As the summer comes to a close, and many American universities finalize their plans for the fall in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, collegiate sports remain in limbo, awaiting a decision from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
As of August 11, the Pac12 conference, which includes four men’s water polo teams and five women’s teams, announced that it had postponed all sports through the end of 2020.
This is a treacherous time for the country, as the coronavirus shapes all aspects of life in the United States, with many activities being sidelined until the delivery of a reliable vaccine that will tame Covid-19 once and for all.
Until then, Steve Doten, commissioner of the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) and Bill Cohn, who has been involved in polo for more than four decades, will wait and see what’s possible for an Olympic sport that has been marginalized by the virus and lack of recognition. Doten, who played for Cal under legendary coaches Pete Cutino and Steve Heaston and helped the Golden Bears to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1987 and 1988, is clear that intercollegiate polo competition should be halted until a safe way to play is found.
In a recent conversation, Cohn and Doten discussed the Big West’s decision to postpone fall sports, the prospects for other conferences to cancel upcoming competition, Arizona State’s decision to red shirt all its swimmers for this year and all the sports that have already been cut due to the pervasive—and thus far unchecked—impact of the coronavirus.
BC: The Big West made an announcement last week that it will postpone its fall sports slate. UC San Diego —a conference member—made its own announcement not minutes later that said: We’re not playing men’s water polo this fall, either. As WWPA commissioner, where are you at with regard to your other members?
SD: That’s the million-dollar question. Historically, I serve the coaches and our [athletic directors] at our member institutions. [I] respect what their chancellors and their main conferences have to say. As you pointed out, The PAC West has announced no fall sports and the Big West has announced no fall sports. The WCC has only pushed back their start date. And I haven’t heard from the WAC which includes Cal Baptist and Air Force. So I’ve been getting this question a lot: What are we going to do?
BC: Santa Clara is in the WCC, anybody else from there also in the WWPA?
SD: I talked to Keith Wilbur (of Santa Clara) today. All they’ve said is that they’re going to start later [but] they’re still a go. UC Davis and UC San Diego have said, since The Big West said no fall sports, there’s no water polo either.
BC: I didn’t know that about UC Davis. Did they make an announcement?
SD: I spoke with them; they haven’t made a public announcement., My counterparts, Al Beaird of the MPSF and Mike Daniels of the GCC, we’ve been doing conference calls, [about] what water polo will do. Historically, everybody follows their main conference, [but] there’s just too much confusion. At UC Davis, for example, soccer cannot play but water polo can? I’ve had one coach say that’s not fair.
My main philosophy is, we’re universities of higher education, the core mission of those universities—research and keep the masses safe. I work at UC Davis, it has a hospital, with people doing research to try to fix this COVID-19 stuff. I’m for just not playing because California is the worst state in the country [in terms of the virus] and maybe the worst place in the world. Playing sports might make it even more confusing. I don’t want to do that. I want to be set for the women’s season. Sports is a microcosm of society [and] it has a big responsibility—there’s a social construct with a great social responsibility. I maintain to this day that we have to do the right thing.
I don’t see us playing because of the political pressure. We have to be good members of society understanding what universities are trying to accomplish. And I like to think we’re not, non-essential, but the mission of the university is more important.
BC: Have you received any guidance from the NCAA?
SD: I haven’t been in communication with the NCAA, so I’ve reached out to Al [Beaird] and Mike [Daniels] and Dan Sharadin. I’ve also emailed all of our coaches on the men’s and women’s side. We’ve been having monthly meetings [as well as with] our executive committee on the men’s side for the fall. And so the [athletic directors] in those members schools are just doing what’s gone through schools and their conferences. And then I joined the coaches’ association Zoom call, where there’s members on the championship committees. But the NCAA per se—besides the general email that goes out to everybody—no, I haven’t been in contact. What I’ve heard—and you’ve probably heard the same thing—the NCAA is looking to see what conferences will do. My understanding is the NCAA will [soon] make an announcement about the fall championships, either water polo or all the Olympic sport fall championships.
Going back to the women’s [cancellation]—I had no idea [about] the pandemic. I never thought that this would ever happen. You mentioned 9/11; last March I [thought]: Let’s do the right thing, let’s shut down and be socially responsible. Four months later, I believed it would go away in the summer. Now it’s the worst ever. My primary job is as a faculty member at the University of California. You’ve been a part of that system, so you know, it might be the greatest system in the country. Now, California is the worst place ever.
You have to lead by example. And so those Big West schools that are UC’s—UC Davis, UC San Diego in the GCC, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara said the same thing, they’re going to follow The Big West. That’s the mindset for those ADs, presidents and chancellors.
The WCC is interesting. [It’s] different private schools and, and playing. They’re already have four schools that are going to honor their primary conference. Waiting for four other schools—who’s left to play? The CWPA is already….
BC: The CWPA is not playing. And they’ve proposed a January to March men’s season and a March to May women’s season. They have 17 coaches that coach both genders, who just couldn’t do it. I can see where the assistants would end up running half the program.
SD: I talked to my women’s [coaches]; I thought—in April—is the time to align water polo like basketball [or] soccer. To your point, we have too many programs that are run by the one coach doing double duty and then Gannon, Mercyhurst, they have small indoor, shallow, deep facilities. Even Cal State East Bay, Monterey Bay, they don’t have 50-meter pools. The [men’s] coaches have said: We can’t do the spring. The reality is, there’s very few teams left to play in the fall, but now it sounds like coaches are willing because they want to do something. What they said three or four months ago has changed: If forced into it, let’s try to figure it out.
All things point to no fall sports, and I can’t imagine we’re going to have the competition again in January and February, and there’s no difference? Holy smokes, is it a year? And everything’s shut down and no sports for a whole year?
BC: I’m doing the math in my head. CWPA conferences represent 20 teams. WWPA is eight. GCC is six. MPSF is six, the SCIAC has nine. That’s everybody, right? That’s 49 schools playing men’s water polo. Twenty aren’t playing in the East.
Austin College in the MPSF already announced that they are not playing sports in the fall. So you’re just over 50% of the population. Plus the UC’s that are going to honor their conferences’ directions and not play—Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, UC Davis, and UCI. We’re up to 25 out of 49—that’s half.
The inevitability portrayed here is pretty obvious to me—what do you think?
SD: I agree. That applies to the schools that would play. So if there’s two or four or six [that want to play] we’ll play for national championship. I’m sure there’s that mindset out there.
But what would that look like? Obviously, the kids want to participate. We hate ruining their opportunities. The coaches, they’ve spent their lives on the pool deck. They want to do it. I’m saying you have to look outside to make a good decision, do the right thing.
If I was the NBA and this just professional basketball—there was no academic mission, no core foundation to the universities? Basketball can play. But, universities are supposed to different than the NBA or the NFL. And so that’s why people ask: What’s the core mission? What are we really here for?
Some will say, 20-, 22-year-old elite athletes are healthy. But nobody wants to play Russian roulette. Most of the time there’s no bullet, but one bullet to the brain—then what? Ethically, morally, politically how these presidents and chancellors really navigate this time—I can see why they lead educational organizations.[They’re] not supposed to put people in harm’s way. That’s why I just don’t see play happening for the fall.
BC: What is your interest in having a shortened men’s season, if they can flatten the curve in California? If teams can be back in the water and playing in January and the NCAA agrees to move the championship tournament to the end of March—do you foresee this as a realistic solution?
This entails moving the women’s season from the beginning of March until the middle or end of May.
SD: If I were the czar of water polo, I would say: Stop the [eligibility] clocks. Don’t call it a red-shirt [year]; just stop the clocks, because of the pandemic. There’s no championships or competition until there’s a vaccine that works or there’s some number which meant the curve is so flat—whatever they know as a metric that the virus is under control.
Put that out as the best part, there’s a vaccine or [infection rates] are so low in the community that we can control the spread. Because that’s what really is driving a lot of people nuts.
Let the kids be on campus, take their classes. They can train and social distance, all the procedural stuff to let ’em get faster and stronger and develop as young people. Some schools they’re online, so they’re worried about health risks—which I understand.
If they’re Cal-based let them come on campus and then the pool and the sunlight and whatever. Because I do think the other health concerns are real. When you keep people at home, they don’t exercise and see their friends. That’s a problem as well.
And in January [if] we have a vaccine, I’d like to figure this out. Can we do it? It’s already an asterisk year. It’s already a different type of a thing. But I agree that we can shorten the women season up, I think it’s too long anyway. I don’t think the women should be impacted. The woman lost last spring; the men this fall—that’s one [apiece] it’s even. The women shouldn’t have to lose two.
And, [the WWPA’s] Fresno Pacific doesn’t have a pool on campus. They realized the high school girls are going to be trying to do their water polo and swimming and the college all in the same pool. Concordia is the same way.
There’s some big problems there, but yeah, to answer your question, let’s just stop the clocks. Let’s just don’t think about it until we have this under control, cause it’s not worth [risking] the health of potential of these young people. But as soon as we have it and we can put in the spring let’s do it.
BC: One thing that happened earlier this week, Arizona State announced they are red shirting every single student athlete on their swim and dive team roster this year. Bob Bowman, their head coach, essentially said: We’re not going to chase our tails trying to figure out how this is going to work. I thought that was interesting for a Power Five conference, to acknowledging Covid-19’s risk to the health and safety of its student athletes. That lines up with you stopping the clocks until a resumption of safe play.
SD: I’ve heard that [UC] Irvine already canceled the Barbara Kalbus tournament in January. 16 teams [competing for] three days, given the protocols today—how do you run that tournament? In my calls with coaches, we thought we’re going to have answers by June. Okay. We gotta wait. So July [comes], we know we’re going to wait. I think if everybody was told, they could adapt.
My son is going to be a senior in high school. I’ve been in the water polo my whole career, my three kids play, my daughters [had] great high school experiences. And my youngest kid is looking for that day and it’s heartbreaking; he probably won’t have the senior year [he hoped for].
Brooke was a freshman at UCLA and they got shut down. So there’s so many layers to this thing. Just stringing people along—that’s heartbreaking. Someone’s got to be a leader and say: Hey, we’re not going to call it a red shirt because in the next year or two from now we think the kid should have a real red shirt. This is where stop the clocks that makes total sense.
As soon as the government says the vaccine works. We’ve got it. Okay. We’re safe. We’re going. And I know people will hear this and think, well, how bad is it? People die of other things; why are we stopping for this?
I’m not the expert on that but, again, we’re universities, not the NBA.
BC: I heard an epidemiologist say: “If my favorite football team was playing in a championship and you offered me free tickets on the 50-yard line, I wouldn’t go. You can’t put 50, 60, 70,000 people in a stadium today and expect the virus won’t spread.
I agree with you that 18 to 22 year olds are likely to be fine. But those that are in contact with members of their family, friends that are older or have compromised immune systems—those people can’t handle the virus.
Looking worldwide, they’re playing professional water polo in Hungary right now because their case loads are smaller than in the United States.
SD: We know how important sports are in [our] culture—college athletes, professional athletes—have to be good role models. Maybe cities will follow [them] and people will say: Wow, we’re shutting this down. Those guys are doing it so I have to do it too and help send a message. You can’t just be [California Governor] Gavin Newsom on the TV telling everyone.
BC: The opinion leaders have to line up behind it and make a tidal wave of support to do the right thing for the sake of humanity.
SD: With great responsibility there’s great power. The NBA’s different, they can truly [create a] bubble. Baseball, in their first weekend, one team broke out 17 with [players infected]. I just don’t see [that you] bubble a college to say: PAC 12, we’re a power five [conference]. Our budgets are different than The Big West. We can bubble our kids.
But it’s not even proven the NBA can do it, let alone a college.
BC: You’re a university educator and you’ve been around this age group for a long time. There’ve been plenty of articles written about their willingness to assume risk. And that’s the age where you do that.
What level of compliance do you think you’ll get from a team of twenty-five 18 to 22 year olds being told not to go to parties, to maintain social distance and do all the things to keep the virus from spreading?
SD: What’s safer? Going to the pool, going to the classroom or going to the store to get your food. We can’t put them in hotels and have professional chefs and bringing everything to them.
Again, I have [in the WWPA] DII schools, DI schools, UCs, Cal states. UC San Diego, has a great medical school; UC Davis, a great medical school. Does Long Beach State have those resources, and then, do they have the finances?
That’s why I just think all indicators points to no water polo in the fall. I’ve got quotes from coaches about what [their] kids would do if they don’t play water polo. Sometimes you have to protect them from themselves.
BC: Another takeaway is that it’s risky ethically, morally and politically for California chancellors and university presidents to open their campuses. You’re not just putting the students at risk; every team has an athletic trainer and a head coach and multiple assistants and graduate assistants.
SD: So I wear my seatbelt. If I were to ride a motorcycle, I’d wear a helmet. I wear my mask. I’ve had to get tested because of my in-laws. I tested negative, but I still wear a mask because it’s a social responsibility.
If someone tears their ACL or rotator cuff… unfortunately [athletes] lose seasons for reasons all the time, and this is everybody’s gonna lose one together. I just don’t see any way around it. I’d rather be on the side of being responsible and big picture versus trying to force something.
I love water polo and think it’s essential, but like I said, what role does it play in the university system? But, with the WWPA. I respect the schools and their decisions and their main conference [affiliations] that we’re not going to try to fight
If there’s a tie, the WCC is going to have to—Cal Baptist and Air Force—maybe I have to be the tiebreaker there. But if, if I were, I’d say what I just told you: We’re [going to] shut it down and be socially responsible.
I don’t see myself in that role, but if you asked me, that’s how I see it. And, I would let all these people know, if the government is saying wait until the vaccines, or the numbers [improve], like you quoted with Hungary and whatever the spread is there.
And, if we feel really good about this, let’s go back and play. And in the meantime, let the kids train. It’s hard to keep them out of the pool
BC: I recently read that USC recently had over 40 young men living in three fraternities test positive for coronavirus. Does that give you a good enough reason not to put a bunch of young men together to practice in the next month or so?
SD: Everyone’s worried about financials, and to play sports in this environment is going to be more expensive because of those tasks that you have to do.
But if they don’t play, without travel [coaches] save 75% [of their budget]. And if you’re not playing games, you don’t have to buy new balls and new suits. By not playing, you save tons of money.
I think you have to weigh that option as well, because I am worried about losing programs. Having worked with Sonoma State, having lost their women’s program/ McKendree was on the ropes, so I did some things to help. them stay alive.
Some other schools are worried because they’re small schools where 40% of their student body are athletes. If there’s no sports, those students don’t come back
What would be the best thing to do in a financial crisis to help schools survive? I say, let the kids come on campus and have a coach there to train them and save a bunch of money by not traveling. USC has all the money that need and don’t have to worry about [things] but we have to be good brothers and sisters for [schools like] Concordia, Azuza Pacific.
BC: There is no championship if USC has no one to compete against. And the NCAA won’t sponsor the sport anymore.
SD: There’s a big financial undertone to this. We talked about Sonoma State, they had financial health issues with Covid-19 and cut water polo. So we gotta make sure we’re smart about things We lose the season; that’s one thing we lose programs. That’s horrible.
BC: I’m keeping an eye on a website that is tracking all the sports that have been dropped since Covid hit.
Today it’s in the hundreds, I’m sure you saw Stanford’s announcement that they’re dropping 11 sports in 2021. Stanford has one of the largest endowments in the country yet they’re facing a $21 million athletic department budget deficit.
When a school like Stanford decides to drop sports, including men’s volleyball, it’s analogous to UCLA or USC dropping men’s water polo.
SD: I don’t want to be chicken little. I want to stay positive. [But] the history is there. We’ve seen it in a water polo—I’ve experienced it personally in different schools over the decades. And here we are; what do we need to do so [programs] don’t drop water polo.
I have my concerns about higher education and what’s going to happen. I feel good about the endowment I started at UC Davis. I got help from the [water polo] community. It saved us in 2010 and I know it’s going to save in 2020 because it’s grown and they’ve continued to do the job, getting into bigger numbers.
That’s why I say, let’s do the right thing. Don’t play, save money, lose the battle of fall 2020 but win the war and keep everybody alive and healthy.