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News, Sports, University News

Demoted varsity athletes petition Brown for reinstatement

Through online petitions and organizing efforts, student athletes call for reversal of demotion to club level, demand transparency from University

By
University News Editor
Thursday, June 4, 2020

In response to the University’s recent announcement that 11 varsity teams would be demoted to the club level as part of a new Excellence in Brown Athletics initiative, student athletes have mobilized to organize their teammates, peers, parents and alumni networks to petition for more answers — and ultimately, to reverse the University’s decision. 

Two days after President Christina Paxson P’19 announced the cuts in an email sent out May 28 to the entire University community, a representative from each demoted team created a petition calling on fans to support their cause and calling on the University to reinstate their varsity status. Athletes participating in sports for which both the men’s and women’s squads were cut — such as squash, fencing and golf — have consolidated efforts into single petitions, campaigning for their sport as a whole rather than their individual teams. 

As of June 4, the six circulating petitions on change.org — for fencing, golf, squash, women’s skiing, women’s equestrian and men’s track, field and cross country — have collectively accumulated upwards of 90,000 signatures.

The Committee on Excellence in Athletics, composed primarily of alumni and trustees of the University, did not include student-athletes or coaches in order to maintain objectivity in making recommendations, Paxson told The Herald. The committee did include Athletic Director Jack Hayes.

The captains of each of the demoted teams wrote an open letter to the administration critiquing the decision. The letter was supported and signed by the captains of every varsity sport at Brown excluding men’s lacrosse, men’s ice hockey and men’s wrestling. 

“Through this decision process, Brown has deceived us, used faulty information to judge our teams and shown us that we are expendable after stripping us of our passion,” they wrote in conclusion. “150 student-athletes are left feeling unvalued, and the remaining 750 are left wondering who’s next.”

In an interview with The Herald, Paxson acknowledged the community’s dissatisfaction, which she had expected at the outset of the decision-making process. “We could’ve just kept kicking the can down the road, but I thought it was time to do something about it,” she said. The prospect of cutting teams to increase the performance of a smaller number of squads had been floated for many years before the Corporation officially voted on the decision on May 21, she said.

“Maybe that means that I’ll take a little more heat from students than I would like,” she said, but she remains encouraged by those alumni who have reached out to her supporting her decision. 

While many teams continue to rally around calls to reinstate varsity status for demoted teams, “I think this decision is done,” Paxson said. “Once you start unraveling it, we’re back at 38 teams. I don’t think that’s really what the Brown community wants.”

In interviews with The Herald, four student-athletes from demoted teams, both current and former, discussed their organizing efforts to reverse the decision and expressed their desire for greater clarity from University administrators in how they came to their decision.

Track and Field alum questions U. decision

To date, the Retain Men’s Track & Field/XC Varsity Status petition alone has nearly 40,000 signatures.

 Martin Martinez ’18, an alum of the Men’s Track & Field team, said that he and a number of other alums immediately jumped to support current athletes after hearing the news that the team had been among the 11 teams cut. “The timing of it all was so callous,” Martinez said, adding that he — and other athletes still at Brown — felt blindsided by the announcement. 

“Many of us come from low-income backgrounds, many of us are people of color. This was our avenue into the Ivy League,” Martinez said. “To take it away from students and take it away from future generations, it was just shocking.”

Martinez and the extended alumni network are focused on demanding transparency from the University. Along with sharing the petition, organizers are working to compile data about the team to counter the University’s stated reasoning for cutting it. 

Organizers independently aggregated data about the Men’s Track & Field team to try to prove that given the three “pillars” driving University decision-making in their data-driven approach — strength of team, roster size and quality of facilities — the decision to cut their team does not align with the values nor the metrics backing the decision, Martinez said.

Martinez pointed to the team’s history of success as a testament to its strength compared to other teams on the varsity roster: In the past, the team has received 12 All-American awards, as well as a national title in the last decade. The team has also produced many Olympians, he said. 

Additionally, the team “is one of the most efficient rosters,” he said, as track and field requires low operating expenses per athlete while still achieving high levels of performance. According to 2019 data compiled by the University, the operating expenses per participant for men’s track and field is $2,837 compared to $82,633 per participant for men’s basketball, for example.

Martinez acknowledged that he may be more hesitant to financially support the University after this decision. “We’re feeling removed from the University, we’re feeling betrayed (by) the University, and obviously that’s gonna have implications for the ways that we’re willing to support the University,” he said.  

As protesters around the country advocate for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement, Martinez said that he and other alums have taken a step back from campaigning for the team to leave space for larger national campaign efforts, recognizing the relative importance of the two causes. Still, Martinez hopes to provide emotional support to current students, to make sure that they know that he will listen to them when the University fails to do the same. 

“It’s been painful, a lot of students have been really raw with their emotions,” Martinez said. In a time of national unrest and uncertainty, he said, now is “possibly the worst time to feel abandoned and to feel betrayed by the University.”

Uncertainty on how to transition successfully to club status

Maggie Beardsley ’22, a member of the women’s ski team, said that the writing and disseminating of the ski team’s petition was a group effort. For them, “being united as a team” is most important. 

Their petition has collected over 9,200 signatures to date — “humbling for a team of only nine returning athletes,” Beardsley said. 

Like many fellow student athletes, Beardsley and her team still struggle to understand the reasoning behind how the decision was made, with questions left unanswered about how they can successfully transition to the club level. 

Facilities such as weight rooms are customarily reserved for varsity athletes, as well as access to physical trainers, which the ski team relies on to prevent and treat frequent injuries, Beardsley said. At the club level, without access to these resources, the risk of injury naturally rises. 

Additionally, the transition leaves the question of who will coach the team in the coming year up in the air. Beardsley stressed that effective coaching in her sport is above all a safety measure. “It’s a dangerous sport, and coaches act as safety officials on the hill,” she said. 

For those teams demoted to the club level with endowed funds, “the presumption would be that those funds would follow that sport,” Paxson said; for coaches with endowed positions, the decision of whether or not to remain with their team at the club level will be at their discretion. 

Beardsley also pushed back against the University’s assertion that lack of access to mountains would be a roadblock to success, when other teams still on the varsity roster are often afforded the means to travel across the country for their sport. There are other remaining varsity “teams getting on planes,” she said, and travel is “intrinsic” to the sport of skiing. “That’s just part of the deal.”

The ski team is advocating for a one-year rollout of the decision rather than the abrupt demotion, as also expressed in the open letter from captains of demoted teams. “We can do this gradually, and we can do this compassionately,” Beardsley said. 

As petitions gain support, student-athletes hold out hope for change

For Hannah Woolley ’21 and her teammates on the equestrian team, their petition is just a starting point. “The petition served as a means to spread our message and as an easy actionable step our supporters could take,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. “Current teammates and alumni have also worked on contacting people in a range of administrative positions at Brown,” and many alumni have also stepped up to aid in coordinating media efforts. 

Woolley said that her team is also hoping for more transparency from the University. “Along with the other affected teams we are really pushing to see the results of the study” completed by the Committee on Excellence in Athletics Woolley wrote. “We want an explanation of the factors guiding the decision, the timeline of the process and the lack of student and coach voices on the committee.”

Taking inspiration from other teams’ petitions, Pinya Pipatjarasgit ’22 started her own for the women’s golf team. Along with teammates and other athletes, many of the signatories on the petition for the golf team’s reinstatement have been other coaches and student athletes in the Ivy League showing their support. After the decision, “we were all really upset, and we weren’t really sure what to do,” she said. 

Pipatjarasgit echoed calls for transparency and clarity from the University, and like Woolley and Martinez, she hopes to see the research that was used to drive the decision to cut their teams. “People are bringing up … how the decision was made really poorly, the fact that it was really secretive and deceptive, that they kept this from us for so long.”

“When we first started (the petition), I thought it was a long shot,” she said. “But every day I feel like we’re getting more and more support, especially because the teams are banding together now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article listed operating expenses per participant for the men’s track and field team and men’s basketball team, but provided the gameday expenses per participant. The article has been updated to reflect the correct data. The Herald regrets the error. 

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  1. Conor Grogan says:

    ““I think this decision is done,” Paxson said. “Once you start unraveling it, we’re back at 38 teams. I don’t think that’s really what the Brown community wants.””
    How in the world can Paxon claim to know what the Brown community wants when this decision was made off the recommendation of an external review without stakeholder involvement from the community she claims to be bolstering? More competitive Lacrosse/Football/Hockey/Soccer may be the priority for some at Brown, but ask the student body and the student athletes and I think you’d hear that more racially and socioeconomically diverse teams should take priority over # of wins in the pay to play sports.

  2. disappointed athlete says:

    Christina Paxson really doesn’t care about student input. We are not just mad about the decision but the fact that you can’t even share the “data” that you claim supports this initiative. You give no hard evidence for this decision.

    We are willing to share data that shows we are “excellent”.

    Cpax seems to think she’s running a dictatorship.

  3. Ed Golash says:

    My daughter, Signe, is a Senior member of the fencing team, another of the teams to be cut. Three years ago, she was told by the Harvard fencing coach that she “wasn’t good enough” to fence For Harvard. She came to Brown and in the last two Ivy League Championships she defeated two out of the three Harvard fencers that she faced. To say these kids aren’t “competitive “ is just nonsense.

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