UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she’s proud of what she called a cautious approach to playing through the COVID-19 pandemic by the athletic department.
In her yearly address Friday to the UW Athletic Board that also touched on budget issues and pending NCAA legislation, Blank said the Badgers have been “more hesitant to jump in if we think there are any risks than some other teams.”
“We’ve tried to balance the very strong desire that we know our student-athletes have to play but also need to keep our teams safe,” Blank said. “We’ve pulled out of a few games and we’ve delayed some things simply because we didn’t think it was safe at that point.
“That’s the way we should be behaving right now. And I really appreciate that on the part of everyone who’s been part of creating that culture.”
After a delay to the season’s start, the UW football team had three of eight scheduled games canceled because of positive coronavirus tests either on its roster or its opponent’s. The women’s hockey team had six games wiped out because of positive tests and the men’s hockey team had a December series pushed back.
Three women’s basketball non-conference games were canceled and the men’s basketball team had to reschedule a game at Penn State.
Blank addressed pandemic-related revenue shortfalls both in athletics and across campus as a whole in her 20-minute talk with the board. She said the net hit to the campus budget is expected to be $320 million from the start of the pandemic last March through the end of the 2021 fiscal year in June.
The athletic department has estimated a $47 million net impact for the 2020-21 school year despite a savings of $26 million in expenses.
Blank said the university stands alone among its peers because it has no private market borrowing authority. She said she has discussed the topic with legislators and hopes to have it addressed in the state budget.
Before the school year started, UW Athletics officials were investigating the potential to be part of a Big Ten-wide financing vehicle, according to emails. They were interested in up to $75 million in borrowing as a line of credit.
“This is exactly the moment where you would borrow in the midst of a very deep short-term revenue shortfall and spread that out over the coming years where you think you’re going to be back to normal,” Blank said.
She acknowledged that the athletic department has been a net financial contributor to campus operations for years, providing money that goes to general financial aid and library support.
“We will do what we need to do to make sure the athletics program comes out of this strongly and is able to resume all normal operations should we be fortunate enough to be back in that world come fall,” Blank said.
Blank reiterated her stance against pay for play in college athletics but recognized that the landscape is facing a major shift in the coming months.
State laws allowing for college athletes to profit from use of their name, image and likeness are set to take effect starting this summer. Blank, a member of the NCAA Board of Governors, said there’s little disagreement that the body’s rules need to be loosened with some “guardrails.”
She said universities should have some say in what products athletes promote and should be able to ensure that payment is fair and doesn’t “become a pretext to basically pass money under the table to student-athletes.”
The NCAA was set to vote on new rules covering name, image and likeness issues and transfer policies in January but punted after receiving guidance from the Justice Department that changes may violate antitrust laws.
Congress is involved with crafting federal legislation that could mitigate the impact of different laws from state to state. The U.S. Supreme Court also has agreed to hear arguments on lower court rulings that barred the NCAA from imposing limits on education-related benefits.
“It is a time of enormous ferment, conversation, controversy,” Blank said. “And it’s not clear all the changes that are going to come down the line in the years ahead. It’s going to continue to be several years, I think, of change and controversy.”
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