AD Calhoun talks college sports (or lack thereof) during the pandemic

In a wide-ranging interview, the director of athletics and recreation discusses COVID-19’s impact on college sports, reopening campus fitness centers, her work with the NCAA, changing eligibility and compensation guidelines, and why the college basketball season may end with May Madness instead of March Madness.

AD M. Grace Calhoun stands with her arms folder while wearing a blue suit and Penn scarf in her office.
Image: Eric Sucar

The Ivy League has been without sports since mid-March, and will remain so at least through the end of February. But M. Grace Calhoun, the T. Gibbs Kane, Jr. W’69 Director of Athletics and Recreation, says she is busier than she has ever been in her nearly 30-year career, sorting out issues here on campus, such as planning to safely reopen recreational facilities, and nationally with the NCAA.

She says a large portion of her time these days is occupied by a simple yet convoluted task: communication.

“While we’re separated, it’s never been more important to communicate,” Calhoun says. “Whether it’s communication with our student-athletes, with our coaches or divisional staff members, or whether it’s conference peers, or city and state officials, or communication with our national governance committees, it just takes an incredible amount of communication because we are reliant on so many others to help us safely return to sport, while so many stakeholders are looking to us for answers.”

Every athletics administrator in the country is searching for up-to-the-minute information to try to make informed decisions about how to proceed during the pandemic, which Calhoun says involves a lot of contingency planning, scenario analysis, and communication.

“I feel like we’re making progress, and we just keep hoping we get a little further with each passing week,” she says, “and that we’re able to do a little bit more of the stuff that we know is so important to the growth and development of our young people.”

Penn Today spoke with Calhoun about COVID-19’s impact on college sports, reopening campus fitness centers, her work with the NCAA, changing eligibility and compensation guidelines, and why the college basketball season may end with May Madness instead of March Madness.

An aerial view of Franklin Field with the Philadelphia skyline in the background.
Franklin Field

What has been the pandemic’s impact on collegiate athletics departments? I imagine it has taken away a lot of revenue streams, such as ticket sales, sponsorships, and rentals.

It absolutely has had a profound impact. Our revenue is estimated to be down 17% this year, so we are having to be very creative about how we make up for the lost revenue. And you’re exactly right, not sponsoring the Penn Relays last [academic] year was a huge hit. We also sustained big hits in sponsorships, rentals, ticket sales, and concessions without having competitions or the ability to convene large groups. Another big loss of revenue was the NCAA distribution, which was about 20% of its normal value because there was no NCAA basketball tournament, so we’re having to find creative ways to manage. We are extremely grateful that our very generous alums and supporters have continued to donate to our sport programs to help us get through this challenging time.

The other thing that has really helped our division is the wonderful partnership we have with Wellness at Penn with our Public Health Ambassador Program and some of the things that we’re doing to help the campus with its return of students and to keep the campus community safe during COVID. So we’re finding those shared solutions and exercising a lot of creativity right now, but like everyone else, we’re having to do a lot of belt tightening. Whatever we don’t have to spend, we’re not spending. Obviously, we’re not traveling right now, we’re not doing a lot of the things that we would normally be doing, but we’re also making decisions as to what’s mission critical and what can be eliminated, and finding a way at the end of the day to balance the budget and make it all work.

Can you talk a little bit about the Public Health Ambassador Program and what Penn Athletics staffers are doing?

It is a wonderful partnership with our chief wellness officer, Benoit Dubé, Erika Gross and the Penn wellness team, Ashlee Halbritter, Penn’s director of campus health, and our director of recreation programs, Erica Hildenbrand. The program does a variety of things. All Penn employees at this point are familiar with the PennOpen Pass program, and any grad students or professional students who are on campus are also participating in the program. It’s a daily health check and you have to report if you have any symptoms or if you’re feeling well that day. You get either a green pass or a red pass. The public health ambassadors are staffing many of the buildings that are open, and are helping to monitor and ensure that only people who have a green pass that day are entering the buildings. They’re also doing little things like walking around campus and reminding people to put their masks on if they don’t have them on, at times passing out masks if they don’t have one, although I’m very pleased to report that the compliance with the health standards has really been excellent.

They’re doing things to just raise awareness and also help to ensure that they’re keeping the students, faculty, and staff on campus and in the community safe. It’s been a wonderful partnership because it has really helped take a lot of coaches and staff in the Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics who had their jobs interrupted by not having undergrads on campus and give them an opportunity to really help the University keep our campus community safe. It’s been a wonderful win-win. There are more than 55 public health ambassadors, the vast majority from the Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics. Beyond that, we also have coaches and staff members who are working in the call center, who are helping with contract tracing, and even some that are working at the COVID test site. We have a variety of coaches and staff who have very willingly taken on additional responsibilities to help the campus at a time where our programming is limited to that which can be done virtually.

The Palestra basketball court sits empty.
The Palestra

In what ways are you supporting student-athletes at this time, when they are without sports, which are such an important part of their lives? I spoke to some student-athletes earlier this year, right after the remaining winter and spring seasons were canceled, and they were pretty devastated.

I think for our young people, sports are not only something they enjoy, a part of the day they really look forward to, but they come to college having trained at very high levels for many, many years to get good enough to where they have opportunities to compete in Division I varsity athletics in college. They absolutely are feeling a strong sense of loss right now, having this taken away from them. It’s a strong part of their identity as well. We’re spending a lot of time in communication, and whatever programming and meetings we can do virtually, we are. Our coaches are often on weekly Zoom calls with the team, still having team meetings. Our academic advisers and our counselors continue to do remote work with the students. Our strength and conditioning coaches have been sending out workouts to our student-athletes, and often our student-athletes are getting on video filming themselves working out. We’re trying to do whatever we can in the remote environment with all the support and communication we can, but yet we acknowledge at the same time that what we do requires group activity in person. We know in moving forward that we’re going to have find safe ways to bring back in-person activities.

Obviously, facilities like the Pottruck Center and Fox Fitness Center are closed through at least Jan. 1, due to campus and city ordinances. What is the plan for the reopening of fitness centers, when you are given the go-ahead?

We started piloting campus activity for undergrads in the fall with outdoor opportunities at Franklin Field and in Penn Park on the artificial turf fields and Hamlin Outdoor Tennis Center on a reservation basis. We have a plan that we filed requesting the ability to reopen the recreation centers on a reservation basis. It wouldn’t look like it has in the past; we will monitor how many people are in a facility at any given time. You’d actually sign up to use a specific area of the building so that we can ensure social distancing and keep people as safe as possible. We realize that the return to in-person activity is going to be critical and we spend a great deal of time each week producing plans of how we can do it safely, and working with appropriate campus committees to try to get approval to reopen, as well as working with city health officials to get approval for our plans for reopening. It’s a lot of communication, it’s a lot of remote support, but also a lot of advocacy to try to get back to in-person activity.

Wearing a red jacket, AD Calhoun stands in the Franklin Field bleachers.
Image: Eric Sucar

Can you talk about your work as chair of the NCAA Division I Council, a high-level group responsible for the day-to-day decision-making for Division I athletics?

I was elected for a two-year term as the chair and I began my term in June of 2019, so I had eight or nine months of what I consider regular governance work with a couple of key issues that we were working on. Then, the pandemic hit. The last nine months have been one Zoom meeting after the next, taking calls with all sorts of different groups trying to figure out how we move athletics forward. It’s been everything from the cancelation of seasons and championships to trying to figure out eligibility issues and how we might sponsor championships in different ways. The fall NCAA championships will actually be sponsored in the spring. [Editor’s note: The Ivy League has decided that it will not conduct fall sports in the spring semester.] We’ve done waivers for anything you can think of, trying to help student-athletes with eligibility issues and things that support their well-being, but also waivers for institutions and conferences. Everyone is trying to do as much as they can. We’re looking at all of our legislation and broadly issuing waivers to help the membership get through this very difficult period, and also looking at the resources available, knowing that the big event that funds the entire NCAA operation, March Madness, got canceled last [academic] year. We’ve been trying to figure out how we can adapt and give the membership a lot of flexibility to manage through this difficult time.

Does the Council decide whether or not there will be an NCAA Tournament?

I describe the Council as the chief operations group for NCAA Division I. We entertain proposals and vote on the rules, we figure out what we think should be sponsored in terms of tournaments and how they should work, and then ultimately, because the championships have a huge financial impact on the NCAA, the Board of Directors has to approve those decisions. The interesting opportunity I’ve had as council chair is I sit both on the NCAA Board of Directors, which is a presidential body overseeing Division I, and the NCAA Board of Governors that is association-wide. The Board of Governors oversees all the business operations and everything for the association as a whole.

In some areas, the Council has complete autonomy and we’ll create legislation, put it in the cycle, and the membership will vote on it, and if it passes, it’s final. But in other ways, with things like championships, if we’re going to change anything, that ultimately has to get endorsed by the Board of Directors. So then what I do is take the recommendation of the Council forward, present it to the Board of Directors, and advocate for its adoption. What you’re hearing is a pretty robust governance structure, but one that I think works exceptionally well because it really keeps the practitioners, the athletics administrators who really understand the day-to-day of how to run college athletics, in charge of the operational things. But the presidents get involved when it gets to strategic matters or things that really impact our core values. It’s been a good balance and it’s been really fascinating to be able to be a part of both sides of those conversations right now.

The men's basketball team takes on Kansas during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
16th-seed Penn takes on top-seeded Kansas in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament in March of 2018.

Before the pandemic, one of the major issues the NCAA was considering was college athletes being able to profit from their name, image, and likeness. Where is the NCAA at on this issue?

When we’re not talking about all things COVID, a lot of the conversation is about name, image, and likeness, and knowing that this is a fundamental shift for the association. Up to this point, student-athletes would render themselves ineligible if they accepted money based upon their name, image, or likeness. It’s really part of a larger shift in the association to try to give more flexibility and more benefits to the student-athletes to do what they feel is in their best interests. So if a student-athlete can monetize their name, image, or likeness—if this current legislation goes through, as we absolutely expect it will—then starting August of next year, they will have those opportunities.

We’re also looking at very different transfer legislation. As of right now, if you transfer in what we’ll call the revenue sports—in football, basketball, hockey—you have to sit out for a year before you become eligible at the new institution, whereas in other sports, you’re able to use what’s called a one-time transfer exception to get eligible immediately. Once again, I think the association feels that it’s no longer justifiable in a time where we’re really stressing student-athletes’ rights and fairness to all. We have just introduced legislation in the system that would offer a one-time transfer exception to any student-athlete regardless of the sport they participate in and regardless of timing. They could do it after their freshman, sophomore, or junior year, or if they didn’t use it previously, they could use it to go to a new institution as a grad student and become immediately eligible. It’s really giving a lot more flexibility and freedoms to the student-athletes, whereas in the past, there was institutional and coach control over what student-athletes were or were not able to do.

Am I correct that this year won’t count toward student-athletes’ four years of eligibility?

In the spring, the decision was made to give a season of eligibility back to the spring sport athletes who had their seasons cut short right as they were just getting started. Because of all the disruptions, some conferences proceeded with athletic activity this fall and winter, but most did not. So the Council made the decision that regardless if you compete some, or even if you have a fairly full season, all fall sports student-athletes would be granted a season of eligibility back. And we made the same decision recently with winter sports. We wanted to make sure that student-athletes have the peace of mind that if they decide to try to compete and to make that commitment to their teams and institutions, they don’t have to worry about their season getting cut short. They’ll just know that going into it, they’ll do as much as they can safely do, but they will be able to get an additional season of eligibility.

Kayla Padilla of the women's basketball team drives to the basket against Princeton.
The women’s basketball team battles No. 25 Princeton in January 2020 at the Palestra.

Am I correct that this extra year of eligibility does not apply to the Ivy League?

It does apply to the Ivy League, but it plays out a little differently for us because one of our founding principles is that student-athletes need to be undergrads. So if a student-athlete is going to use all their seasons of eligibility, they have to stay enrolled as an undergrad. What generally ends up happening on Ivy campuses is one of two things: If a student-athlete is not able to use a year of eligibility, at times they will apply for what we call a fifth-year waiver, so they’ll request to extend their program plan. Usually what they’ll do is pick up an additional major or a minor and have an academic reason to extend the program plan into a fifth year. On other campuses, some other Ivy peers have more liberal policies in terms of taking time away from sports, so if you’re a fall sport student-athlete, you might take the spring term off so you can come back and your eighth semester might be in that fall of your fifth year. It gets fairly complicated, but suffice it to say, there aren’t a lot of Ivy student-athletes who end up taking advantage of additional eligibility because our student-athletes are students first, and generally they just graduate and go about the next chapter of their lives as planned, to the great jobs they have lined up or graduate school.

But in certain cases, we work one-on-one with student-athletes and identify whether it does make sense for them to try to stick around for an extra year. If there is an academic reason to do so, then we work with them to process a waiver to be able to do it. There very well may be some student-athletes who come back. With spring sport athletes, we processed a handful of waivers for student-athletes to change their program plan. It’s not only just because of COVID right now. If a student-athlete has an injury, they might have an extra season of eligibility to use, so there are any number of reasons why a student-athlete might choose to try to change their program to stick around a little longer. But in the Ivy League, it has to come down to making academic sense, first and foremost. And if it does, then we work with them to figure out the athletics piece of it.

Participants take part in the Penn Relays at Franklin Field.
Participants take part in the 2019 Penn Relays at Franklin Field. (Image: Eric Sucar)

How do you see things playing out in the winter and spring? Do you think there will be an NCAA Tournament and Penn Relays? Or does it all depend on the virus?

I think one thing this virus has taught us is that it’s in control, and we don’t know for sure. But what I can tell you is if we look at the NCAA championships, we are committed to doing whatever we can to sponsor them and to provide these opportunities for student-athletes, even if we have to reduce the size of the tournaments and exercise maximum flexibility and creativity. For the fall tournaments happening in the spring, we already reduced the bracket sizes to 75% of their normal size. I could foresee some of the tournaments being moved. If they’re supposed to be in a certain area of the country that’s being hit particularly hard by COVID, perhaps they’re moved to a different place, or they could be delayed. Much as the fall championships will take place in the spring, there are all sorts of contingency plans around the NCAA basketball tournaments this year to ensure they get contested. Maybe it’s May Madness instead of March Madness, but the commitment is to try to use all degrees of flexibility to get the championships in, if at all possible.

In much the same way, we are going to do everything possible to try to conduct the Penn Relays next year. It was heartbreaking after 125 consecutive Relays to have to miss last [academic] year, and we certainly don’t want to do that again if at all possible. Our team is working through all different sorts of scenarios and plans. We will do as much as we’re permitted to do by the University and also the City of Philadelphia guidelines. We find that it continues to be a weekly conversation. It’s why we’re all so busy right now, because we have books and books of different scenarios to socialize and assess. But yes, we absolutely want to return to competition, including the Penn Relays, if we can do so safely and within our University and city guidelines.