CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — You need only do one thing to make the athletics director at the University of Illinois angry.
Go ahead and question the motives behind playing football during a coronavirus pandemic without a confirmed vaccine that sees national death numbers and positive cases rise daily. That is what Josh Whitman said will see his mood change fairly instantly.
“I know the cynic in all of us says ‘well, it’s about the money’ and these decisions are being exclusively driven by financial considerations,” the Illinois athletics director said Thursday. “I really don’t like it when people question motives.”
A day after the Big Ten Conference announced its schedule plan for college football games to start on Sept. 3, when the Illini is slated to host No. 2 Ohio State in Champaign on a Thursday night, Whitman spoke to national, statewide and local reporters in a roundtable discussion about varying issues that lasted for nearly two hours, mostly dealing with the university’s financial implications and impact from the coronavirus epidemic.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we have no financial calculus. That wouldn’t be true,” Whitman said. “We have $13 million in scholarships we fund for our 500 student-athletes in 21 sports. They’re getting a world class education, a life-changing experience because of what we do. We have 300 employees in our athletics department that rely on us to help pay their rent or their mortgage, to put food on their table, to provide them with financial stability or security, insurance. We have a local economy here (in Champaign-Urbana) that relies on us to keep hotels open, restaurants, gas stations, retail establishments. And we give them the opportunity to provide our community members with jobs and disposable income.”
One of those issues was the reasoning behind college athletics administration pushing for a 2020 college football season in the fall semester months and in his opening statement to reporters, Whitman politely took issue with the opinion that the decision based on economics is based solely on economics.
“I’m not going to sit here and say there aren’t financial considerations involved. Obviously there are,” Whitman said. “But what I will tell you is after spending hundreds of hours on a call with my athletics directors across the Big Ten, and having talked ad nauseam with the commissioner and my colleagues, that’s not what this is really about. None of us have ever experienced this before. We’re kind of making this up as we go. All of us, no matter what we do, as a passion and an avocation, we’ve all tried to get back to some degree of normalcy as quickly as we can in whatever manner we can so long as we believe it is safe. And that’s in essence what we’re doing here.”
Illinois released data this week that says 1,200 tests have already been administered to athletes, coaches and athletics staff members. According to the release, the testing protocol has reportedly returned 23 positive results with all but three of those cases with the remaining athletes having already recovered and returned to the activity of the workouts. According to Illinois athletics spokesperson Kent Brown, “only four of the positive tests were remotely symptomatic” and no Illinois athlete has required a hospitalization after testing positive for COVID-19. In addition to the athletes testing, university COVID-19 protocols required staff members who interact regularly with Illini athletes to also be tested weekly. The results of more than 420 of those staff tests produced two positive cases. Illinois football has already seen senior tailback RaVon Bonner voluntarily opt out of the 2020 football season due to concerns over the COVID-19 epidemic.
Whitman said he anticipates the 2020 Illinois athletics budget will be down $2-3 million from anticipated revenue lost this past spring and could be down “at least” $20 million depending on the revenue generated with the amount of football games played this coming fall. However, Whitman said he still isn’t currently planning on Illinois athletics having to cut any of its 21 athletics programs but did say that anticipation could change if the financial impact related to the effects of COVID-19 continues for an extended period of time.
“My commitment to our students (and) my commitment to our staff is we are going to try to provide them with the opportunity to do the thing that they love while matching health and safety opportunities,” Whitman said. “I don’t wake up in the morning wondering ‘are we doing the right thing?’ but I’m am just continually evaluating (the question of) ‘are we still able to do this and meet those expectations?’”
Whitman also on Thursday reiterated the message by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren a day earlier when the league released its 2020 football schedule that if the league or individual institutions felt the health risk of COVID-19 was greater than the stated objective to playing fall sports, then the games would stop.
“Are we able to (play) in an environment and safe manner?” Whitman said. “And if any point, that answer becomes permanently no. Then, I know I’ve got to make a different decision. But that is a constantly ongoing question that not only I but every member of our leadership and every coach hasn’t left our minds in four months.”