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Women’s ski team in danger of demotion to club status

One of most successful athletics programs given March deadline to raise $1.5 million, skiers say

The women’s varsity ski team will likely be demoted to club status, members of the team said. The change could happen as soon as March 18 unless the team is able to meet an endowment goal of $1.5 million set forth by the Brown Sports Foundation and Director of Athletics Jack Hayes, skiers said.

Though Hayes may want to demote women’s skiing for financial reasons, the team has met fundraising goals the past two years and “operated at virtually no cost to the University” last year, said co-captain Nika Mosenthal ’15.

The women’s ski team has emerged as one of Brown’s best athletics programs in recent memory. Brown sports have struggled of late, registering the lowest average Ivy League finish across all sports for six straight years, but the ski team has dominated.

Over the past four seasons, the team has not lost a division race, going 40-0. In 2012, the team won a national title in the slalom, becoming only the third Brown team to win a national championship since 1879. It finished fifth at the USCSA National Championships last week in its fourth consecutive appearance at the event.

Despite its success, the program has been in jeopardy of being slashed for the past few years. In 2011, then-President Ruth Simmons formed the Athletics Review Committee to create a report detailing “a plan which articulates a vision for athletics at Brown.”

Among other recommendations, the ARC report called for the elimination of four teams: men’s and women’s fencing, men’s wrestling and women’s skiing. The report cited an imbalance between Brown’s athletics budget, the lowest in the Ivy League, and the number of teams it supports, the second highest in the Ancient Eight.

After an outpouring of support for all of the teams, Simmons ultimately chose not to accept the recommendation to eliminate those teams. Instead, teams “should be given the chance to demonstrate that their supporters are able to endow their sport at the level deemed necessary by the University,” she wrote in a response to the report.

Specifically, “these sports should demonstrate over the course of the year that they have assembled gifts and pledges that, when combined with existing team-designated support, constitute an income stream sufficient to generate no less than 100 percent of the current annual budget for that sport,” Simmons wrote. For the ski team, this amounts to approximately $30,000 after accounting for a $32,000 contribution from the NCAA for holding varsity status.

Head Coach Michael Leblanc said the team has “struggled awfully bad” with fundraising since 2011, largely due to a diminutive alum base. As a small outfit, the nine-member ski team graduates about two athletes each year, and it has only held varsity status since 1993.

Despite its monetary troubles, team members said they did not hear from the athletics department about its fundraising efforts until spring 2014.

“There wasn’t much hubbub about it for a few years, and then last spring (Hayes) … really put some pressure on us to raise more money,” Leblanc said.

The team responded to Hayes’ pressure and met its fundraising goal for the first time, raising $26,000 in time for the fiscal year 2014, said Mike Cohen ’11, a volunteer assistant coach on the team and head of Friends of Brown Skiing. The team has carried that momentum to this year, already meeting its goal for fiscal year 2015.

While those associated with the team feel their efforts have fulfilled the requirements set forth by Simmons, Leblanc said Hayes is “looking more at our endowment.”

In his first meeting with Leblanc last April, Hayes did not mention the team’s endowment, Mosenthal said.

The team’s endowment is currently about $85,000 and pushes $200,000 if combined with the men’s club skiing team’s endowment.

The Brown Sports Foundation informed Leblanc of the $1.5 million endowment that it expects from the team in December 2014. While team members knew being demoted was “a possibility” after meeting with Hayes last April, the skiers did not know how serious their situation was until captains Amanda Engelhardt ’15 and Mosenthal met with Hayes Feb. 26, Leblanc said.

According to the captains, Hayes made no concrete statements about the fate of the team, but Mosenthal said, “In all non-verbal ways, he communicated that … demotion to club was inevitable in as little as three weeks time if we didn’t raise $1.5 million and fully endow ourselves.”

Hayes did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Director of Athletic Communications Christopher Humm wrote in an email to The Herald that no decision has been made about the team.

The initial ARC report recommended the team be cut for a number of reasons, including travel commitments and the lack of adequate facilities — all of which the team has refuted. But the captains said Hayes did not seem concerned with those issues.

“He brought (the ARC’s justifications) up for less than 30 seconds” during the meeting, Engelhardt said.

“He said it’s about the money,” Mosenthal said.

The team expressed frustration with the demands set forth by Hayes and the Brown Sports Foundation.

To ask the team’s supporters “to come up with the approximately $30,000 it takes to fund our season on a year-to-year basis is reasonable, and we can absolutely do that,” Mosenthal said. “We will raise enough money to be self-sustaining.”

“If we were hemorrhaging dollars from Brown and single-handedly making the Athletics Department go into the hole, then sure, please cut us,” Mosenthal added. “But we’ve looked at the numbers.”

“To ask 40 alumni under the age of 50 to come up with $1.5 million is, we believe, rather unreasonable,” Engelhardt said.

In addition to Hayes’ insistence that the team fully endow itself, the skiers also take issue with the time frame he imposed on them.

“I think we’re capable of raising the money, I just don’t think we’re capable of doing it in three weeks,” Mosenthal said.

The skiers were also upset with Hayes’ lack of communication. Engelhardt cited another section of Simmons’ response to the 2011 report that notes the University should help the teams plan their fundraising process, which she said the Athletics Department “didn’t follow through on.”

“All sports should be given goals and milestones for meeting the funding obligations set by Athletics and the University. The Athletics Department should submit sport-by-sport goals, plans and strategies for each team’s fundraising,” Simmons wrote.

“They didn’t hold up their end of the bargain,” Mosenthal said, adding that there was a “lack of understanding about what was truly expected.”

“All it would have taken was the athletic department, after this transition, saying … ‘this is what’s expected of you in concrete terms; these are the dates we want this by,’” she said.

Being demoted to club status would come as “a ridiculously huge blow,” Leblanc said. The team would no longer be allowed to use the varsity weight rooms or the University’s athletic trainers and would be barred from NCAA races.

“It would be just like flipping a switch,” Leblanc said. “All the competitiveness of the program would be gone.”

As for his future, he said, “I’m a varsity ski coach. I don’t really have any intention of running a club ski team. That’s not what I do.” But he emphasized his desire to remain in Providence, saying, “I really don’t want to leave.”

Without answers from the school, the team is left with an uncertain future.

“I work endlessly to be the best I can be for this team, and the fact that it isn’t recognized by the school is really discouraging,” said Natalie Pearl ’17, who was named ECSC MacConnell Division Skier of the Year for the second time this season.

“I’ve turned this into my life’s work,” Leblanc said. “I sure hope that I’m not left out on the street after 11 years of dedication to this institution.”

“Every time I think about this it just makes me crazy because it’s such an incredible program we have,” he added. “When you have something you’re good at, why wouldn’t you embrace that?”



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