University of Iowa swimmer Tom Schab was in his apartment Friday when he received a notification on his phone: team meeting that morning. That’s short notice, he thought.
Conversing with teammates, Schab learned that other sports would be at the meeting as well.
“We started getting pretty nervous,” he said.
The meeting was in the practice gym at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the school’s basketball venue. Chairs were spaced apart for social distancing. Schab and 69 other male and female swimmers sat down alongside 14 male gymnasts and 12 male tennis players. Athletic director Gary Barta and some other staffers came in to address the nearly 100 athletes.
Schab said Barta first told them that “before I get to the bad news, everyone is going to be supported.” Then he announced that the four sports were being eliminated at the end of the 2020–21 school year. Gone.
On Monday, when Barta had a media zoom call to gloss right past the eliminated sports and move on to discussing football, he declared Friday “one of the most difficult days of my career.” Sounded good, but how difficult did he really make it for himself?
According to athletes who were in the room for the announcement, Barta’s role lasted about two minutes. He spoke and then fled, leaving the details to his staff and the tears to the athletes.
What a leader. What accountability. What a wreck of a room Barta left behind.
“I just kept looking around at everyone in the gym and seeing distraught faces,” said Schab, a senior distance swimmer from Clovis, Calif. “People were crying. It was a shock for everyone, especially the freshmen. They just got here; now what were they going to do?”
Freshmen in the three sports had moved onto campus that week. Foreign athletes had been back for a couple weeks longer to go through COVID-19 quarantine. Classes were starting in three days. Everyone in the gym had committed to being at Iowa, only to have the rug pulled out from under them as soon as they’d unpacked their bags.
The affected athletes were told they could stay in the gym as long as they needed to sort through everything. Many of them retreated to quiet corners to call their parents and relay the news, trying to quickly sort through options: transfer on the fly with limited options; stay; take a sudden gap year?
Schab surveyed the heartbreaking scene and sent a message to the swim team group text: “Let’s meet up. I have a few things to say.”
Schab is not a star, but he is a committed team member. His partial scholarship by no means covers the out-of-state tuition cost of going to Iowa, so he lifeguards at the school’s aquatic facility at night after practice to help pay the bills. In a sport with more than 30 male swimmers and just 9.9 allotted scholarships, he is in many ways your typical Division I Olympic sport athlete.
Normally reserved, Schab felt compelled to do something in this awful moment. With his tearful teammates gathering around, he stood on a chair and delivered a speech of sorts.
“No matter what, we are a team—even if we no longer have a team,” Schab said. “Even if we end up in different states and different countries, even if some of us end up on different teams. We have to stick together. Hawks help Hawks.”
Then the team did its traditional cheer and sang the school fight song. Even on their worst day as a team, these young men and women were more loyal to Iowa athletics than Iowa athletics is to them.
This is the human cost of eliminating college athletic programs. This is where the impact is felt beyond the balance sheet.
“They’re not just dollar signs,” said longtime Iowa swimming coach Marc Long, himself an alumnus and member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. “They’re people. Education is a people business, and these are young people who trusted us and trusted our department and trusted the university.”
College sports has been big business for decades, with a sharp escalation within the last 10 years. And business is terrible right now—especially in the Big Ten. The conference announced Aug. 11 that it is postponing fall sports, including the cash cow that is football, until 2021, and the reverberations from that will be felt for a long time. The league’s decision is justifiable—there is a pandemic going on, which many people seem to overlook—but costly.
But Iowa wasted no time in being first to make drastic cuts. Was this a rush order designed to fall on the heels of the Big Ten’s controversial decision, shifting blame to commissioner Kevin Warren? Could the school have waited to see what kind of revenue can be recouped by a potential winter or spring football season? Did Iowa really go dead broke after collecting a $55.6 million conference revenue share earlier this summer?
Maybe. Maybe not. Barta said Monday that the school will apply for a $75 million loan. It would be instructive to see a breakdown of where that money goes.
It is, of course, true that football pays the bills for most of the athletic department at Power-5 conference schools like Iowa. Without that money, a lot of nice things don’t happen for the other teams on campus. That’s the business side of college athletics.
But for much longer than there have been huge TV contracts, broad-based athletic programs have been part of the mission of higher education. When football’s prodigious spending habits become reasons to slash other sports, that’s a problem.
Fact is, football staff sizes are outrageous. Facilities are outrageous. Even funding 85 scholarships is difficult to justify. And salaries are outrageous.
Barta gave football coach Kirk Ferentz one of the most ludicrous contracts of all time in 2010, a 10-year deal worth $42 million with all buyouts lopsidedly in favor of the coach. In the decade since, Ferentz has won one (1) Big Ten divisional title and zero (0) conference titles.
Digest these numbers from Iowa’s 2018–19 Department of Education filing: men’s gymnastics rang up a paltry $183,481 in operating expenses; men’s swimming was $263,357; women’s swimming was $244,141; and men’s tennis was $217,608. Combined total: just under $900,000.
Now remember this: Iowa paid its alleged racist bully of a football strength coach $1.1 million in a separation agreement earlier this summer. Chris Doyle, described by a host of former Hawkeyes as the worst kind of coaching meathead, got more money to go away than it cost to operate four programs combined.
After creating nightmarish negative publicity for Iowa football, Doyle’s separation hush money was the equivalent of 15 months’ pay. He had been the highest-paid strength coach in the country at $800,000 per year. Meanwhile, Iowa swimmers were prepared to pay for their own suits and goggles this swim season.
Hawkeyes assistant coach Emma Sougstad described the experience last Friday as “absolutely devastating.” She’s an Iowa native and an Iowa alum, arriving on campus in 2013 as “a little farm kid” and graduating in 2017 with her name on nine school records. “I did not want to leave here until my name was off the board and every record had been broken,” she said, knowing that would mean the program had improved.
She’ll be leaving after this season for another job. Against her will. But if one thing has sparked some pride in both Sougstad and Long, it’s been the reaction of the college swimming community. The Big Ten swim coaches are having a conference call Tuesday to discuss how to help the program, and Iowa swimming alums have checked in from all over the globe offering support.
“Our goal is to share our value,” Sougstad said. “That’s one of the things we want to express to the public. My main goal is to have a swimmer in an Iowa cap again.”
Like most swimming programs, Iowa’s has one of the highest team grade-point averages on campus. And like most swimming programs, the small outlay in terms of scholarship money is largely offset by tuition money brought in (on the academic side of campus). There also is tradition here—the program is 103 years old and is considered the birthplace of the butterfly stroke—and a state-of-the-art facility.
In fact, that facility is where the 2021 NCAA men’s swimming and diving championships are scheduled to be held in March. Which is more than a little awkward. Iowa administrators may wish the meet is moved elsewhere, although the financial hit on Iowa City’s hotels and restaurants would be significant.
If they do hold the meet at Iowa, expect an outpouring of support from competing teams for the Hawkeyes in what would be their last (for now) moment on the college swimming stage. And no shortage of condemnation for the administration that killed the program.
These are difficult dollars-and-cents decisions, no doubt. And they’re everywhere. Iowa will not be the last Division I school that eliminates sports this school year, especially if the football season fails to happen in either fall or spring.
But keep in mind who gets tossed aside in these trying times. Keep in mind young people like Tom Schab, who stand up on a chair in the middle of a demoralized room to bring his teammates together one more time. They are the human collateral damage in the football arms race.
As Marc Long said, “You never want to get numb to these stories.”