In the days and weeks after the 2020 spring rowing season disappeared, the issues and challenges facing collegiate rowing seemed serious enough - then things became almost dire. Managing the logistics and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic; issues of diversity and inclusion in the sport that were already well-known but were set into stark relief after the death of George Floyd; and subsequent cuts to rowing programs both large and small and new and old.
Concurrent to the emergence of these urgent issues, the absence of rowing practice and competition did free up one critical resource for coaches, that of time. While the current 14-member Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA) board has been extremely active on various fronts, recently appointed CRCA president Maddie Davis, who coaches the open women at Boston University, has been most encouraged by the interest and involvement of large numbers of coaches from across the ranks of women's coaches.
"I know I don't speak just for myself when I say how overwhelmed I have been by the number and the variety of coaches that have stepped up to be involved," Davis said last week.
"I've never seen this much collaboration or willingness to share information ever in college coaching," Davis said. "Everybody recognized that these aren't really competitive advantages or disadvantages we are discussing; we're all in very much similar position. There are changes as some places have opened back up at different rates, and there are starting to be some differences, but the vast majority of what we're all dealing with is very similar, and people are a little bit more willing to share what they're doing, what they're talking about with their administration, what's working with their teams."
The association has been putting considerable effort into three areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts, a unified COVID-19 initiative, and responding to recent and potential program cuts.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Efforts
The group has established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) subcommittee, which Davis admits is still in a formative stage, noting that it is hoped that the DEI effort will also inform the creation of a new mission statement for the organization (see the full list of committee leaders here).
"The DEI group is going to build their vision and their values for the committee, and that will inform the new mission statement and values of this year for the CRCA, so that it is actually a structural change to the way that the CRCA is run and organized," she said.
"We're working on how rowing can be a more diverse and inclusive sport, recognizing that we have not traditionally been that," Davis said. "We are working on how rowing can do that, and how we as coaches can facilitate that - and then how can we as an organization interweave these DEI initiatives into the fabric of everything that we're doing. We are trying to make sure it's not just an offshoot committee so we can check the DEI box - but to make sure that everything that the CRCA is doing is actually in line with those ideals."
Davis acknowledged that the CRCA response to the COVID-19 has been multifold, much of happening in real time over the past few months, including tracking institutional and team responses to and plans for the pandemic, extensive information sharing, and other elements.
Longer term, Davis said the association is working on actionable services for and among members; one example is a more collaborative approach to scheduling in the works.
"Traditionally scheduling has been handled individually by an institution or coach," she said. "To find races, maybe there is a standing cup race, but otherwise they find a race without much outside communication, particularly with regional schools," she said.
"Looking at the reality of it, it might be that we can't fly, or we can't leave the region or the state. So what's around us? We've asked everybody to send their racing schedules, and we organize it by region and state and venue, which I think will become valuable when we have a better idea of where we can go if plans need to change. If we have to adapt to a limited travel schedule, that could happen more easily."
As mentioned in our report on the formation of the IRCA, the CRCA joined in signing a letter opposing the reduction of the number of varsity sports required to be a full member (and notably, and FBS-eligible member) of the NCAA.
"I don't know how many opportunities we have had to do something like this in the past, but collaboration with other coaching associations in other sports, but something like this where all of college sports are being affected, we were able to put our voice in with all of college athletics that signed that letter," she said.
Joining the letter to the NCAA leads directly to efforts to address program cuts, as the outcome of a reduction in the number of required NCAA sports would almost certainly result in multiple and possibly very quick program cuts, rowing programs among them. The CRCA is aware, however, that each program under threat is facing a different set of circumstances.
"You are exactly right; what we found out pretty quickly is that you can't have a one size fits all response, because rowing getting cut at NorthPark is different than Ohio Wesleyan is different than UConn and Stanford and Dartmouth," Davis said. "They're all different, including the reasoning behind the cut, and also the possibility of bringing it back.
"So, what we started to look at first was, how do we provide immediate support and guidance to the coaches of programs that have been cut? How can we inform them about best practices and key things that they should be thinking about as they start hearing from alumni and supporters about what to do? We learned by talking to other collegiate coaching associations for other sports who have a lot of experience in responding to this."
The CRCA is calling their initiative 'sport preservation," and is working on appropriate ways to respond to
"As we looked into what we can provide, we know it is not the capital," she said. "The CRCA is not going to be able to provide the millions of dollars that it's going to take to reinstate a team. We're not going to be more passionate about any one individual program than their own alums are going to be, but what we can do is provide numbers and voices.
"Some of that is working with men's rowing, to provide a voice to reach out to athletic departments and universities that cut programs, and ways that the voices of our student athletes and our alums can speak out about what collegiate rowing has done for them, and what as athletes they have done for their university by virtue of being a rower and a varsity athlete. How can we help athletic departments see the value of our sport?
"We can start working on joint responses from college rowing, not just men's or women's rowing, and then we have a better chance of getting attention from athletic departments, universities, and the public."
Davis coaching BU practice on the ergs outdoors
As noted in our report on the new IRCA, many rowing people have filled their time away from the boathouse with work on tasks they felt important or even critical to our sport - and most of them are also aware that sustaining those efforts will be very difficult once the sport returns. An ambitious schedule of Zoom meetings is no match for the demands of running a 50-person rowing team; it's not even close.
But the all-hands-on-deck response that Davis saw this spring gives her some hope that momentum can be created and hopefully sustained.
"I think 70 people showed up to the first DEI Zoom, which was awesome," Davis said. "But we need 70 at the first one so that in October we've still got 20 super dedicated people.
"The response from coaches in in every region, conference, division has been overwhelming," she said. "Our strength and what will move us forward is going to be the number of people that want to be involved without a title, without being elected, who genuinely care about the sport and athletes and they want to dedicate the little free time that they have to being on a ton of new meetings and really pushing the board to be better. It has been really impressive; there's a ton of people who have done so much. There's no way that the board could do one-hundredth of the work that's being done now. And that's because we have hundreds of people who are helping."
The full CRCA board:DI - Derek Copeland (Louisville), Lori Dauphiny (Princeton), Madeline Davis (Boston University), Mike Lane (Jacksonville), Jennifer Langzettel (Duquesne), Jane LaRivier (Washington State), Nancy LaRoque (Dartmouth), Liz Tuppen (Michigan), Kate Maxim (Oregon State)
DII - Jamie Francis (Embry Riddle) and Patrick Hyland (Humboldt State)
DIII - Meg Conan (Hamilton) and Tessa Spillane (Wellesley)
Administrative Assistant - Sheila Rinozzi (Syracuse)