Jen Cohen called it “a typical Sunday morning in college athletics.”
Washington’s athletic director was joking, of course, referring to a weekend waylaid by the Pac-12 Unity Movement’s freshly delivered list of demands. But in another sense, unexpected occurrences have become the norm in an unprecedented offseason.
In the past several months, Cohen and Co. have addressed the aforementioned Pac-12 players movement, social justice issues and the continued quest to salvage a fall season — and survive as an athletic department — amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cohen broached those topics in a phone interview Thursday with The Seattle Times. Here is a portion of that interview:
Question: One of the #WeAreUnited Movement’s demands surrounds name, image and likeness rights, which will be arriving in college athletics sooner than later. What are your thoughts on that?
Answer: I’m supportive of NIL (Name Image Likeness). Right now it’s just a matter of student-athletes having to be patient. Obviously there are some states in our conference where there is already state legislation on NIL that may be implemented before a national plan. I just look for that national and federal approach, only because we compete nationally. We recruit nationally. That’s a reason why I think that’s the best option. But our conference is really taking a lead in this area and helping guide legislation and helping guide conversations with our legislators and with our campuses on this topic. But I’m super supportive of it.
I will say that with every great intended decision that we make, we always have a set of consequences to it. So I do think it’s going to be challenging with guard rails. How do you avoid inducement from a recruiting standpoint? All that being said, students should have a right to benefit financially, like other students do, on their name, image and likeness. There’s going to be a lot of creative ways for students to do that. I think it’s another step for flexibility for student-athletes.
Q: This week, the Bay Area News Group reported that the Pac-12 is looking into offering a loan program to its teams should the football season be canceled. Is that something UW would potentially be interested in?
A: Well, we have so much debt already. So more debt would be likely the absolutely last resort. I think we have other levers that we need to pull. If we’re unable to play football, we’re going to have to cut expenses again. We’re going to have to keep cutting expenses, but we’re going to have to still honor supporting our student-athletes. I think we’re going to have to look at other revenue generations, including fundraising. I think debt is … like we’ve said all along, everything would be on the table at all of our schools if we found ourselves in a no-competition scenario. But for us, there’s so many challenges to that. I’m hoping we can find other ways to solve our problems.
Q: In May, when you gave a presentation to UW’s board of regents, you said the potential financial impact of COVID-19 could range from kind of manageable to devastating. How are you framing that right now, what the possibilities are at this point?
A: It’s kind of wild. They’re all kind of the same ranges as far as possibilities. Right now we have a fall schedule. We know the impact of less television games. So we understand that. We’re really unclear about fan revenue. Obviously if we played tomorrow we wouldn’t be able to have fans. It’s pretty apparent that we’re not going to be able to have full stadiums at least for part of the season. So then there’s going to be a revenue impact there. But that’s very different than if we’re not able to have a fall season. So we’re still working through it. We took action on the 15% (operational budget) cuts and 10% salary cuts (in the 2021 financial year), and we’ll continue to do even more operational and potential other things in our salaries to save funds. But it’s still too early to tell which scenario we’re going to be living in and the range and the impact.
But it certainly continues to be even more challenging every day, especially because we want to support our students. That’s the thing. We’re committing to scholarships. That’s a significant line item. When we’re committing to medical care, academic support, all that stuff is extraordinarily expensive without anything that comes in to support it. That’s why our fans and our donors are so important to us, because we wouldn’t be able to offer those services or recover as a department if we don’t have that kind of support down the road.
Q: With the football opener being Sept. 26, when will you have to make the decision on fan attendance?
A: I feel like we have time. We haven’t forced ourselves to have a set deadline yet on that. We just feel like that gave us a little bit more flexibility. There’s a lot of people that need to have input and oversight over that decision, and so we continue to have conversation with our colleagues over in Pullman, our friends over at the Seahawks. Every time we make a change in our COVID protection plan or change in our footprint we bring that to the county so that there’s oversight there as well. So I’m not sure. Obviously we’ll try to have clarity around that in early September at the latest. But I’ve tried really hard not to put a deadline on anything. I’m the same person that thought, “This will probably be a one-year challenge financially.” Now I’m like, “Oh, boy. I should have never said that.” I think I’ve learned, like all of us have, that there’s no way to predict.
Q: Well, after you say that I’ll immediately ask you to predict something. We’re 11 days out from when fall camps for football are supposed to start. Do you expect you’ll be able to do that if everything stays on the same track?
A: I think what I’m expecting is that there will be data and research that comes from our medical advisory committee about what would be necessary for us to translate from where we are now to full contact. Once we understand what would be necessary from a testing standpoint and other protocols, then we’ll be able to answer that question about whether or not we’ll be able to do it. The goal is to get a plan and a timeline so we can all work off something. We also recognize that we don’t dictate the timeline. The medical community dictates that. Our public health officials dictate that. As much as we want to start practices and we want to play football, we’re not going to do it if we can’t follow the expectations and the guidelines that are being put forth for us.
I do think that things change when you go from the situation we’re in now to when you get to more contact. So I have confidence that we’ll have really clear protocols and a plan. Then at that point in time we’ll have to — here, and as a league — figure out, can we realistically follow those and support that plan? We have so much access to resources and brilliant people that are studying this every day here at the university. So we’ve been very fortunate to be able to do a lot of those things. Maybe we would be able to do everything that our medical experts ask us to do (to start fall camp Aug. 17), but we may not be able to have all of our schools be able to do that. That’s going to be a really challenging question down the road if we bump into that.
Q: Of course, you may have many more students returning to campus soon for the fall quarter. What’s the level of confidence or optimism that you can continue to maintain your social bubble with athletes and avoid outbreaks as more students and more faculty members return to campus?
A: It’s really going to be about the motivation of each person individually. We’ve had really great success with the student-athletes that we have. But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that that’s just a little over a third of our student-athletes. We have over 650 student-athletes, and we have 240-250 student-athletes in our footprint right now. So if you even add that into the equation … I feel confident that if we’re going to have student-athletes training and practicing and competing then we’re going to have the protocols in place to do it safely or we’re not going to do it. But it’s always hard to predict how well our students are going to stay healthy away from the footprint.
I get it. I’m a mom of two teenage sons. So I think the more people, the more challenging it will be. But I will also say this: Our student-athletes, they want to compete. There’s definitely questions. There’s definitely unknowns. There’s definitely fears. We all share them. But at the same time, we have student-athletes that want to be together. They want to train. They want to compete. They want to have community. And I think that motivation to stay healthy is what’s helped at least the group that we have right now to have such a positive experience so far.