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

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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