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Op-eds, Opinions

Brownsword ’18: New ‘Excellence’ Initiative Product of Decade-Long Athletic Program Mismanagement

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, July 1, 2020

On May 28, President Christina Paxson P’19 announced the University’s athletic program would take on a new direction: After the University demoted 11 varsity teams to club level, the remaining teams within Brown athletics would build competitiveness within the Ivy League by advancing coaching and conditioning resources and continuing the University’s improvement to its athletic facilities.

The “Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative” all but ended the athletic careers of over 200 University student-athletes, sparking nationwide outrage and coverage.

Luckily, the global campaign to save Brown track resulted in their reinstatement to varsity level. Paxson cited that demoting those teams would “have (had) real and lasting implications for efforts to build and sustain diverse and inclusive communities for our students at Brown, and particularly our community of Black students and alumni.”

Allowing the men’s track and field team to retain its varsity status was the right decision. But a decade-long stretch of bad decisions, department mismanagement and a lack of accountability has led to the horrible misnomer that is the “Excellence” initiative. The University community ought to understand how such a climactic decision in the history of Brown athletics reveals a longstanding absence of excellence. It is this consistent mediocrity that made the poorly implemented new initiative necessary.

A history of athletics reviews

The recent athletic review culminating in the so-called Excellence initiative was hardly the first time Brown has considered cuts to the department.

When the financial crisis of 2008 spilled into the early 2010s, Brown examined all of its departments and programs to identify potential savings. For Brown Athletics, the original target was to save one million dollars.

But when the University tasked the Athletics Review Committee to find those savings, the committee came to the unfortunate conclusion that the athletics department was “so underfunded and understaffed that it could not identify $1M in savings.” Given that, the committee recommended that it could create a proposal aimed at aligning the department with the University’s guiding principles for athletics.

And so, the committee — staffed by students, a coach, the director of athletics, a professor, two alums and three other University employees — identified a plan in April 2011 that required investment into Brown’s coaches, financial aid and facilities, while cutting four varsity teams and eliminating 30 recruiting spots across the department. The overall athletic budget would rise by 10 percent, and any additional upgrades to facilities and investment in financial aid would rely on outside donations instead of the University’s athletic budget.

But it was the proposal to cut men and women’s fencing, men’s wrestling and women’s skiing that drew the most ire from the University community. Athletes, alums and coaches from the affected teams spoke to the committee and University administrators about their concerns for cutting the four teams.

With a decision delayed to October, Committee Chair Richard Spies wrote in a memo to former University President Ruth Simmons that it would still be “harmful to the program to maintain 37 teams with the current level of resources.” Simmons’ decision eventually came: The four teams in question would remain at the varsity level provided they could raise the funds to be self-sufficient. The University would commit to fundraising to invest in new facilities, its head and assistant coaches and financial aid packages, but the number of recruiting spots was reduced from 225 to 205.

It took a long time for the University and Simmons to come to a decision, with a thorough and transparent process, at least. Why has that precedent been so hastily abandoned in 2020? Why wasn’t this “data-driven” report from the committee made public before being approved by the Corporation?

Perhaps the most insulting aspect of the whole recent process was Paxson’s excuse to not include Brown students or coaches — like Simmons did — because of their “emotional connection to the situation.” Paxson’s inclusion of seven alums comprising some of the University’s largest athletic donors, former players and parents of past and current athletes clearly shows the care and attention put toward avoiding this conflict of interest!

Though this year’s process was callous and opaque, the necessity of the cuts to the department were evident a decade ago. Investigating what led the department to effectively make the same recommendation seven years later, under new management, reveals a prolonged series of poor performances throughout the University’s athletics department.

A decade of mediocrity 

Before the 2012-13 fall season, optimism surrounded the “new era” for Brown athletics, spurred on by renewed investment in facilities, financial aid and coaches, whose salaries were expected to match the league average within the next two years. All teams retained their varsity status and the only significant cut to the program was the reduction of recruiting spots. With this plan came other administrators to the University to oversee the direction of the athletics department: Paxson and new Director of Athletics Jack Hayes.

Despite the two new leaders reinforcing a commitment to Brown athletics, the University has seen the majority of squads mired in the mediocrity of consistent non-competitiveness in the past decade. Though there are a few examples of teams competing on a national stage for a year or two in the Hayes-Paxson era of Brown athletics, success has been a fleeting rarity.

Halfway through the 2016 spring season, Brown teams had only won five Ivy League titles in the decade, while Harvard won 14 just in the 2013-14 academic year. By 2018, Brown only won 2.8 percent of the available athletic conference titles throughout the decade. Underwhelming student support meant stadiums filled to less than a third of capacity at best, and over 37.1 percent of students said they had never been to a Brown athletic event in a spring 2016 Herald Poll.

There is no doubt that in that time there were several high points for fans of Brown athletics. The Brown men’s hockey team made the ECAC conference finals and semifinals in 2013 and 2019, respectively. The 2016 Brown men’s lacrosse team made the NCAA Final Four for the second time in school history. Women’s rugby became one of the first varsity teams of its kind and started its career off with a few Ivy League titles. Most recently, the women’s soccer team won the Ivy League championship in dramatic fashion.

But the success that brought conference hardware to Brown has been equally matched by consistent disappointments: In 2016, Brown men’s lacrosse lost Head Coach Lars Tiffany ’90 to a nationally-competitive salary at the University of Virginia and has yet to win a conference title since. Citing a lack of administrative support and recruiting spots, the women’s rugby team has begun to struggle in the Ivy League as other teams have stepped up their involvement in the sport. Budget-wise, the powerhouse teams of Brown’s program are men’s basketball and football, which last won conference titles in 1986 and 2008, respectively.

Misplaced priorities

Since the beginning of this perceived “new era” for Brown athletics, leadership has mostly failed to show progress toward real, inclusive athletic excellence.

By the mid-2010s, it was clear the University policies instituted for the athletics program were not reflected in performance or investment: The Department of Education’s 2018 report of total department budgets put Brown’s as the cheapest for men’s teams and third-cheapest for women’s teams in the Ivy League. From 2014 to 2018, Brown spent least in the conference for recruiting in women’s sports despite having the most women’s sports teams. And while teams dealt with few recruits, over 30 percent of those recruits quit their respective team before graduating from Brown — a potential indirect consequence of low investment in student athletics.

Even with the increase in coaching salaries, Brown was “far below the league average” in 2015. By 2018, Brown’s men’s coaches were paid the lowest while the University’s women’s coaches were compensated the second-lowest in the conference. Instead of evening out the disparities between men’s and women’s coaches, women’s teams’ coaches were earning over 31 percent less than the men’s coaches in 2018 — compared to 26 percent less in 2011.

The upgrade in facilities resulting from a $42 million dollar investment by the University via its fundraising network was one of the few positive follow-ups from the 2011 ARC recommendations. The renovations to the pools have allowed it to host noteworthy regional swim meets, and the new field hockey field allowed that team to no longer play on the roof of the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center.

The investment in financial aid also conceived in 2011 was intended to make Brown more competitive for students whose families earned between $100,000-$175,000 per year, a household income in the top 15 percent of the United States. It comes as no surprise that Brown’s perennially successful teams, for the most part, have been men’s water polo, men’s and women’s crew and women’s skiing, all sports played by mostly white kids in families with higher-than-average incomes.

Contrast those teams with the men’s track and field and cross country teams, which the University spends the second-least on per player — only ahead of women’s rugby. Track and field and cross country are some of the most diverse and cost-indifferent sports in the world. However, I doubt that the racial diversity of its student-athlete population had ever been a goal for Brown Athletics until more recently; Simmons’ final recommendations to the corporation made no mention of making the student-athlete population more diverse.

Within the few years after Hayes’ hiring, the chinks in the oversized Bruno armor were becoming more visible. The women’s skiing team’s varsity status was threatened in the spring of 2015 unless they were able to reach donations that “constitute(d) an income stream sufficient to generate no less than 100 percent of the current annual budget for that sport.” Though it was not able to raise enough money to increase its endowment to a self-sustaining level, Hayes worked with the team to create sufficient fundraising plans to avoid being cut again.

With that decision, Paxson and Hayes furthered Simmons’ policy of cutting teams: If your team can fundraise enough to be self-sufficient, it can retain its varsity status. This has been one of the most egregious examples of privilege throughout Brown athletics in the past decade: If your alums are wealthy enough, your sport has a chance to stay. I wonder which teams that pattern favored.

Looking forward: please, not another lost opportunity

Now in the spring of 2020, another health and financial crisis has stopped the world in its tracks, affecting niches of the economy like universities in the worst way. An inability to compete in the Ivy League both on and off the field has forced Brown athletics to clear the road ahead for a chance to compete — with the same leadership that oversaw a nearly identical change in organizational direction less than 10 years prior. It is more clear than ever that the donors are in charge of the direction of the Brown athletics program. The University’s student-athletes and athletic community have no choice but to trust their leadership.

The current changes — after the restoration of the men’s track and field and cross country teams — are what probably needed to happen five years ago, at minimum. There is a direct correlation between the money spent on all facets of a team and success in all athletics, especially in the Ivy League. Brown’s teams were not successful, and Paxson and her committee cited the lack of depth, funds and conference championships pervasive throughout the program in the past decade. The cuts were to teams that many Ivy League programs have viewed as privileged luxuries for a long time. Hopefully, the 6.7 percent of the department’s budget that will now be spread amongst 31 teams will be useful to keep an excellent head coach like women’s soccer’s Kia McNeill, recruit a more diverse range of players and/or make our program competitive in the Ivy League for the first time since the 1990s.

Honestly, I have optimism about the competitive direction of the program.

But as long as we are being honest, Director Hayes and President Paxson? There has been no “Excellence” here.

Matt Brownsword ’18, a former Herald Senior Editor and Sports Editor, would like to remind Brown administrators and President Paxson that his email address is matthew_brownsword@alumni.brown.edu. He also wants to add that he WILL be traveling to Brown women’s soccer’s Final Four appearance this year and that all will be forgiven if James Develin is hired as a U. football coach. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Ed Golash says:

    If this half hearted defense is the best that the University can expect why would anyone support their proposal ? The author does not even mention any specifics about the teams cut leaving me to believe he has never seen a single competition of these teams or met a single athlete on the affected teams. I am most familiar with the fencing team since my daughter is a Senior Sabre fencer who now has to face the prospect of her athletic career ending by fiat. When she was recruited by Brown she was the 23rd ranked Under 17 fencer in the USA. She came to Brown because she loved the school and was committed to improving the fencing team which had suffered in recent years from weak coaching. The new Coach was enthusiastic and respected in the National fencing community. In her first year my daughter was Rookie of the Year in the NE Fencing Conference and Brown Student Athlete of the Week. She qualified for the NCAA Tournament that year. In her Sophmore season she finished 7th in Women’s Sabre in the Ivy League Championship, beating 2 of 3 fencers from Harvard, a school where the Coach told her “You are not good enough to fence for Harvard.” This past year she helped recruit Casey Chan, a nationally ranked Sabre fencer who finished 3rd in the NCAA qualifiers and was named an All American. Under new coaching the fencing team has improved over the last three years and was successfully recruiting top fencers. Perhaps if the author had actually talked to some of these student athletes, he would have found they have just as much heart and “competiveness” as any football, basketball or hockey player at Brown and deserve the same support !

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