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Inflatable field to occupy bike track infield, host sports teams


Courtesy Rick Mello. Note: This is a mockup of the inflatable bubble by Rice Athletics, but not necessarily representative of the size or location of the actual bubble. 

By Andrew Grottkau     2/20/19 12:33am

The athletic department presented plans for an inflatable dome designed to be used by multiple varsity and club athletic teams to members of the Student Association, sparking concern among some members of the student body. 

The inflatable dome would be located in the infield of the bike track behind Rice Stadium because it could not fit within the current football practice field, according to Deputy Athletics Director Rick Mello. It would cover 80,000 square feet, leaving 136 feet on either end to the inside curve of the bike track. The dome would be moved or deflated sometime before Beer Bike each year, with the time to be determined based on feedback from the student body, Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman said. Bikers could still practice on the track while the dome is inflated, according to Mello. 

The structure, which is still in the early development phase, will be used by teams during inclement weather such as rain or high heat, according to Mello. 

The main users will be Rice football, the Rice rugby team and a local middle school; both the middle school and rugby team are helping to fund the structure in exchange for practice time in the dome, according to Mello. Gorman said it would also be accessible to other campus recreation groups such as intramural sports, club sports and powderpuff. 

“When we looked at this project, we knew we needed to do something for inclement weather for our football program because of the number of kids involved [and] the tight schedule,” Mello said. “After that, the one thing that [Director of Athletics] Joe Karlgaard said was ‘How do we serve the Rice community as a whole?’”

The dome will cost an estimated $3 million to build and will be funded by philanthropic donations, according to Mello. He said if the athletics department raises enough money in time, the structure could be completed as early as August of this year. 

According to freshman football player Prudy Calderon, the football team had to go off campus to use the Houston Texans’ practice bubble frequently last year, which forces the team to rent buses, pay a fee to the Texans and lose practice time. Calderon said the dome would be “very beneficial” to the team. 

Last year, University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died after suffering from heatstroke during an outdoor practice over the summer. 

Mello said with increased awareness about the dangers of practicing in the heat, the football team is indoors more often. 

“It just provides a layer of safety that we haven’t had before,” Mello said. 

Mello said the football team would likely only use the dome about eight to nine hours per week during the fall, while the soccer team would use it in the mornings on rainy days and track could use it in some way as well. Given the dome floor would be covered by artificial turf, however, Mello said the soccer team would prefer not to practice in the dome because it never plays on turf.

Sophomore swimmer Kelsey Evans said she understands that the dome would be  open to all members of the Rice community, but the fact that it is specifically tailored to men’s sports teams like football is concerning. 

“The [Brian] Patterson [Sports Performance] Center is a sports center, but it’s for football,” Evans said. “Sometimes if I walk in the center alone without my team I’ll get weird looks, like ‘Oh, there’s a female here.’ I don’t see how an inflatable dome would be any different. I’m worried that there would be a disregard for female athletes or intramural or club athletes, whoever wants to use it.”

Evans said she would rather see more money invested in women’s sports, especially given that Mello estimates the cost of deflating the structure every year would be on the order of $30,000. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics database, Rice spent just over $21 million on men’s teams compared to just over $9 million on women’s teams in the 2017-18 school year, which is $76,611 per male athlete compared to $47,322 per female athlete.

“Our locker room is so small we can’t even walk into our tiny little corner, and our pool heater breaks all the time,” Evans said. 

This year’s campuswide Beer Bike coordinators, Enoch Peng and Rebecca Artall, said they have concerns about the presence of the inflatable structure because bikers use the track to practice yearlong, not just around the time of Beer Bike. 

“If the track itself is open for public use, it’s another hazard in case someone does something crazy and runs into it,” Peng said.

Artall and Peng both said they had only been contacted secondhand regarding the dome and had not been consulted on the proposal. They said events like time trials, certifications and mock bikes — which require the inside of the track — occur up to three weeks before Beer Bike. 

“It has to be moved at some point because we need the inside of the track,” Artall said. “It’s just more logistics. This has to be moved before we can do anything else, any setup for the day.”

Student Association President Ariana Engles said undergraduates have raised concerns to her regarding aspects of the dome including the gender equity of the project, safety around Greenbriar lot late at night, environmental ramifications and loss of parking spots. She said she appointed McMurtry College senior Quinn Mathews and Duncan College senior Ashton Duke to chair a committee to collect student feedback on the proposal to submit to the athletic department. 

Mello said he has presented the proposal to Gorman and the college presidents and plans to meet with college senators in the coming weeks. 

“We felt it was really important to make sure everyone was heard,” Mello said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure people No. 1 are aware and make sure everybody has a chance to provide some feedback.”

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