Vaccines, masks and more: Q&A with Xavier University Director of Athletics Greg Christopher

Adam Baum
Cincinnati Enquirer

Many things have changed in the last 18 months, which seems to be a requirement for navigating a pandemic. 

And with changes, come questions. 

The college basketball season is less than a month away, so The Enquirer caught up with Greg Christopher, Xavier University's Vice President for Administration and Director of Athletics, for a Q&A to help prepare Musketeer fans for the season. 

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Will Cintas Center operate at full fan capacity for the upcoming basketball season?

GC: "Yes. Ohio doesn't have any attendance restrictions right now. So you've probably seen we're up over 8,000 season tickets again. Student attendance planning is full steam ahead. So I know our basketball teams are really looking forward to having a home-court advantage again." 

Xavier University has instituted a vaccine mandate for students and masks are required indoors – will fans attending basketball games this season have to adhere to those same requirements?

GC: "Regarding masks, yes. Similar to other colleges, and universities and schools, masks are required when indoors at Xavier. That's where we are with COVID-19 right now, it certainly doesn't stop anyone from supporting our teams. The indoor masking metric that Xavier and I think other schools are using is a CDC-related metric. I'm not certain of the details, but it has to do with the number of cases per 1,000 within Hamilton County. Numbers seem to be trending down in a positive manner right now. So we'll see where things go in the coming months.

Xavier Musketeers guard Nate Johnson (10) rises to dunk during a practice at the Cintas Center on the campus of Xavier University in Cincinnati on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

"As for vaccines, like many colleges and universities, we require the vaccine for our students and our employees, given the community here. Requiring the vaccine for fans at games is not something in our current plan for basketball season. We have looked at the logistics and we're prepared to shift if it becomes a requirement or if the course of the pandemic changes."

With everything that happened last season, and all the challenges caused by the pandemic, how does this season feel different from a year ago?

GC: "I've had a lot of people ask me versions of that. And I guess my immediate reaction anytime somebody says that is kind of two thoughts, and they may sound contradictory, but on one hand, it does feel the same as last year. And some of that's because keep in mind, Xavier was on campus last year and our students went to class, we were in the office, we were all here. We played our sporting events, you were at several of them. So in some ways, it all feels the same. Perhaps there's a bit more certainty or confidence this year because we successfully navigated last year.

"Then, on the other hand, I think there's a feeling of greater normalcy this year. And again, it probably is because we navigated last year. And I think having fans in the stands at soccer, volleyball and basketball next month, that helps play into that. So big picture, we're learning to live with and through COVID, I guess. We still have students and student-athletes who are contracting the virus, although thankfully, the numbers are down from last year. And with vaccination rates on campus above 90%, even with the occasional breakthrough case, we'll hopefully have a more normal schedule this year. You've probably watched college football, NFL, Major League Baseball, you've seen players miss games, but there have been a lot fewer cancellations. So I think all of our coaches, even our fall sports, we've learned COVID, in some ways, is like an injury. You may have players miss games. But hopefully, we are in a situation where an entire roster isn't taken out like we had last year."

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It’s an important season ahead for the men’s basketball program, looking for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018, what are your expectations for this season?

GC: "Every season is important for men's basketball at Xavier. It's the flagship program for our department. So we're not going to shy away from our ultimate goals. This program, we want to break down the final door for Xavier basketball and get to a Final Four and then make a run at a national championship. So to do that, the baseline expectations haven't changed. We need to compete for a Big East championship and finish in the top half of the league. Those measures I think, have proven over time, good enough to give teams a spot in the NCAA Tournament. So I think from a macro point of view, (men's basketball head coach) Travis (Steele's) first three years have gone about as I have expected. I'm absolutely confident in the direction that we're headed.

"I've said many times that there are three ingredients that give Xavier the best shot of reaching a Final Four. First is the culture within the program. Second is the talent within the program. And then third is coaching consistency. I think certain schools take other paths, but those are the three ingredients that are critical for our future. And I feel really positive about where the culture on this team stands now and how it's been shaped over the last couple of years. I think talent comes with stacking recruiting classes and mixing in the right transfers. And I think we're seeing progress on that front as well. So again, feel really good about where we're heading."

Cintas Center recently went through a $3 million renovation with a lot of technical upgrades. Is that project complete and how do you see those upgrades impacting the experience for fans?

GC: "The video board is up and running now. The new video board was delayed a bit because of supply chain challenges, like everything. But it is up and running now for volleyball. Now that the board is live, our technical and marketing teams are learning how to maximize its capabilities. And that's going to take some time. Our staff has described learning the new board, like switching from Microsoft to Apple. And it's been a fun project. I know our teams are excited to show off the new board. I think it's one of those things that will take time to get it fully up and running and capable. And they'll learn new things as they go. But yeah, it certainly will be up and running by the time basketball season starts."

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Construction recently began on another Cintas Center project – the Klekamp Family Training Center. Is that project on schedule and what do you make of how much Cintas Center has changed since your arrival in 2013?

GC: "The construction on the Klekamp Training Center, it'll take about 14 months. So we're aiming for completion next fall, that's the phrase we're using so we don't have an exact timeline yet, but they've told us 14 months from start to finish all along. So everything is on schedule. As for the big picture, the changes and improvements in recent years, I think we've talked about this a fair amount, all of our efforts have really been focused on making sure Cintas remains one of the premier on-campus basketball facilities. So we're 21, 22 years into the building now and it's about spending the last few years getting it refreshed and refurbished and ready for the next two to three decades."

It's a new era in college sports with the adoption of Name, Image and Likeness rights, what are your thoughts on the early impact of NIL on collegiate athletics and how's Xavier handling this new frontier? 

GC: "Just as a little bit of background, to date, we've had about 50 Xavier student-athletes take advantage of NIL opportunities. Some are trade or product-related. At least one was a commercial that a young woman appeared in and then others are modest endorsement openings. We're certainly supportive of our student-athletes in this space. Although I think it's volatile right now and the marketplace will likely take some time to establish itself. There's a couple of fronts here.

"First, I would say we're working on educating our athletes on the landscape and their responsibilities. For example, tax and financial advice for our student-athletes. There are agent considerations now. There are a number of areas that athletes need to think about when they consider a NIL opportunity. So the first big picture area is making sure that we're educating our 300 student-athletes. The second would be focusing on what I'll call the broad areas of opportunities for NIL. And I think there's three, at least these are the buckets that we put them in. The first would be all things, camps, clinics and lessons for our student-athletes. For example, our baseball players can now give hitting lessons to kids and get paid. Whereas in the past, they weren't able to. You can go to our website now and we've asked each of our 300 athletes, are you interested in giving public lessons and you can find the database and links for all of our athletes that are interested in that. So camps, clinics and lessons would be one bucket. A second bucket would be apparel and merchandise. And as the fall progresses, you're going to start to see the same way you've seen the (University of Cincinnati quarterback) Desmond Ridder t-shirt, you'll start to see whether it's player-specific jerseys and maybe some other merchandise tied to Xavier athletes. And then the third is the endorsement opportunities and those are a little more specific, whether it be through companies, and so forth. But as things move forward, I think those are the three basic buckets for our student-athletes and you'll probably see openings in each space."