Iowa AD Gary Barta gleeful about return of football, but offers no reprieve for 4 sports he's cutting
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa athletic director Gary Barta was so eager to see the reaction of his football players to the news that a fall season was being revived that he spent Wednesday morning in their training complex, watching alongside them as the Big Ten Conference held a televised press briefing.
“You could just see an extra spring in their step and a few more smiles on their face, because they now have something to focus for,” Barta told reporters Thursday.
“This was a big day for football. But it was also a big day for all of our other sports.”
Well, not all of them, actually.
In contrast to the delight over the return of football, thanks to stringent COVID-19 testing protocols that will eventually apply to all Hawkeye teams, Barta offered this glum pronouncement to anyone hoping he would now reconsider cutting four of his sports programs:
“The short answer is no. … Those decisions won’t change, because the financial crisis is certainly still in play.”
Hundreds of Iowa alumni have been asking Barta for time to come up with a plan to stave off the planned elimination of men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis, and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Barta announced Aug. 21 that he was taking that step in light of a budget deficit that he said could reach $75 million without a fall football season.
The Big Ten unveiled plans for a nine-game season Wednesday, reversing course one month after saying it didn’t believe the sport could be played safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The games will be contested without fans, depriving schools such as Iowa of more than $20 million in ticket revenue. And it’s uncertain how many will actually be played, since there are no bye weeks built into the new schedule, which will run Oct. 23-Dec. 19. If any team experiences an outbreak of the new coronavirus, those contests won’t be held or made up at a later date.
And that is why Barta remained adamant that dropping four sports, which he estimated will save his department $5 million annually, still must happen. At best, he said, the presence of a shortened season might take this year’s deficit down to $55 million, and perhaps he won’t have to take out a loan as sizeable as the $75 million he had projected.
“The deficit that we will take on this year is catastrophic,” Barta said. “It will be better, but far from relief.”
That was not the news a Hawkeye alumni group called Save Iowa Sports wanted to hear. Certainly, Barta happily mingling with football players Wednesday provided a much different image than the Aug. 21 meeting in which he informed a stunned group of Hawkeye athletes that their sport would no longer exist after this academic year. Those present at that gathering said Barta dropped the news in a two-minute message, then walked out before taking any questions.
An affidavit provided to the Register on Thursday revealed that Barta was thinking about eliminating sports as early as July 31. That was the week before the Big Ten initially announced its intent to play a 10-game football schedule starting Sept. 5. On Aug. 11, the league pulled the plug on that idea, citing unknowns surrounding the spread of COVID-19 and its potential long-term impact on young athletes.
Mark Braun, executive director of the Iowa Board of Regents, said in an affidavit dated Wednesday that he was informed July 31 by university staff that a reduction of sports programs was on the table. Two of the Regents were on that call, Braun testified, and those two were joined by a third Regent on a similar call Aug. 3. The affidavit was prepared in response to a complaint from a Hawkeye alumnus lodged with the Iowa Public Information Board that the Regents had violated the state’s open meetings law.
The Regents rejected that claim, saying that the power to cut sports rests with university presidents, in this case Bruce Harreld. Additionally, Braun testified: “At no point did a majority of the members of the Board of Regents gather, either in-person or electronically, for the purposes of deliberating or taking action upon President Harreld’s decision to eliminate any varsity sports.”
Barta’s decision means Iowa will field 20 sports, instead of 24, starting next year. Barta also cut staff salaries, eliminated some positions, and has instituted furlough weeks as ways to reduce costs. Those moves are in addition to the loan he still is planning to take on.
Barta said Thursday that there will be extra expenses for his department this year, including paying for daily COVID-19 antigen tests for athletes, coaches and trainers involved in competition; quarantining athletes who test positive; and hiring additional vehicles in order for teams to socially distance while traveling to road games.
Barta does not yet have a cost estimate for the testing, because the Big Ten is in negotiations with companies who will provide that platform to all schools. The 14 universities will split those costs.
Barta said he was comfortable that his athletes would have access to COVID-19 testing, with rapid results, that the general student population does not have.
“If I were coming into our buildings right now, I could social distance, I could make choices, I could do online classes,” Barta said of Iowa students. “If you’re going to have practice. If you are body-to-body sweating and breathing together, that’s a unique situation and one that, in order to pull that off, requires additional testing and a different way of going about things.”
Those tests will be under the auspices of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Barta said, although a site has not been determined. COVID-19 tests have been gathered in the athletic department since football players arrived on campus in early June. Neither has Iowa designated its chief infection officer, who will report results to the Big Ten.
Big Ten football teams must begin the daily tests by Sept. 30. A confirmed positive test would require a player to spend three weeks away from the sport.
The availability of rapid daily testing was the “game-changer” that allowed sports to return, Barta said. No Hawkeye team has been able to compete since mid-March.
“The path forward that’s been created was critical for all of our sports,” he said. “In order for any of our teams to play, this needed to be established. And all of our sports will come under the same protocol.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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