WWPA’s Steve Doten: COVID-19 Killed Women’s Water Polo at Sonoma State

Sonoma State senior Jordan Williams (#6) shooting earlier this year. Photo Courtesy: Sonoma State Athletics

As the coronavirus ravages the country, the human toll is easily traceable. Click on a link and find an up-to-the-minute count of COVID-19 victims.

wwpa-logo-apr-17There’s also invisible consequences of this all-too-deadly virus. Fear will be the biggest legacy of the global pandemic, but as Steve Doten, commissioner for the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA), says in the following interview, another victim will be our societal structure—the everyday activities that give life joy and purpose.

In measuring the cost of the outbreak’s impact, Doten points out that, much like the price so many have already paid, the coronavirus will have a lasting effect on sports in America. In his conference, a leading indicator is Sonoma State; on Monday, the school slashed its women’s polo program along with men’s and women’s tennis.

Seawolves head coach Chelsea Hennan was blind-sided by this decision; now she and her athletes are preparing for a very different future. According to Doten, Sonoma State was not financially healthy. Unfortunately, there are likely other athletic and academic programs that will be cut in COVID-19’s wake.

There is a movement afoot to combat this trend. The Intercollegiate Coach Association Coalition (ICAC) has resisted calls by the Group of Five conferences—American Athletic Conference (AAC), Conference USA (C-USA), Mid-American Conference (MAC), Mountain West Conference (MW), and Sun Belt Conference (Sun Belt)—to reduce requirements for NCAA Division I status.


Chelsea Hennan and her Seawolves. Photo Courtesy: Sonoma State Athletics

Currently, a minimum of 16 varsity athletic teams is needed for DI participation. If this standard is relaxed, likely elimination targets are the so-called “Olympic Sports,” which are not major revenue producers.

The ICAC’s concern has been actualized by Sonoma State decision. Doten—who successfully fought academic cuts at UC Davis a decade ago—advises all NCAA athletic programs to take their financial pulses and determine if they can weather the crisis.

Following are his comments on the steep challenges facing the sport—and what members of the water polo community can do to rally support.

– How challenging was it to make last month’s call to WWPA member schools and tell them that their women’s season was over?

I’m not going to lie, it was extremely tough. My philosophy is, sports are a social construction with great responsibility.  We’re seeing this now without sports. We now know why we have sports and why they’re so important.

As a member of university and college athletics I felt we have [a] great responsibility to do the right thing. We just followed along with what the NCAA, other conferences and the schools were doing—but it was heartbreaking on a lot of levels to have to shut down midway through [the season].

– How do you rate the NCAA in communicating what needs to be done at this moment?

Early on—in that gray time—there wasn’t much communication. I don’t know if you remember, [Mark] Emmert [NCAA commissioner] said: “We’re going to do March Madness, but no fans.”

It wasn’t until the NBA shut down [that this changed]. The Warriors announced they were going to play games with fans, but isolate the players. Ann Killion, [a sports reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle], just hammered them on social responsibility. The next day [the NBA] said: We’re not going to have any fans, we’re just going to play the games. Then [Rudy] Gobert got sick and they shut it down.

NCAA, the NBA, and the dominoes all fell. I’m a small domino in the, I guess, bigger picture when it comes to basketball and NCAA.

[Tuesday] I had a Zoom meeting with my women’s coaches conference. [There’s] lots of uncertainty with a lot of people wondering what’s going to happen.

But the NCAA is not the World Health Organization, so I don’t know what they could do. They have to wait for the president, the governors, the CDC to make their decisions.

– A hot topic in water polo is that Sonoma State announced they’re cutting women’s water polo—and they are a member of your conference. What is the impact of this decision?

Oh, it’s huge. It’s a dramatic change, but COVID-19 killed women’s water polo at Sonoma State. Chelsea [Hennan] was contacted on Monday. She met with her team on Tuesday morning and when our small world got news of it, I called her.


Two seasons ago, Hennan was the WWPA Coach of the Year. Photo Courtesy: WWPA

Their deputy director AD—they don’t have an AD right now—called me later in the day. Sonoma State has been having financial challenges the last few years. They’ve reported declining enrollment and [it’s] been a tough time—and moving forward who knows what the landscape will look like?

The analogy [is]: COVID-19 may not affect me if I am healthy, but if I have underlying conditions, I’m in trouble. And it sounded like Sonoma State had underlying financial conditions and other things they were worried about.

You put the COVID-19 on top of that and [water polo] got wiped out. Sad to say.

–  That’s a great metaphor for this moment…

That’s the call to water polo across the country. Every coach, every program… doesn’t know what’s going on at the different schools. How healthy they are. And, athletics can struggle and have underlying financial conditions that we don’t know about [when] it seems like things are going well.

We just assume everybody’s healthy, Cal, UCLA, whoever. But where’s Concordia, where’s Fresno Pacific? People have to get tested right now and find out how healthy they are before this thing takes over.

– On that point, are there are other members of your conference that need to be attentive to the implications of this illness?

Oh yes. It’s not funny, but you want to talk about a backstory. I had set up this meeting yesterday a couple of weeks ago. And people don’t know how this plays in, but I’ll tell you. Last Saturday, would’ve been Picnic Day at UC Davis—it was canceled because of the coronavirus. Well the Friday before was the 10th anniversary of when UC Davis cut sports in 2010. So, [this is] Black Friday, when we were on the block and saved water polo—and this is 10 years later.

A week or two ago, I started reaching out to all my coaches just to check in, because they turned budgets in March. Information starts coming back in April, and [they] haven’t been through this before, and my gut—almost to the day—like bam, it wasn’t Friday. It was Monday they were told.

I’ve been through this too many times before. That’s why I talked to my women’s [coaches], because we were supposed to have our conference championship this weekend.

I’m going to meet with my men’s coaches next week and that’s with John Abdou’s talking points. We’re prepared to help them financially, wave the dues for membership, restructure the championship to limit travel, the travel during the season, whatever we can do to help these programs go to their ADs [and say]: Hey, it doesn’t cost us anything to be there


Steve Doten. Photo Courtesy: S. Doten

We can greatly restrict what games we play, there’s no conference requirements. We can restructure the championships. Fresno Pacific was supposed to host it, but as long as we just play a final four type situation.

We’re putting everything on the table to help them. That was the conversation yesterday.

10 years ago, it got leaked and in July or August of ’09. I got myself involved, got some information and started the process [of saving UC Davis polo]. With Chelsea, it was out of the blue, she had no idea, which I think is what’s going to happen. How quick this COVID-19 came in.

Back then, Cal announced they might cut sports, and Stanford announced, and UC Davis…[but] UC Davis was the only one that cut the sports. That year [there] was a lot of in the newspapers—drama, people upset, all the infighting about who’s going to get cut.

I think the administration know, hey, we just cut it and then after it’s too late. People need to be prepared. As Abdou pointed out, [conferences are] asking the NCAA, can they go below minimum sports numbers? You have to have so many teams to be a Division I sport, and that could be a concern for all Olympic sports. No doubt about it.

I don’t I want to be Chicken Little here, but I think people should be concerned.

– What sort of steps might the water polo community take to either from an influence standpoint, an outrage standpoint, or maybe even from a financial standpoint, to make it clear that cutting sports at this moment is both unwelcome and unjustified?

My thought process was—and today’s still the same thing—a lot of people might hang their hat or say you can’t get rid of us because of our land, or hey, we have a new facility, why would you get rid of us? Unfortunately, it’s financial.

The metaphor is the country gets wiped out financially. [In 2009] I went straight to the dollars to try to raise enough money. I proactively gave my AD a zero budget, and I had nine months to do it. And the money was in their account, it wasn’t in mine, I started, and the water polo world rose up in a huge way.


Wolf Wigo, Brad Schumacher. Photo Courtesy: KAP7

I said, “Hey, take the scholarships back.” And I showed them guys I recruited with no money [who] became All-Conference, first team—that we can be competitive without, because [water polo’s] not really a money sport. And then Wolf Wigo and Brad Schumacher from KAP7, supported us. Wolf was huge, wrote a scathing letter and Kirk Everist and John Vargas wrote checks out of their own pockets.

I wasn’t afraid to go tell people that it might hurt my recruiting, which is other health thing, Hey, tell people, let people know, it’s okay to ask for help.

The alumni and the donors have to know. Everybody’s getting hit financially right now, so that makes it particularly tough. But to answer your question, no AD, no chancellor, no president wants to limit students’ opportunities. But their hands are tied with the finances. I say do whatever you can to show that you’re fiscally strong, and be proactive with your [athletic directors]. Like my [message]: “Hey, we can do it on very cheap. I’m in a small stipend, but I’ll do it for free and just don’t charge anybody any money and we’ll keep this thing going.”

And I’m sure KAP7 would rather donate some balls and suits one year than lose schools across the country forever.

We’re all in this together. Water polo better help each other. You can’t think, well, whoever is the biggest school, the richest school is, I’m fine. If you’re the only school left, it’s not going to be much of a national championship.

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2 years ago

Check TITLE IX compliance.