Matt Purdy is as Iowa as caucuses and corn. A native of Cedar Falls, the burly offensive lineman grew up wanting to be a Hawkeye football player. The minute coach Hayden Fry sat down in his living room in the early 1990s to recruit him, Purdy was sold. He canceled all other visits and committed soon thereafter.
Purdy played from 1992–95 at Iowa and was a team captain as a senior. In a room full of Hawkeyes memorabilia at his suburban Chicago home, one of his prized possessions is a picture of him helping carry Fry off the field after his 200th career victory.
More than two decades later, Purdy’s son, Ryan, became a Big Ten–caliber swimming recruit. His school choice? Iowa. Matt couldn’t have been more proud.
“I can’t wait to make my own legacy here and have people call you ‘Ryan Purdy’s dad,’“ Ryan told his father.
“Now I can’t stand the thought of moving him out of there in mid-May,” Matt said. “My family and I are rabid Hawkeye fans. We may have to split from that place.”
On Aug. 21, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta announced that the school was eliminating four sports at the end of the 2020–21 school year. Among them were the men’s and women’s swim teams (men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis were the others). Barta’s announcement was at best opportunistic, and at worst dishonest.
The announcement came 10 days after the Big Ten postponed the fall football season, touching off alarm and outrage around the conference. It was two days after conference commissioner Kevin Warren stated that, despite the backlash, the decision would not be reversed.
Barta and Iowa president Bruce Herrald piggybacked off the Big Ten news to deliver their bad news to the four eliminated programs. They directly cited the postponement of football.
This is the first paragraph from an “open letter” from Herrald and Barta announcing the news: “The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a financial exigency which threatens our continued ability to adequately support 24 intercollegiate athletics programs at the desired championship level. With the Big Ten Conference’s postponement of fall competition on Aug. 11, University of Iowa Athletics now projects lost revenue of approximately $100 million and an overall deficit between $60-75 million this fiscal year. A loss of this magnitude will take years to overcome. We have a plan to recover, but the journey will be challenging.”
And this is what Barta said on Aug. 24, when he had a Zoom press conference with the media: “The financial fallout that COVID-19 led to the postponement, cancellation, of fall football. Were it not for that, we would not have been dropping those four sports. And so, Aug. 11 was a memorable day. From that point forward, we started to put a plan into action.”
Seems pretty clear, right? Big Ten cancels fall football on Aug. 11, forcing Iowa’s hand to eliminate those sports. That was the party line. Except …
On Sept. 16, the Big Ten staged the U-turn to end all U-turns and brought back fall football. This led Purdy and many other Iowa alums, fans and athletes to ask a perfectly logical question: If football is back and the budget hit that was attributed to its postponement—verbally and in writing—is lessened, are the eliminated sports back as well?
Bluff called. Answer unchanged.
Herrald and Barta have dug in. Those sports are not coming back, they said.
“Will the announcement of football change the decisions we made? No,” Barta said Sept. 17. “The short answer is no. … Maybe our deficit goes from 75 million to 60 million. The deficit we will take on this year—I hate to use the word catastrophic, but it really is catastrophic. … Unfortunately that’s still going to be the case.”
It would have been easier to say that up front—that COVID-19 killed non-revenue sports, not the Big Ten leadership. Even with a fall football season, schools are bringing in a fraction of the usual revenue. Champaign County, home to the University of Illinois, estimates it will have approximately one-seventh the normal $20 million in revenue associated with a full home football slate .
But Barta didn’t play it that way. In terms of building a narrative, this was about the “memorable day” of Aug. 11.
The entire episode has been a case study in evading accountability from the Iowa administration. These well-paid leaders found a scapegoat in Warren, using his wildly unpopular decision to deflect criticism. Then they cut and ran, almost literally—Barta’s personal address to the 105 athletes who had their sports eliminated lasted about two minutes, according to those in the room.
Since then? The follow-up from athletic staffers who promised to help guide those devastated athletes through their next steps has not gotten positive reviews.
“Kind of crickets” was the description of men’s tennis player Jason Kerst, one of four athletes who met with media members Monday to express how they feel about Iowa’s response since dropping the bottom out beneath them. “… We have received no adequate follow-up since Aug. 21. The decision itself is very disappointing, but the lack of communication and transparency from our own administration is probably the most frustrating.”
Said Ryan Purdy: “There was no reaching out from them to check in on their athletes after we were cut.”
Fact is, Iowa was already poised to cut sports before the Big Ten postponed fall football due to forecast losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a letter from the school’s Board of Regents obtained by Sports Illustrated, in which the board refutes an assertion that it met in secret in violation of state laws, the timeline lays out the path Iowa took.
From the letter: “On July 31, President Harreld and University staff had a conference call with Board of Regents President Michael Richards and Regent Nancy Boettger to provide information on these efforts. Staff informed President Richards and Regent Boettger that one option being considered was elimination of yet-identified varsity sports.” That was reiterated in an Aug. 3 call.
On Aug. 14, the school informed regents that it had identified the four sports it would cut. A week later, those cuts were announced—with the football season postponement prominently mentioned as a reason why.
When the football season was revived last week, Barta talked about the “spring in the step” and “smiles on the faces” of the players upon hearing the news. That’s nice and all, but what about the athletes who aren’t just losing a fall season—they’re losing their entire program and future beyond 2020–21? Their happiness just doesn’t matter as much. Funny how that correlates to revenues and expenses.
Meanwhile, the drumbeats of protest from current athletes and alums in the eliminated sports has grown louder. A group called Save Iowa Sports, made up of hundreds of athletes, alumni and donors, says it has raised pledges totaling $1.65 million to restore those sports. They have put pressure on the administration to listen to them.
Matt Purdy is part of that group. They’d like to create a funding model that can be taken to every school facing similar situations—and there are many of those. Olympic sports programs are being cut nationwide, with more assuredly to come.
“This group is not going to be satisfied with just pause and reinstate [at Iowa],” Purdy said. “We want to develop a model for the country.”
In the meantime, a guy who bleeds black and gold is still hoping that things change at his alma mater.
“I still love being an Iowa Hawkeye,” Purdy said. “My son loves being an Iowa Hawkeye. I want to watch him walk across the stage at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and get his diploma. The University of Iowa has done some harm to these kids, and I hope they make it right.”