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Leistikow: Here come the ripple effects of Big Ten's lack of fall football

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

On her drive back home to Central Iowa from Rosemont, Illinois, Julie Waggoner returned my call to discuss what she and other concerned football parents experienced at the Big Ten Conference offices that Friday morning.

As we conversed, an email popped into my inbox with an ominous subject line.

“Iowa to Discontinue 4 Sports Programs.”

In a joint release from athletics director Gary Barta and president Bruce Harreld, the University of Iowa announced it was eliminating the men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming/diving programs after the 2020-21 academic year, a result of massive budget shortfalls stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision, they made sure to include, was final.

Julie Waggoner, the mother of Iowa football player John Waggoner (formerly of Dowling Catholic), speaks at a gathering of parents near the Big Ten offices in Rosemont, Illinois, on Friday morning.

“That’s so sad,” said Waggoner, whose son, John, is a third-year defensive lineman for the Iowa football team. “Look at all of those athletes who have worked all of their lives. You decide early on in grade school and junior high to try to get to the next level. You work hard and put those sacrifices in.

"It is so sad.”

The news brought the day full circle for Julie Waggoner.

All the good people associated with other sports programs were now taking a gut punch of life-changing reality over the cancellation of fall football that parents were hoping to reverse.

“It’s coming to the point where I’m speaking up for the children (at the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital) that won’t get to see the ‘Wave’ this year,” Waggoner said. “How about the John’s Grocery (type businesses) of Iowa City and across the Big Ten that are going to lose business? Because even if we weren’t in the stadium, there would be a buzz and excitement about college football.

“We’ve got all of our students back (on campus) but, no, we cannot watch a football game. And to not have just tried (to play this fall), is so, so disappointing.”

The news of sports-cutting stinks.

It stinks for the current athletes in the four sports being slashed. It stinks for every coach and staff member associated with those teams, including Marc Long — whose 17th season as Iowa’s swimming and diving coach will be his last. It stinks for alums; former Iowa swim team captain Ryan Evans (Class of 2009) emailed Barta and Harreld (then me) Friday to say he’s “no longer a Hawkeye.” It stinks for aspiring youngsters, who now will have fewer major-college opportunities in those sports to extend their athletic crafts.

Although Iowa was the first Big Ten school to announce sports cuts this year, it won’t be the last. Every Big Ten athletics department is going to suffer badly from scrapping fall football, and programs are going to be slashed. Even if an abridged winter or spring season can be salvaged, Iowa (for example) will only be able to recover a fraction of football-specific revenues that approach $100 million annually.

Absolutely, athletics departments should’ve been building more reserve dollars as they collected massive media-rights annual windfalls over the past decade-plus.

But they didn’t.

They became dependent on football and addicted to spending.

Thus, football became too big to fail. And now, at least in the Big Ten, it's flailing. The ripple effects have begun.

Don’t get me wrong, Ohio State parent Randy Wade on Friday morning wasn’t focused on budget bottom lines when he led a chant of “Let us play” by 30 or so parents in Rosemont. The assembled parents were mostly agitated that the Big Ten (specifically commissioner Kevin Warren, who represents the 14 presidents and chancellors that made the decision) wasn’t engaging in dialogue to answer their questions and concerns.

That frustration didn’t subside Friday morning at what were believed to be empty Big Ten offices. But Rodney Nixon — whose son, Daviyon, is an Iowa defensive tackle — left the gathering confident that their voices were heard. More than two dozen media members covered the rally.

“Keep speaking out. Keep looking for transparency and answers,” Rodney Nixon said. “Until we get the information we need and desire, we’ll keep moving forward.”

One point of contention among parents: The Big Ten has not released specific data supporting its Aug. 11 football announcement, like the Pacific-12 Conference did.

“It’d just be interesting to see what medical information they saw that is different from the SEC, Big 12 and ACC (conferences that are forging ahead with fall football),” said Phil Spiewak, who joined the Iowa contingent Friday and is the father of walk-on long snapper Austin Spiewak.

Jay Kallenberger, the father of Iowa offensive lineman Mark Kallenberger, speaks near the Big Ten offices on Friday morning.

Waggoner is a nurse practitioner and operates a pediatric practice with her husband, Brian, in Clive. What bugs her is the data she’s seen is widely conflicting. Her points: The virus has mutated, and has become less deadly than it was in March, albeit more contagious; a study linking myocarditis to COVID-19 is not conclusive; data in Big Ten country is better than it is nationally. She is frustrated that presidents and chancellors have been largely quiet on how and why they voted the way they did.

“If you are doing something as outlandish as halting Big Ten football, which will have a ripple effect on economies, people's livelihoods, people's mental health,” Waggoner said, “… I’d like to see these presidents standing forward and explaining (their votes).”

For about 24 hours this week, the Big Ten parents were starting to look like more of a punch line than plucky punchers. But Friday was a personal reminder that their motives are sincere, and they want legitimate answers and conversations to an issue that, on so many levels, is a big one.

Unfortunately, four Hawkeye sports teams learned that the hard way Friday.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.