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Op-eds, Opinions

O’Neil ’16, Paul ’19, McMahon ’19: In Defense of Excellence and Equity in Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field

By , and
Op-Ed Contributors
Monday, June 8, 2020

As alumnae of the Brown Women’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, we are writing in solidarity with current teammates on the Brown Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams whose collegiate athletic careers were abruptly terminated May 28, as announced in a community-wide email about the “Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative.” The email from President Christina Paxson P’19, Director of Athletics Jack Hayes and the “Committee on Excellence in Athletics” came as a surprise to every one of more than 100 members of the Track and Field team and their coaches. The University cut the Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, along with eight other varsity teams, by announcing that these teams “cease training, competition and related operations at the varsity level,” effective immediately. The announcement touted the decision under the guise of pursuing excellence, competitiveness and a balance between Brown’s male and female athletes per Title IX requirements.

The press release on the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative notes that, “Director of Brown Athletics Jack Hayes said that for both varsity and club sports, Brown recognizes the power of competitive athletics to bring together students, staff, faculty, parents and alumni to build pride, affinity and a strong sense of community.” Jack Hayes, you were correct — sports teams build community, and now we’ve rallied ours to defend its legacy. This action is a poor excuse for an equity and excellence initiative as it removes one of the most diverse men’s teams on campus and dramatically weakens the largest women’s team at Brown.The initiative states that Brown demonstrates their compliance with Title IX “by ensuring that the proportion of varsity athletics opportunities offered to women corresponds with the percentage of Brown undergraduate students who are women, and likewise for men — a concept called substantial proportionality.” Cutting half of the Brown Track and Field program clearly indicates that Brown’s commitment to Title IX is based on a narrow understanding of equity — the ratio between male and female athletes — that undermines the quality of the women’s team. Moreover, this action calls into question our ability to rely on sustained institutional support for athletes, coaches and staff.

The decision by the Committee on Excellence in Athletics to cut this team contradicts their stated goals of advancing “excellence” and “equity”. Regarding the goal of “advancing excellence,” 20 percent of the 2020 Brown Athletics male senior award winners came from the men’s track team alone. The team has produced numerous Academic All-Ivy winners and Academic All-Americans, including in 2019 when the men’s cross country team as a whole was named Academic All-American. Athletically, in the past six years the men’s teams have produced 15 school records, 110 top-10 program marks, 17 individual Conference Champions and 90 top three individual Conference finishes. They have produced six NCAA All-Americans and two Olympians in the past eight years: Evan Weinstock ’14 and Craig Kinsley ’11. If that’s not excellence, what is?

The Committee’s failure to acknowledge that cutting the men’s team will have dramatic ramifications for the women’s team reveals either their limited understanding or outright disregard of the unified nature of our track program.The majority of track and field athletes train in mixed-gender squads with men and women sharing coaches, equipment and training plans — i.e., efficiently sharing resources that this initiative claims to save. Without a men’s team, the current and future women’s teams will lose valuable training partners who push them to be better every day. The women’s program will likely lose funding as many alumni stop donating to an athletic department that has shown it does not have the best interest of their team at heart. Their competitiveness will dwindle as future recruits choose to attend schools with co-ed teams and more institutional support, in lieu of Brown. The program will lose training expertise as experienced coaches leave, or turn down, jobs at Brown in favor of schools with co-ed teams. Brown has already said it will cut two of our coaches, and since each coach specializes in distinct events, this will leave some members of the women’s team entirely without guidance. A sprints coach cannot teach shot put technique. A distance coach cannot show a long-jumper proper extension.

The decision prioritizes mere compliance with gender ratio commitments under Title IX. However, by reducing coaching staff as well as eliminating the women’s support system and training partners in the men’s team, the initiative effectively cuts the women’s program and diminishes the prestige of Brown Track and Field overall. Brown claims that this initiative will enable the remaining varsity teams to thrive, yet the effects on the Women’s Track and Field program — one that has produced six All-Americans in the last six years and three individual Ivy League champions in the last championship alone — were an afterthought. While we may be two teams, we’re one family. Where one team goes, the other follows; cutting the men’s team marks the beginning of the end for the women’s team as well.

The decision to cut the men’s track team will also impact the diversity the team brings to the school. Adhering to Title IX should not simply be an issue of compliance; it should be part of a broader institutional commitment to uphold the principles of integrity, inclusion and equity. If the committee would like to ensure “diversity and inclusion,” cutting the men’s team is not the way to do it. The track team consists of a greater proportion of racial minority representation and socio-economic diversity than the Brown student body as a whole: According to Brown’s 2018 Diversity Dashboard, 10.8 percent of University students were Black/African American compared to nearly 20 percent Black/African American athletes on the 2018-2019 men’s track roster. Moreover in the 2019-2020 academic year, across the Ivy League, Track and Field (16 percent) followed only basketball (32 percent) and football (23 percent) in percentage of Black/African-American male students on its teams. In terms of absolute numbers, Ivy League track teams have the highest number of Black/African-American male athletes after football, according to our review of NCAA data.

The Committee’s suggestion that club running would be a viable alternative to a varsity track team further undermines equity and inclusion. Club runners cannot compete in the NCAA and have no place for jumpers, hurdlers, shot putters and the many other non-distance runners who make up the majority of our team.The jumps, sprints and throws event-groups are consistently the most diverse event-groups on the team (see two rosters for recent examples), and include many walk-ons. The University’s suggestion of a “running club” as an alternative eliminates the most diverse cohort of track and field athletes and demonstrates the Committee’s limited knowledge of the program and blatant disregard for diversity.

Additionally, Brown Track and Field is one of the only co-ed sports whose low financial barriers to entry provide equal opportunity for participation to individuals from all socio-economic backgrounds. Track and field is the cheapest pre-college sport to participate in, with average annual family spending per child at $191, compared to sports such as ice hockey and lacrosse, with average annual family spending per child at $2,583 and $1,289 respectively. In the 2018-2019 academic year, Track and Field and Cross Country accounted for the lowest per-participant operating budget in Brown Athletics at $6.5K per athlete per year, according to data from the University’s 2019 Equity in Athletics report. In comparison, the cost per year for one Basketball athlete was $82.6K, while Football ranked second highest at $37.7K. Many members of the women’s team recall that it was on the track team where they first met someone at Brown who was like them: someone whose parents also hadn’t gone to college or didn’t work a white collar job; someone who also understood the stress of student loans and financial aid. Some said that it was the only place they felt understood at Brown.

Above all of our concerns, we are heartbroken. We are heartbroken for our coaches who have dedicated countless hours to shaping the individuals on this team as athletes and people. They were never consulted at any point in this process and were only notified of the decision within an hour of the public announcement. They are now forced to look for jobs in the midst of the economic downturn induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are heartbroken for alumni, particularly the class of 2020, who lost their graduation and their entire spring season due to the pandemic. They are now unwittingly the last in a long line of Track and Field athletes, dating back to the first varsity team at Brown in 1878. And we are heartbroken for the current men’s team athletes whose collegiate athletic careers were unceremoniously cut short.

Although the Committee claims that this decision “provides our current and newly recruited athletes the most flexibility to consider their options,” this is simply not true. Current athletes have informed us of a meeting held by the University, in which administrators callously offered them options for transferring and few options to support those who wanted to remain at Brown.To add insult to injury, the window for transferring schools in time for the fall season has passed and opportunities at different schools for financial aid and other scholarships are uncertain if not completely unavailable, as universities and athletic departments reduce their budgets in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision to leave Brown — and all of the opportunities that an Ivy League education provides — is not one many athletes will make; they will exchange their athletic dreams for practicality, resenting the very school they once proudly represented.

Our teammates are currently faced with the terrible decision to choose between the sport they love and the school they love. This impossible choice could have been prevented if the University had involved the people most affected in the decision-making process. It still is preventable.

In President Paxson’s most recent e-mail to the Brown community “Addressing Brown varsity sports decisions”, she states, “We understand there are critical questions to consider about the potential long-term impact on the black community at Brown. We are committed to further exploring these important issues in the coming weeks with members of our community, specifically as it relates to men’s track, field and cross country.” These “critical questions” should have been considered long before the decision to cut the men’s cross country and track and field team was made. The commitment to “further exploring these important issues” is a talking point, not an action step. Furthermore, the email included a statement on gender equity that failed to recognize its importance beyond “compliance and legal obligations”, evidencing the Committee’s failure to value the well-being and long-term competitive success of female athletes at Brown as an issue of its own.

The Brown Women’s Track and Field Alumnae demand that Brown Athletics and this Administration’s standards for diversity and inclusion involve more than balancing numbers on a spreadsheet, and that their consideration of female athletes be more than a question of “legal obligations.” We demand greater transparency and care from the Athletic Department and President Christina Paxson in future decision making processes and announcements. We demand the administration reinstate the Brown Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, effective immediately.

Victoria O’Neil ’16, Carly Paul ’19 and Rachel McMahon ’19 are Brown Women’s Track and Field and Cross Country alumnae, and wrote this op-ed on behalf of alumnae of the team 1987-2019. They can be reached respectively at vroneil28@gmail.com, carlyannpaul@gmail.com and rachel_mcmahon@alumni.brown.edu.  Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Richard MacDonald says:

    Wonderful piece. Reflects the heart and soul of our sport! Your fight has broad important benefits well beyond Brown. The implications of eliminating Men’s TF at Brown could have lead to cascading elimination of the sport throughout the Ivies, with the damage you outline in note to funding, excellence, diversity. Well done.

    Richard J. MacDonald, Y 72, Olympic Semi finalist 110 H, Munich ’72

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