Chris Plonsky is the Chief of Staff and Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director at the University of Texas. She previously served as the Women’s AD at Texas, and has worked in college athletics for over 40 years. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about how UT is working to come back, the importance of reviving college football, and what comes next.
We’re hoping to bring back some of our athletes by July 1st. That is the plan, but it could change. We’ve been in online learning for a while now, like most campuses, and it has been a difficult adjustment. Texas is not one of those campuses that had a massive online course offering beforehand. We’re a real big, touchy-feely campus. I hate to say that, but we really are. The humanities and the personal presentation part of teaching here has been at the heart of our institution forever. I think it’s why our education is so good.
Kids are now digital natives so they’ve really managed it well. From a sports perspective, it’s been devastating mentally because it was so sudden. I think kids are more resilient than us old people, but our coaches, they’re almost stir-crazy. We have a coaches’ Zoom meeting once a week and they’re so pent up right now. They want to be able to do more. We hope there’s a way that some sort of normalcy can be approached. But it’s certainly going to be in waves because as we know, even with little baby openings, we’re not ready yet, and we won’t be for a while.
Starting on Monday, there were 30 essential football-related staff employees who were permitted to go back to work. At the front of our North End Zone, we have a screening station, and employees had to pre-submit a questionnaire. Do you have any symptoms? Have you been in contact? There’s temperature-taking, boom, right there done by two sports medicine personnel. You get a wristband if you pass muster, and then you go to your socially distanced area. You have to wear a mask. And it’s very likely when we have student athletes back, they’re going to probably have to wear a mask to work out.
The economic driver for those of us in the Power Five conferences is football, and the donations, ticket purchases and television that are tied to football. Right now, we’re slashing budgets just like the other schools you read about. We haven’t spent much at all. We’ve turned off the spigots, except what we need to keep our kids on scholarship and people on payroll and services through remote means.
But we literally have to have that sustaining economic engine of football in some form. Even if it’s football with limited fans, or football on television only — can you imagine the TV ratings? We saw that the WNBA and the NFL virtual draft ratings were some of the highest ever. So we’re hoping and crossing our fingers.
If you sat in our coaches’ Zoom meeting with us Wednesday morning, you would have seen every coach from golf to volleyball to softball to baseball just saying, “We understand it. You guys have to prepare first to see if the football staff and students can return in graduated ways, at whatever time frame the leadership of local agencies, health agencies, and our conference set.” Because if we can keep people healthy, socially distanced with hygiene and sanitation practices in place, and if we can keep the football team healthy in whatever six week period they say they need to train before a season starts, then we will have a blueprint for the other sports. That’s sort of the Texas plan right now, if you will.
It would be enough if we have some football, but it’s certainly going to be adjusted. Our non-conference schedules are likely to be continually adjusted as we lead towards September. Sports whose competitive seasons are in the spring but do a lot in the fall might have to sacrifice a squeeze in the fall in order to have their spring season. We’re already having schools call us to say they can’t travel to Austin in the fall. As we go forward, there might be a surprise a day.
We can regionalize. We’re lucky, because we’re in Texas, so most of our conference opponents are nearby. The beauty of conferences is you might keep your regular season schedule. It just might need to be compressed to save money. But being in a geographically proximate, busable location, as Texas is, could be really helpful in this COVID environment.
This is where you really find out about your culture and your fabric. You’ve got to plan for every extreme. We’re going to prepare for all possibilities, but we need to stay positive.
I think there’s a fighter’s spirit in all of us that are involved in athletics. We’ve all learned to deal with adversity, because that’s what sports are about. We love to learn. We love to compete. And when you lose, you learn from losses and you recover to try to get ready for the next win. You know there’s going to be another opportunity. So trying to get this done and achieve in some fashion is where we’re going to start. And then we’ll face whatever comes to us and we’ll be ready for that.
At the heart of all of this is who we’re serving. We desperately want to give our student athletes, both men and women, the opportunity to represent our school and to compete. And to do anything less than that, it would be heart-wrenching for us and them.
At some point our national health experts are going to get their arms around this and they already are making incredible progress. The question is when and how. The tough part of this will be keeping ourselves self-sustaining. If certain avenues of revenue do not appear, the next natural thing will occur. And that I think is very applicable to what all athletic departments are going through right now. It’s collaborative, it’s transparent, it’s good communication, but it’s also very hopeful. And I think what we can count on is that we’ve got really creative, incredibly intense competitive minds here that care about young people.