Debate logistics impacting student-athletes as event draws nearer

and | Sports Editors

Teams of construction crews have spent the past week constructing podiums, building a fence and planting shrubs—all to turn the Athletic Complex into the biggest media venue in the entire country for one raucous night. For the majority of students, debate preparation represents little more than a minor nuisance. However, for the roughly 600 varsity athletes on campus, their second home has been occupied. Logistical issues concerning scheduling and security have required the varsity teams and the athletic department as a whole to deviate from their regular routine. Everything from practice locations to laundry have been affected by restrictions that will only tighten as debate day approaches.

“They pretty much designated a use for every square inch of this building,” Deputy Director of Athletics Chris Peacock said.

For example, the Sumers Fitness Center, of the new Gary M. Sumers Recreation Center, will be the site of spin alley. Humorously, some of the candidate surrogates that do the political spinning after the debate will be held in the actual spin room—the one for bicycles—adjacent to the fitness floor.

Red carpet for the presidential debate is rolled up in the main Debate Floor area last week.

Red carpet for the presidential debate is rolled up in the main Debate Floor area last week.

Until then, their move-in process has been incremental. This has lead to a staggered schedule of closures of the AC’s main facilities. The varsity gym closed Tuesday Oct. 4, the equipment rooms and locker rooms went off-line after practices the next day. For security reasons, Francis Field will be closed after Oct.7.

That last closure posed a challenge for the men’s and women’s soccer teams, who are both slated to host Emory University back-to-back on Saturday, a day prior to the debate. To solve the issue, instead of playing at their typical home, Francis Field, the teams will play at South Campus. That decision was made in March, well before the fall season was underway. Though they have played exhibition matches at South Campus in the past, it is the first time they will play a regular season game at South Campus.

“We do normally practice and play games on Francis Field,” women’s soccer head coach Jim Conlon said. “With the debate, as great as of an event as it is for the University, we know we all have to make some adjustments. So we scheduled an away game on Tuesday, and then we will take the day off Wednesday, which would be normal, and then we will move over to South Campus for Thursday and Friday in preparation for our ‘home game’ against Emory.”

Typically, conference opponents like Wash. U. and Emory alternate the hosting of their annual match. Due to the debate, Wash. U. was given the option of hosting at South Campus or allowing Emory to host for a second straight season this year. They ultimately chose South Campus.

The South Campus turf plays slightly faster, and the field is a little bigger than what both teams are used to at Francis Field. However, graduate student Jack West of the men’s team thinks the switch will actually work out in their favor.

“That will actually work well for us because we do well with moving the ball very quickly and trying to make our opponents chase the ball,” West said. “It’s not like it’s going to be an away game.”

Other sports were able to avoid the debate entirely. Football is slated to visit Rhodes College this weekend, while volleyball has a scheduled off-week. Some local venues have also stepped in to help with practice venues. With access to Millstone Pool restricted, swimming will practice at several local high schools. Volleyball has the option of practicing at Fontbonne University, if they so chose.

To no surprise, athletes have also had to deal with heightened security. All varsity athletes had to go through a background check in order to use the AC this close to debate day. Now, when they enter, they have to show ID at the security checkpoint to receive a wristband that will let them use the facilities. They have to wear the band during practice.

Another wrinkle in the routine of athletes is the unavailability of laundry rooms. Typically, athletes are able to drop off dirty practice uniforms to get washed. With closures, that’s no longer an option. Instead, athletes will receive all equipment they need for this weekend’s games ahead of time. Upon their return, instead of dropping off their dirty clothes at the normal location, a different spot on campus has been designated for drop-off.

Once the debate is over, it shouldn’t take long for the teams to resume their standard schedules. They’ll have access to all their normal facilities in less than 24 hours.

“We should resume normal athletic activity from a services standpoint, with equipment services, as well as athletic training services, Monday afternoon after the debate,” Conlon said. “So I don’t think the facilities will be totally up and running, as they will still be deconstructing some of the stuff, but our spaces—as far as the locker room, the athletic training room and the equipment room services and Francis Field, should be ready for our Monday afternoon practice at 5:30.”

For the athletes around the AC, playing through debate preparation has been a completely new experience. But for many of the coaches, this is their second, third, fourth—and in the case of men’s basketball coach Mark Edwards, women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey and football coach Larry Kindbom—fifth rodeo.

“Most of our coaches have been through this before, so they know what to look for, and they start to prepare their teams when they return to campus, sometimes even during the summer, that this week will be a little out of our ordinary,” Facility Manager Andrew Koch said.

“Any time you’re going to hold a large national event like this—you want to make sure we’re putting together the safest environment,” Conlon, who was here for the Joe Biden-Sarah Palin debate in 2008, said. “We know that a week, 10 days before, we’re just going to have to show our ID and really be accountable…We’re all prepared; you just have to build in a couple extra minutes.”

Still, while the rules are easy enough to follow, it’s hard not to notice how much more intense the security measures are for this debate as in years past. Stepping on campus the week before the debate, it’s impossible to miss the perimeter fence. There will also be road closures the day of the debate.

“1992 was the first year we hosted the debate, and you could come up to the front door of the building up through debate time,” Koch said.

This time around though, “There are certain specific details that we can’t share or that we don’t know. That’s one indicator that the security has ramped up,” Peacock said.

Though the debate will have come and gone by this time next week, it has its long-term advantages. According to Conlon, investments made during previous debate preparations have yielded lasting benefits to the athletic department and Wash. U. fans.

“I know in ‘08, one of the things we were able to get was hard-lined Internet to the press box, because we were already running wires all around the stadium,” Conlon said. “So that was a huge addition, as you well know, for our fans to be able to have live stream coming out of the press box.”

Still, it’s difficult to tell which improvements to the infrastructure will remain past this week. It might not be clear if any upgrades will persist until the dust settles after the debate.

“I don’t know, those are kind of adjustments that we see at the end,” Conlon said. “We don’t really know, to be honest, what’s temporary and what’s permanent, with some of the things that are being built in the Athletic Center right now.”

Sometimes, the benefits are subtler. The new infrastructure can pay off in the smallest ways.

“Obviously the candidates do need private bathrooms, and so there’s been a couple coaches down on courtside with those bathrooms, but I think that’s more of a logistical thing,” Conlon said. “It’s actually nice to have the extra bathrooms in case of NCAA tournament play—if we need extra drug testing sessions, where you have to have the NCAA and their official workers with a bathroom source close by—so sometimes we can tie stuff like that together.”

Cables are set up in the Media Room in the news Sumers Recreation Center.

Cables are set up in the Media Room in the news Sumers Recreation Center.

The athletic department’s goal has been to maintain normality even while a national-sized tenant moves in. Conlon thinks that mission has been accomplished.

“I think the university has done a great job of getting set up for the debate while also trying to keep, especially in-season, athletes in their normal stride,” Conlon said. “And I think even this year, the recreation kids were able to be in the building much longer than they were in ’08. So I thought the university did a great job of preparing for this amazing event but also trying to minimize the abnormalities of the entire student body.”

“Everybody is aware that this is a college campus and we have to continue with our normal activities,” Koch said. “From campus police through the Commission on Presidential Debates and Secret Service, they’re great to work with.”

Even after the debate is over, and the cameras are gone, things won’t get easier for the department. There is about a two-week window to reset the AC and move new equipment in in preparation for the opening of the Sumers Center at the end of October. After that, winter sports start soon, with fall NCAAs right behind.

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