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Op-eds, Opinions

McCarthy ’23: How Brown lost, and why they will continue to lose

Op-Ed Contributor
Sunday, September 20, 2020

It’s been some 100 days since Brown made the decision to eliminate 11 varsity teams, and last Thursday, a successful fight for gender equality in athletics resulted in the University announcing a proposal to reinstate two of them. This is no accident ― it is the result of tireless legal advocacy. Athletics aside, our entire University will benefit from this work for years to come, as recent discoveries have shed light on how little our University leadership really values gender equality and civil rights issues at large. 

As of now, though certain legal questions have been settled, deeper questions of justice, equity and accountability still remain unresolved. Brown’s “Excellence in Athletics” Initiative has still damaged our University’s reputation, harmed student-athletes and revealed deep-seated flaws in University decision-making.

The impact of sports has long extended beyond the stadium, and recent events in the United States have solidified this fact. In a time of heightened racial and political divisiveness, sports have become a medium for the discussion, expression and advancement of equality and unity. For example, players in the NFL and NBA have been showing solidarity with racial justice movements, with specific actions ranging from kneeling in protest during the national anthem to taking action to encourage voter turnout. In a similar vein, the ongoing fight to reinstate the University’s demoted varsity teams — and in particular, ensure that the University remains in compliance with the 1998 Cohen v. Brown agreement — has raised issues of gender equity. But more broadly, the University’s dismissive way of executing and announcing its decision has been deplorable, setting an unacceptable precedent for how schools are allowed to treat recruited student-athletes. It was not just what the University did, so much as it was how the University did it that has stirred up great opposition from the former women varsity athletes. 

This opposition to the substance and manner of the University’s decision can be seen tangibly in the form of three legal battles that have ensued over the past months. But the biggest opposition, perhaps, has come from the countless alums, current and future students and their families, whose ties to Brown have now been irreparably damaged. The way that the University administrators ― namely President Christina Paxson P’19 and Director of Athletics Jack Hayes ― have executed this decision has put a permanent stain on the reputation of Brown Athletics. Prospective recruited athletes now have good reason to look elsewhere, and it is unlikely that alums upset with the University’s decision will be willing to support Brown Athletics with donations. Even if the restructuring of its athletic programs was inevitable, Brown still could have done better, and the actions of multiple peer institutions are proof. Stanford and Dartmouth, for example, both gave their demoted student-athletes an expiration date of a year on their varsity status. In contrast, Brown administrators took away the varsity status of around 150 individuals ― that’s about 15 percent of its varsity student-athlete population ―  in a five-minute Zoom call. 

If such dismissiveness does not convince you that Brown’s administrators are unprincipled, consider what they have to say about gender equity. An email to Paxson from Chancellor Samuel Mencoff ’78 P’11 P’15 described an important consent decree as “pestilential.” These messages came just weeks after Director of Athletics Jack Hayes said publicly and on the record that the University is committed to “remain in compliance with gender equity not simply because it’s the law, but it’s the right thing to do.” These words do not align with the words said privately in the other administrators’ emails, and this contradiction clearly demonstrates the University’s lack of commitment to its purported principle of gender equity.

Our former teammates and affected peers, along with myriad alums, families and outside supporters have worked in unsolicited ― and often unseen ― ways to advocate for student-athletes. But at all steps, the University has failed to listen to the people directly impacted by this decision: us. Instead of asking for feedback from the affected student-athletes, the University consulted convoluted “data-driven” models throughout its decision-making process, optimizing for illusory excellence rather than the well-being of its student-athletes. And in its most recent legal settlement, the University has only listened to the courts, rather than the student-athlete community at large. 

Whether you are an athlete or not, in light of these administrative failures and the overall botched “Excellence in Brown Athletics” Initiative, you should be extremely worried about how future University decisions ―  including ones that may extend well beyond the scope of 11 athletic teams ―  will be made. Brown’s battle over its athletic teams has transcended sport: It has become a matter of rights, one that has illuminated an alarming crisis in University leadership. We fear that similar administrative decision-making will continue to do great damage to our University’s integrity. 

But there is still hope, and that hope lies within Brown students. The decision to reinstate Brown’s Equestrian and Women’s Fencing teams shows that David can beat Goliath: Student organizing can overcome poor administrative decisions. Brown’s “Excellence in Athletics” plan has failed over and over again, and Thursday’s announcement was just another example of how it could not defend this failure in the face of student organizing. We cannot foresee how the University will make decisions with President Paxson and Director Hayes still here. But in the wake of our successful campaign to protect women in sports, we are telling you that advocacy remains an effective and essential  way to combat the poorest of their choices. We encourage continued advocacy to protect student-athletes, and to maintain gender equity in Brown athletics.  

Maddie McCarthy ’23 authored this op-ed as one of the plaintiffs in the new motions in the Cohen v. Brown lawsuit. She can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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  1. Cry me a river. Brown Athletics is a chronic losing endeavor. There is no reason we should continue to prop up money-losing and unpopular sports for teams that simply cannot compete with peer institutions. Women’s fencing? Men’s golf? Who cares?? Can anyone NOT involved in these and similar programs honestly say that they’ve attended a competition? I, for one, think that Brown did not go far enough in culling its sports teams.

  2. Like Football? If we’re going to talk about cutting sports teams that ‘simply cannot compete with peer institutions’ why not start there? 13 coaches but season after season of losing records. Unless, what?, it’s 100% funded by football alumni so there’s cost to the university.

  3. I agree that our football team is a disgrace. Football is required for Ivy League eligibility, though. The reason our football team sucks is because of how under-resourced it is compared to peer institutions. All of the Ivies recruit from basically the same pool of students, and of course a gifted player will choose Harvard or Penn over Brown. We should shift money from generally unpopular sports like water polo and equestrian to football in order to be competitive.

  4. So we just keep the sports that are “popular”? — i.e. the sports you care about?

  5. Ideally we wouldn’t have varsity sports. It makes no sense to lower admissions standards for athletes. Football, however, is REQUIRED for Ivy League membership. Obviously, it must stay. And if it has to stay, we should give it all the resources it needs to succeed. For what it’s worth, this isn’t just a sport that I care about. In general, no one cares about niche sports like water polo. There’s a reason attendance is abysmal.

    On a separate note, many unpopular sports perpetuate inequality in admissions. Sports like fencing, crew, or equestrian are dominated by wealthy white students.

  6. First, in New York City, there is the Peter Westbrook Foundation, started by Peter Westbrook, the half-black/half-Japanese sabre fencer who won the Bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics. His foundation has produced and continues to produce many black student athletes who have gone on to fence in college. These fencers don’t come to Brown because they are too good for Brown. So one could make the argument that if Brown were to invest more in fencing (rather than football) it would actually be able to attract the PWF kids (like Columbia has, for example) and that would have a greater impact on increasing diversity. Although, if you look at the roster of the Brown fencing team, it’s actually a diverse bunch.
    Second, the statement “no one cares about niche sports like water polo” is not true. You may not care about water polo. But they care enough about it in California for a bunch of universities located out there to offer the sport because they see the value in having a water polo team. And Brown’s team has historically been fairly decent.
    Third, “it makes no sense to lower admissions standards for athletes”. Is that happening at Brown and the other Ivies? And if so, how much? I keep seeing stories about Brown athletes who are Academic All-Ivy, Fulbright, PBK etc. and how Brown athletes always scores highly in aggregate measures of academic achievement.
    Fourth, football is “required” for Ivy membership. Yes, it is. So it’s a protected species that will never be held accountable for bad performance. So you can’t really blame the other teams for looking for a lever to protect themselves as well. Men’s track & field has an organized alumni group that can pressure the university and can make the legitimate claim that they contribute to racial diversity. The women’s teams will look for federal legal protection under Title IX. So whose claim to a share of underfunded Brown resources is the most legitimate and the most righteous?
    I would make the case that putting more money into football is a waste. Brown Football has a losing tradition and the best it can ever do is win an Ivy title. Men’s Lacrosse is the way to go. It’s one of the fastest growing team sports in high school. Brown has a better record in men’s lax and it’s a sport where an Ivy League school can win a national title (e.g. Princeton, Yale and Cornell). Plus, it costs less to run a lacrosse program and there’s less risk for brain injury. May explain why the University of Denver decided to pump up its lacrosse program recently – it was a relatively easy way to win a NCAA title and market the school.
    Bottom line, like you rightly said, is that Brown athletics doesn’t have the resources to support athletics. The reason for that is that Brown doesn’t have resources, period. So the school is trying to support, what?, 30+ sports on an endowment of roughly $4bn on a campus where many (but not all) students, alumni and administrators don’t seem to care about any sports most of the time. Meanwhile, pretty much all the other Ivies have the resources to keep all of the various athletic teams and their demands taken care of. And at the end of day, the university just can’t seem to get its athletics right. Or it may not even care to get it right.

  7. Well said! I still remain dubious on the value of varsity sports in general, and if you look at the distribution of athlete majors their academic performance metrics are certainly inflated; furthermore, it does seem to be the case that their benchmarks for admission are lower (see this BDH article by Colby ’20:

    That said, your point about football’s success ceiling is an excellent one. And I wholeheartedly agree that the problem is the University’s lack of resources in general. So, perhaps you’re right–maybe it does make sense to let our failing football team languish and strategically move resources to other sports.

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