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Wednesday, August 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A Grip on Sports: As local universities deal with coronavirus-caused budget issues, the financial woes will filter down to the athletic departments

Roos Field, the football venue of the Eastern Washington University Eagles, shown in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Roos Field, the football venue of the Eastern Washington University Eagles, shown in 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • COVID-19 has made millions of people around the world sick. It’s also killed hundreds of thousands. And there is a depth of collateral damage that is unprecedented. Among the latter group you can add college athletic programs.

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• According to an Associated Press survey, nearly 100 sports programs have been eliminated recently at four-year schools around the nation. The reason? Coronavirus-caused budget issues. It’s a number that is only going to grow as schools move closer to adopting their 2020-21 budgets.

So far, all of the program cuts have come at schools not in the upper tier of college sports, the Power 5 conferences, which include the Pac-12. But even those schools, especially the ones at the lower-end of the financial spectrum (for example, Washington State and Oregon State), must be examining which sports can be, at the least, trimmed to the bone.

Looming on the horizon as well is the expected costs of the name, image and likeness issue, as the NCAA tries to find a way to allow athletes to make more money on their own without an outright school-issued paycheck. The athlete’s windfall may come from off-campus sources, but it’s more than likely the folks who will stand in line to help the athletes are already donating to their local athletic department. One would have to be extremely naïve to believe the donations to the school would not be diminished at some level.

But that’s for down the road. There are enough problems already.

For many, the fiscal year begins July 1, so decisions on campus-wide spending must be made by then. There probably isn’t an institution of higher learning in the country unaffected by the COVID-19-sparked economic downturn. As each school struggles with balancing a budget school-wide, the athletic department moves into the crosshairs of other elements on campus.

Take Eastern Washington University for instance.

The Eagles’ athletic department deficit was already used as impetus for the faculty group to propose cuts, even in the successful football program. The argument is simple: when the university as a whole is struggling to make ends meet, the athletic department can’t be subsided to such a degree. The simplicity of the argument makes it a tough one to knock back, as most folks who take a stand would rather not delve into the more complex issue of influence a successful athletic department has on the school’s health.

Former University of Idaho president Chuck Staben has become somewhat of an advocate for non-revenue sports, after the Vandals, under his tenure, almost eliminated three of them. Turns out, according to Staben, the school was making money off the programs, as most of the so-called Olympic sports athletes were paying their way.

So if cuts are needed, and no one in their right mind would argue they aren’t, where should they come from?

At the bigger schools, it’s easy in one sense and impossible in another. The football program budgets are out of control. It’s an arm race the haves are winning, but the have-nots must continue to engage in to have any shot. We’re not just talking about head coach and assistant coach salaries either, though those are at an insane level. We’re talking the support systems at many Power 5 campuses that rival NASA-levels. For every football launched into the air at Alabama, hundreds of people are involved, the number of which the NCAA lost control of years ago.

How many quality-control folks are needed for your offense? There must be a lot of problems with the quality of the assistant coaches if it takes a handful, as some schools have.

Or does there have to be an academic advisory for every three players? Wouldn’t one for every 10 suffice? Honestly, how many regular students does each academic advisory have to deal with? Should that same ratio apply?

How about all those folks who prepare meals? Really? This relatively new phenomenon has grown to such a degree some schools are on their way to gaining a Michelin star.

Of course most schools dealing with budget issues today aren’t doing such things. They are just scraping by. The cost of a roll of athletic tape means a lot more at Big Sky schools than it does in the SEC. And COVID-19 related costs, such as testing and sanitizing, will hit harder for those schools as well. As will a diminished number of fans in the stands.

No one is arguing cuts have to be made. In tough times, everyone has to tighten their belts, even those whose belts have run out of holes. But cutting sports seems to be, as Staben’s Idaho study found, self-defeating for many schools.

There are no easy answers. And yet everyone spins their wheels looking for them. Cutting program always seems to be where the roulette ball lands. It shouldn’t.

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WSU: As we mentioned yesterday, the protests welling up due to George Floyd’s death (and others from similar circumstances) have engaged many in the sporting world, from players to coaches to others. Theo Lawson has a story this morning that presents the comments and reactions from those connected to the local schools. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and around college sports, most every school has someone, or everyone, speaking out. Here are a few more stories on their comments. … There are other issues as well. Theo passes along the news commissioner Larry Scott talked about what the conference is planning concerning COVID-19 testing in the fall. … In a related note, Marshall University welcomed back athletes this week and two tested positive, along with a staff member. All were asymptomatic. … Scott’s pronouncement was covered up and down the West Coast. The amount of contemplated testing may have surprised some. … The NCAA is putting together a timeline for schools to follow as they return to football. … USC cut ties with a booster whose tweet angered many. … UCLA coach Chip Kelly received some recent criticism. … Oregon is recruiting the heck out of Arizona. … The former Arizona assistant who died recently made an impact on a lot of people. … Arizona State's Herm Edwards is gaining respect. … In basketball news, the NCAA cancellation of evaluation periods didn’t please Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak. Nor did Both Gach’s decision. … Oregon intends to be back on campus July 1. … UCLA's new athletic director sat down for an interview.

Gonzaga: The WCC announced yesterday which teams the Zag men would play just once this season in the conference's 16-game schedule. If you are a fan of the Portland Pilots, and there are some out there, they won’t be coming to Spokane. Again. Jim Meehan has more on the schedule. … Around the WCC, as you might expect, the schedule announcement, as bare-boned as it was, was news in a lot of places.

EWU: Chad Sokol covers the university’s budget issues in great detail in this story.

CCS, NIC: The two local community colleges have made their decisions on who will lead their women’s basketball programs. Ryan Collingwood has those picks covered in this story.

Seahawks: Bobby Wagner spoke with the media yesterday and he had a lot to say. Much of wasn’t about football. … Colin Kaepernick had a message as well. Is it time to reevaluate it? What he was saying is being echoed by many now.

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• The news broke this morning basketball great Wes Unseld died. Most people in the Northwest probably remember him as the guy who led the Washington Bullets past the Sonics in the 1978 NBA championship series. I remember him as a role model. I’ll address that tomorrow. Until then …

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