Public figures including the governor and the University of Arkansas athletic director must be careful about the words they say. But you can still learn a lot by listening to them.
Last Thursday, July 16, Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order requiring face masks to be worn in public after declining to do so for months.
Hutchinson had always said a mask mandate would be unenforceable. He instead had opted for encouragement and example-setting during his near-daily press conferences and other public appearances. But the COVID-19 numbers have been heading in the wrong direction, and school starts next month.
The day before, Walmart and Kroger announced they would require masks in their stores starting this week, which gave Hutchinson some political cover to issue the mandate. Those stores, particularly Walmart, are part of people’s everyday lives. Even resistant Arkansans will be wearing a mask – or temporarily pulling one over their faces when they walk in the door – at least once a week.
Hutchinson’s announcement wasn’t surprising to those paying attention during his press conference the day before on July 15. Asked about a mask mandate in light of Walmart’s announcement, he said, “I will say that it remains a tool that we can implement as we need it. … As to whether we need a statewide mandate, that’ll continue to be evaluated, and if we do it, you’ll know about it.”
The next day, we knew about it.
So let’s move from there to University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, who’s facing his own impossible situation.
The Razorbacks’ first scheduled football game is against Nevada Sept. 5 – seven Saturdays from now. It’s highly unlikely that game will happen. Then the Hogs are scheduled to travel to Notre Dame. That probably won’t happen either.
Two of the five major football conferences, the Big 10 and the Pac 12, have said they are playing conference-only schedules. Other conferences including the Southwestern Athletic Conference, for which the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff plays, have moved fall sports to the spring. The Razorbacks’ Southeastern Conference will make a decision by the end of this month.
During a video chat with reporters the same day Hutchinson issued the mask mandate, Yurachek expressed doubts about fall sports happening. As reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he said, “I would say it’s mediocre, to be honest and very transparent. Mediocre. It’s not as high as it was a month ago. Obviously what has trended across our country with this virus the past 4-6 weeks is not at all what we had expected.”
Asked what he meant by “mediocre,” Yurachek said, “I’m 50/50 right now. I’ll tell you a month ago I was probably 70/30.”
Optimistic Razorback football fans – and man, the number of those are dwindling after these past few seasons – might think, “Well, we’ve got a 50/50 shot.”
But the reality is that the chances of any fans cheering “Woo pig sooie” from the stands or their couches are less than 50/50 – at least in the fall. These are not millionaire NBA players sheltered in a bubble at Disney World. They’re amateurs, many of them teenagers, entrusted to Yurachek and the university by parents.
Losing a football season would be devastating, especially following the cancellation of this spring’s NCAA basketball tournament. As Yurachek said in another video chat July 18 as reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, football generates $70 million of the athletic department’s $124 million budget. The department is self-supporting, which means it doesn’t dip into the pockets of taxpayers or students. Football makes the money-losing sports – including all the women’s sports – financially feasible. As Yurachek explained, the university won’t cut scholarships and must pay its debts. But salaries compose $41 million of its budget, and that’s a place where reductions can be made if necessary.
If college football is played this school year, it probably will have to be played in the spring, as UAPB’s SWAC is doing. But even that depends on the progress that’s made against the virus. Unfortunately, unless trends change, the odds are better than 50/50 that players will be wearing face masks in Walmart this fall, but not on the football field.