Two days before the Washington Huskies’ scheduled football opener on Sept. 5, Jennifer Cohen strolled through the university’s athletic complex, with peaceful Lake Washington looming like an oil painting in the background. As she wound by the basketball arena, past the football stadium and down to the docks where champion rowers once climbed into their boats, she was, more or less, alone. Instead of bat cracks, blown whistles and shouting coaches, an eerie silence hung heavy in the air. Instead of teams preparing for fall seasons, the fields sat empty; in some cases, grass was overgrown and benches were covered in bird droppings.
For Cohen and other athletic directors throughout college sports, the past six months have unfolded like an unending crisis management exercise. It’s not just the pandemic. It’s the seasons that were shut down last spring, the classes canceled, the campuses cleared, the testing protocols established, the plans that required careful consideration for a safe return. It’s the police brutality that shook not only her athletes but her staff, the protests and demonstrations that continued nearby in downtown Seattle. It’s the mental wellbeing of everyone she knows. It’s the ongoing debate about amateurism and compensating college athletes. It’s the staff she had to furlough, the budgets she was forced to cut and the opener—against mighty, revenue-generating Michigan—that UW will not play this season.
Birds chirped nearby as Cohen wandered, and how clearly she could hear their calls spoke to the new landscape, the difference between the normal bustle and a college sports ghost town. Where most of the world paused or scaled back for COVID-19, Cohen’s already overstuffed work docket only grew. Her phone buzzed endlessly. Administrators weighed the contract the conference had signed that day for rapid testing, speculating on whether that could speed up a return. Rather than host a football game, she would take her oldest son across the country to college that weekend. Her youngest needed a ride to his high school football practice. Everyone needed something, which made Cohen at once an administrator, confidant, therapist, budding amateur medical expert, mom, fundraiser, Uber driver, activist and air traffic controller.
Cohen is also, always, one of only five female athletic directors at a Power 5 school, which never really mattered to her until recently. It does matter now, though, especially in 2020, when both her unlikely path to the top of college sports and all she lived through simply because she lacked a Y chromosome will inform how Cohen approaches the unprecedented uncertainty at hand. She understands chaos, after all, because she long ago became familiar with it.
To deal with all her new and strange responsibilities, Cohen and her red fox Labrador walk roughly 10 miles every day, sometimes more. Big Red remains both her trusty companion and her sounding board. As Cohen settled onto a purple yoga mat for her morning workout, he plopped down at her side, her phone and her dog always within reach. The AD sped through the closest