Sports, University News

Athletics committee recommends axing four varsity teams

Total budget for athletics would rise 10 percent

By
Sports Editor
Thursday, April 21, 2011

The men’s and women’s fencing teams, men’s wrestling team and women’s ski team will be cut if President Ruth Simmons and the Corporation accept the plan recommended yesterday by the Athletics Review Committee. If the Corporation approves the committee’s proposals at its meeting next month, the cuts will be implemented immediately, effective at the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year.

In the report released yesterday at 5 p.m., the committee provided separate reasons for discontinuing each of the three sports.

The report cited the need for “a large investment in facilities, infrastructure and coaching to bring the fencing program to the necessary level” as a reason for cutting the men’s and women’s fencing teams. It also cited the “small number of fencing programs nationally.” Six of the other seven Ivy League institutions currently have varsity women’s fencing programs, and five of the seven have men’s programs.   

The University “cannot offer facilities to support competitive skiing in any reasonable way,” according to the report. The committee also cited concerns about the safety of ski team members traveling to New Hampshire and western Massachusetts for practices and competitions. Two other Ivy schools — Harvard and Dartmouth — currently field varsity ski teams.  

The wrestling program is one of the most expensive University athletic programs and also “requires a large number of admissions slots,” according to the report. The program creates Title IX issues relating to equitable gender participation — there are 28 males and no females on the wrestling team. Five of the seven other Ivies have varsity wrestling programs.  

Head Coach Dave Amato, who has headed the wrestling program since 1983, said he believes gender equity was the factor that led to the recommendation to eliminate his sport.

“I think the gender killed us because there is obviously no comparable women’s sport,” he said.  

Budget increase and athletic improvements

The reduction from 37 to 34 intercollegiate teams is only one part of the committee’s larger set of recommendations. Another element of the plan would increase the annual athletics budget by roughly 10 percent, according to committee Chair Richard Spies, executive vice president for planning and senior adviser to the president.  

“If these recommendations are accepted in total, the budget of the athletics department would be higher, notwithstanding the fact that there will be fewer sports,” Spies said. “We are sufficiently under-resourced that we must work on both sides of the equation.”  

Spies also said the overall budget increase reinforces the University’s commitment to athletics. “At a time when resources are a constraint, that’s a huge statement by the University,” he said.  

While some funds from eliminated teams will be reallocated to support the hiring of additional administrative and medical staff, the general increase in the athletics budget will primarily fund larger coaching salaries.  

Spies said the University lags behind the rest of the Ivy League in terms of coaching salaries. “We’re pretty far off, on the order of a million dollars.”  

According to Spies and the committee report, the athletics department will work with the Office of Human Resources to develop a plan to improve salaries across the department. The report stated that “salary adjustments should be made as early as January 2012.”  

In addition to the 10 percent budget increase, the report calls for facilities upgrades that would amount to about $10 million, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services. The report recommends improving field hockey facilities and increasing overall locker room space, though these changes may take three to five years to complete.  

In the committee’s plan, the $10 million necessary for facility improvements will be raised from outside donors by the Brown University Sports Foundation and the Office of Advancement.  

The Office of Advancement and the sports foundation would also jointly undertake the task of raising $5 million for financial aid, an area in which the committee found Brown “less generous than those of most of our competitors within the Ivy League,” especially “for students whose family income is above $100,000.” Ivy League rules dictate that financial aid be distributed without regard to whether or not an applicant is an athlete.

Klawunn said the committee’s plan better positions the athletics department for the future. “We took very seriously the charge that this should strengthen athletics,” she said, “and we hope that the ways this is a real investment in athletics will lead to a lot of gains in the department in areas they’ve identified as important — facilities and financial aid and compensation.”  

“There’s a unique opportunity with this plan to make some very positive change,” she added. “It comes with some painful decisions, but it will get us to a longer-term place of sustainability and strength.”

Spies said the combination of fewer teams and increased funds can lead to a more successful athletics program. “The strengthening comes from the funds we do have and expect to add — to focus these more effectively on a smaller number of teams and therefore be better.”  

But Amato doubted the cuts would improve other programs.  “This is not going to help the department one bit,” he said. “Coaches know what’s going to make a team better — not some committee.”

Cuts beyond the cuts

The implications of these painful decisions go beyond the elimination of the four teams. While some student-athletes have been forced to contemplate having the hyphenated “athlete” lopped off, their coaches must face the prospect of joblessness.  

The fencing and skiing programs each employ a single coach, and wrestling employs a head coach and two paid assistant coaches. Since eliminated programs “would be discontinued immediately” under the committee’s plan, Spies said the University would help these teams’ coaches “through a transition, which will almost certainly mean moving elsewhere.”    

Such promises do not diminish the reality of unemployment, Amato said. “What am I going to do, right? I think if I saw it coming I would have been applying for jobs.”  

The report also includes a recommendation to decrease the number of recruited athlete admission spots from 225 to 195. Half this decrease will occur through the elimination of admission spots for the four cut teams, but the remainder “can be realized through some selective tightening” by the athletics and admission offices, according to the report. The other 15 spots will be taken from the remaining varsity teams. Several teams will then “go forward without any dedicated admissions slots,” the report states. A decision on which remaining teams will lose recruiting positions has not yet been made, Spies said.   

Klawunn said this particular decision was “really important in the context of the institution’s priorities and plan for athletics that fits in our other educational goals.”

“As our admissions processes become even more selective, there’s a sense that every spot is important and they need to be available to as many different kinds of student talent as possible,” Klawunn said.

Klawunn also said this suggestion had become “one of the most contentious” aspects of the recommendation after its release.

This contention was evident in Amato’s response to this suggested change. “Skiing — they don’t even get admissions spots,” he said. “The report is crazy. I only got seven admissions spots this year, and I got eight last year, and I think fencing gets four, so how do they get 15?”

Amato also said the reduction in admissions slots directly counters the stated goal of fielding a more competitive athletic program.

“The athletic department is giving back 30 slots in admissions. That’s how you win, right?” he said. “I mean, come on. … There are not too many teams that can get walk-ons and win.”  

Gender equity

As part of the decision to eliminate two men’s and two women’s programs, a women’s club team will be raised to varsity status “to ensure equitable participation by gender as required by Title IX.” The report stated the chosen program would be recognized as an official varsity program by fall 2012.   

Title IX is a federal law banning gender discrimination in athletic departments receiving federal funds.  The University lost a Title IX lawsuit in 1995 after eliminating four programs — including the women’s gymnastics and volleyball teams — because of budget constraints.

Title IX “both reinforces a University goal of equitable participation and sets some very specific constraints legally for us, which are kind of more up front at Brown than anywhere else because of our history,” Spies said.  

He also noted that gender equity did not play a more prominent role in the committee’s decision than other considered factors.

“You can’t say at any point (Title IX) made this decision X rather than Y,” he said.  

Amato said he thought it was an odd decision to eliminate a women’s sport only to ensure the introduction of a new one within a year.

 “Why would they drop women’s fencing, and then … a year from now, they’re going to add another varsity women’s sport,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they just keep women’s fencing?”  

The step before implementation

The release of the athletics committee’s recommendations does not finalize any implementation plans. The public release of the committee report opens a period of time for feedback from community members before recommendations are brought before Simmons and the Corporation.  

Amato said this time span between the report release and the Corporation’s meeting may have negative effects on student-athletes whose teams have been eliminated.

“Now the kids have to wait another five weeks to see if they have a sport or they don’t,” Amato said. “So what do these kids do in the next five weeks — do they try to transfer?”  

But both Klawunn and Spies noted the importance of this discussion period, which kicks off with an 8 a.m. meeting this morning between student-athletes and Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger to discuss the committee findings. The Herald was unable to reach Goldberger for comment Thursday.

“Our recommendations are just that — recommendations to the president,” Spies said. “The president has not signed off, and she’s quite deliberately waited to hear not just what the recommendations are, but what the feedback is before she makes her own judgments about what to do.”