UB Athletic Department: Managing Through the Crisis

Make it PossiBULL Campaign

Like all athletic departments across the country, University at Buffalo is facing significant financial challenges due to the ongoing global pandemic. UB’s Athletic Director, Mark Alnutt, and the rest of the Athletic Department recognized that there would be a significant loss in revenue when it announced the postponement of fall sports — that loss coming from a lack of college football playoff revenue, a lack of potential television and ticket sales revenue, but then also the reduction in the student activity fee due to the University’s mode of learning this semester (which is primarily remote and hybrid learning). In acknowledging that challenge, the Athletic Department wanted to find an opportunity, from an external standpoint, to raise money to cover the additional COVID-19 costs for the next year or however long it lasts. Mark Alnutt emphasized that this money is being raised so that the Department is “able to operate in a healthy and safe manner” and really more so that they can “continue to mind the guidelines that are out there from the NCAA in regards to COVID-19 testing.”

Photo source: http://www.collegead.com

As a result, the athletic department launched the “Make it PossiBULL Campaign” to support their almost 400 student-athletes. The Campaign, which launched on September 1, 2020, will run for one year with the goal of raising $1 million. Alnutt said that the dollar figure is an estimation in regards to the cost of administering COVID-19 tests to athletes and staff throughout the fall and into the spring semesters, the cost of required personal protective equipment (PPE), and then other COVID related costs. Mark did not want this campaign to be a “general campaign just to help benefit the athletic department.” He really wanted to drill down that this campaign was COVID specific and that it would hopefully help offset those predicted financial shortfalls and safeguard the university’s commitment to every student-athlete.

Legal Hurdles an Athletic Department Faces

I asked Mark what some of the legal hurdles they, as an athletic department, had to answer and address when the pandemic first hit and now. His response was “the liability.” COVID-19 not only increased the liability of athletic departments being able to compete, but also to even operate. According to Mark, the Department had to be very clear on what standards and guidelines it was required to adhere to. There were (and still are) multiple layers of guidelines athletic departments were required to follow, whether it be from CDC at the federal level, state level orders, NCAA guidelines, etc. Once UB covered those bases and made sure they “checked all of those boxes in terms of how [they] were going to be operating,” then they could revert back to the student-athlete and the rights of the student-athletes.

One of the most popular terms that came about during this time was “opt out.” Student athletes now have the opportunity to opt out of their upcoming season if they don’t feel comfortable and if it’s not in their best interest to uphold their side of the scholarship that they are on. This means that student-athletes could stay home for the semester without having to worry about being taken off scholarship or having their scholarship reduced, which may have happened pre-COVID if a student-athlete opted out.

The opt out provision was announced on August 5, 2020, at the same time the NCAA announced that member schools are not allowed to require student-athletes to waive their legal rights regarding COVID-19 as a condition of athletic participation. Essentially, this meant that schools could not require student-athletes to sign a blanket assumption of risk with respect to COVID. Mark mentioned that when they were coming up with their return to campus plan back in April/May 2020, he heard about some institution at the very beginning that was having its student-athletes sign those waivers. Early on, Mark did not want to go that route, not only from a legal standpoint, but also from an optics standpoint. UB did not want to mandate student-athletes had to sign away their rights and say that the university was not responsible. Rather, how the Athletic Department approached its return to campus was to develop an understanding with the student-athletes. This meant it was up to the Athletic Department to educate student-athletes (to the fullest extent possible) of what the guidelines were when they returned to campus, what to expect in terms of testing, masking, social distancing, hand washing and other hygiene, and that there is an expectation of adherence to those guidelines with a constant reemphasis on them. This method has allowed UB Athletics to be in the position that they are in now, where they have been very successful with their procedures as it pertains to testing. Mark said that they are “very comfortable in the space that [they] landed.”

Title IX Concerns

In late August, the NCAA followed suit to what it did in the spring in that it granted a waiver, or eligibility relief, for all NCAA fall sport student-athletes regardless of activity this year (and who knows if that will happen with winter sports). The potential result of this is having a surplus of student-athletes and not enough scholarships to go around. For example, you have a senior who wants to come back for their last year of eligibility, but their spot was supposed to be taken by a prospective student-athlete who had already signed a commitment to that particular institution. As Mark pointed out, this could cause issues with participation numbers under Title IX and scholarship dollars. Once that senior makes a decision to come back and there’s now an influx of other seniors doing the same thing, there may be difficult decisions and conversations to be had with student-athletes. Mark mentioned that schools have to look to these seniors first that are currently on the roster because that’s the opportunity that has been granted by the NCAA, and “unfortunately, it might impact some of those recruiting classes with commitments” but that schools have not offered any scholarships to.

Employment Concerns

The job security of employees is always a concern, and that is no different within an athletic department. According to Mark, there are “three buckets” that tend to make up an athletic department’s budget: personnel, grant-in-aid, and operational. In his opinion, UB has done a great job of looking at how to cut costs and has been able achieve some cost cuts through not having competition and the recruiting dead period (which has been extended to January 1). Even with these two options, an athletic department can only do so much in regards to how they operate to make the budget work. Once this avenue has been exhausted, they then have start to look at the other two buckets.

In terms of grant-in-aid opportunity, when we’re on the other side of this Mark would love to be ahead of peers and be in a position where UB does not have to reduce its scholarships or cost-of-attendance. However, he is not naive and he understands the reality of that happening.

From a personnel standpoint, UB is in a different position than most of its peers. As a state school in the SUNY system, all employees at the university, including athletic department employees, staff, and coaches, are part of a union. Because of this, Mark does not have the ability to lay people off or mandate furloughs; he has to receive direction from the state in regards to what those furloughs might look like. People say that the athletic department could just “non-renew folks,” but because of union collective bargaining requirements, “non-renewed folks” would still have to be paid out anywhere from 6 1/2 months to 14 months. So from Mark’s view, there’s really no saving from that standpoint and in doing something like that you may very well be having a detrimental impact upon your operations. Moving forward, UB will see what it can do from a state standpoint and whatever comes down, they are prepared to move forward with that.

How to Contribute to Make it PossiBULL

The Make it PossiBULL Campaign is a year long campaign with multiple “mini campaigns” associated with it throughout the year. One way to contribute and participate in the Campaign is a Virtual 5K/10K Presented by Anchor Bar Amherst happening September 26th & 27th. Registration is $25 per participant and must be completed by September 24th. Participants have the option to run, walk or bike during the virtual race and can complete it anywhere and on their own time. Please join the Buffalo Sports & Entertainment Law Society in supporting our UB Bulls by participating in this event!

Photo source: University at Buffalo Alumni Association

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