that I have that he has, but he was aligned with me and working towards trying to push this back as late as we could before a decision had to be made,” Barta said of Harreld.
The challenge facing every athletic department at this stage is trying to get back to something that resembles normal as quickly and as safely as possible.
That won’t be easy, though, with the virus still dictating how we live on a daily basis.
“I am certainly not going to sit here and complain that I work harder than somebody else, or that someone else’s problems aren’t greater than mine,” Barta said. “I’m blessed with a healthy family. So all I would tell you is I have never in my career experienced the volume and magnitude or decisions going all the way back to March. The gut-wrenching conversations and having to make decisions, the uncertainty.”
“I’m committed to working on the things and to get them turned around as fast as we can. But the uncertainty, I still don’t see the light at the end of that tunnel.”
Iowa is in the process of trying to secure a loan in order to help cover the financial losses, which could be in excess of $65 million.
This from an athletic department that in February was doing just fine from a financial standpoint, according to Barta, and that had been self-sustaining since 2007.
In less than six months, the Iowa athletic department has been devastated by a virus that shows no signs of going away.
In fact, the University of Iowa reported on Monday that over 100 students and employees had tested positive for COVID-19.
And with in-person-classes having started on Monday, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the number of positive cases would continue to climb.
Barta said Monday that there are no plans to cut any additional sports. But he only meant in regard to the next school year.
The uncertainty with the virus makes it impossible for Barta to project beyond just one school year.
But what if the virus lingers into the winter and the same concerns that are present now would be present then?
Barta was asked where the next round of budget cuts would come from in the wake of four sports having already been eliminated?
“If we don’t play sports in 2021, then my goodness, if the light isn’t at the end of that tunnel, then I think our society and our economy will have huge issues,” Barta said.
Barta was asked about a scenario in which a bubble would be used for the basketball season.
The Iowa men’s basketball team is considered one of the top teams in the country and features senior center Luka Garza, who is the early favorite to win national player of the year.
Barta talked on Monday about a bubble scenario in which four to six basketball teams would be invited to a city and stay in hotels while competing at an arena.
The NBA currently has its teams competing in a bubble setup in Orlando, Fla., and it has mostly been a success to this point.
“So in that sense, creating a bubble has been talked about,” Barta said. “The size of a basketball team is a lot smaller, so there’s a little bit more variables that are controllable.
“But what’s not controllable is the fact that they’re college students and they have classes and they have interactions with professors and other students. So beyond that tournament concept, and maybe a bubble NCAA Tournament, or Big Ten Tournament, the day-to-day we haven’t really talked about a bubble like the NBA has created.”
The Big Ten now hopes to play football as early as possible in 2021.
One plan being discussed would be to start the season in January and play indoors at neutral sites. The advantage to starting the season in January is that players would have more time to recover and then prepare for what is hoped to be a full season in the fall of 2021.
“So that’s one of the reasons we’re looking at that earlier schedule rather than later in the spring,’ Barta said. “And I would imagine, and it has been talked about again for those safety reasons, that the summer and the spring and the fall camp would look different than a normal fall camp just making sure that all student-athletes are at full health once they play that first game in 2021 fall.”
What became abundantly clear from listening to Barta update Iowa’s financial concerns is that the situation will almost certainly get worse before it gets better.
Our country still is divided on how to best deal with the virus, and sports is suffering because of it.
And when sports suffers, people suffer.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has been widely criticized for how the conference has handled the virus, and while some of it might be deserved, it wasn’t his decision to cancel fall football.
He was acting on the advice of medical and legal experts, who were acting on the side of caution.
They could prove to be right if the other three Power 5 conferences ultimately decide not to play football this fall, which still could happen.
The circumstances still are fluid in so many ways.
One thing that is certain, though, is that the virus has changed our lives and will continue to do so until we figure a way to contain it.