This past week, the University of Minnesota cut its track and field team, along with men’s gymnastics and tennis. From Akron, to William and Mary, to UC-Riverside, college sports across the country are being eliminated, including the sport I love, track and field. They have done so under different guises. Some claim Title IX, the law that requires equal men’s and women’s sports; others claim financial and logistical struggles related to COVID. These justifications are symptoms of the main problem: college athletics is a bull market, out of control and about to burst; one that’s been growing as all parties strive for the holy grail of bowl games, advertising deals, and TV revenue. This is how they define success.
It’s always been this way to a degree.
“[Football] is a highly organized commercial enterprise. The athletes who take part in it have come up through years of training; they are commanded by professional coaches; little if any personal initiative of ordinary play is left to the player. The great matches are highly profitable enterprises. Sometimes the profits go to finance college sports, sometimes to pay the cost of the sports amphitheater, in some cases the college authorities take a slice of the profits for college buildings…. The question is not so much whether athletics in their present form should be fostered by the university, but how fully can a university that fosters professional athletics discharge its primary function.”
This passage wasn’t written in 2020. It comes from a 1929, 300+ page report on the state of college sports. It aimed to provide insight and an answer to why athletics is so intertwined with college life and whether that’s a good thing.
For a long time, we’ve battled this notion of what role athletics plays in our collegiate system. We’ve succumbed to the idea that college sports should be revenue-based when going back over two centuries, that hasn’t been the case. Football has been a revenue generator, at least for some schools, for quite a long time. Even that 1929 report makes it clear that football drives the revenue bus.
But you know what they didn’t do in 1929? Decide that all sports need to be revenue generators. There’s value in sports, even ones that don’t bring in money.
We don’t cut the philosophy or music department because it’s non-revenue. We don’t demand that those kids majoring in some esoteric math are less worthy than the business school students who are being counted on to donate hefty sums of money back once they make it big. But when it comes to track, gymnastics, swimming, and most other college sports, we attach a label that anyone in college sports dreads: non-revenue. It is a label designed to make those sports feel thankful that they are around. That’s some serious BS.
And in fact, just like the philosophy department, athletics are revenue sports. They bring in money from donors, ticket sales, and tuition. Take men’s Track, for instance, with a total scholarship allotment of 12.6, that means that a team of 50 individuals is paying a heck of a lot for tuition, room, and board. And just like their friends in the college of engineering, many chose their school based on the reputation of the sport of their choosing.
If athletics are tied to underclassmen in universities, their worth shouldn’t be connected to the money they may or may not make the school. (That’s left for the professionals, which is another conversation we can have at a later time.) The worth of a sport is in the same qualities that we’ve talked about for centuries: the leadership, bond, discipline, and lessons learned on and off the playing field. The opportunity afforded a diverse group of students to represent something greater than themselves. To use their skills to get an education and better their lives.
Why Are College Sports Teams Being Cut?
I have no behind the scenes information; you’ll have to ask the schools themselves. But what is clear is that the reasons given are often bogus. As mentioned above, financial and Title IX are the two most cited causes.
Title IX is a piece of legislation enacted in 1972 as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. The purpose and idea behind it were to give women an equal opportunity to participate in college sports. For women’s sports, it’s been a smashing success. The law aimed to increase opportunities for women’s sports. Then why do so many athletic departments give Title IX as a reason for cutting men’s sports?
Title IX is an excuse. A one that lazy administrators have utilized to justify cutting men’s programs. The reality is that schools can reach compliance in three ways: participation ratio, expansion, and accommodation. The lazy approach is to cut men’s sports so that they fall in line with the ratio. It’s dishonest and not the intended impact of the law, at least not by any reading of the pertinent sections. It’s the ‘loophole’ method. And, in the end, it hurts women’s sports, putting the ‘blame’ on a law designed to foster and expand opportunities. Track and Field is particularly susceptible in this regard, as a single athlete potentially counts as three. Why? Cross-Country, Indoor, and Outdoor. So when you cut XC and track, you don’t eliminate the actual number of athletes, say 50, you eliminate 150. Athletic departments use it as a loophole to justify cutting non-revenue men’s sports.
The other reason? Financial. Let’s look at this in two ways. First, how much money is saved?
Look at the University of Akron, who cut their cross-country team. A sport that’s travel budget, even for a major program, can be between $8,000 and $20,000 in a year for a single program. Whose equipment budget can be as low as a couple of hundred dollars, and who needs a single coach making $40-50K a year to complete. That’s it. The financial savings are minimal, especially for major schools’ athletic department budgets in the $40-100 million dollar range per year. You are talking about keeping a sport for the cost of a football manager or two.
In the sport of track and field, where total budgets for teams reach into the $1-2 million range, you might think, oh, we’ll be saving lots. Well, not as much as you’d think, as wonderfully outlined by Jordan Carpenter on twitter. The vast majority of track teams are keeping their women’s team. Which means at least half of the coaches stay on staff, you still have to furnish and maintain a track, equipment, etc., that is largely shared between teams.
And if the issue is financial, why not try to solve that problem? Implement a competition schedule that is mainly regional and local cut scholarship allotment, ax excess spending on recruiting, and ask for more significant alumni donations. You know, all those things that programs had to do in the 1960s and ’70s. Is it ideal? Do I want Olympic sports budgets drained? Of course not. But if you’re asking me whether or not we need a sustainable model for ALL sports, then the answer is yes.
And this comes back to my original point: track and Field or any other sport isn’t required or even meant to make a profit. It’s accepted they don’t. The non-revenue level comes in as a justification. An, Oh you weren’t pulling your weight so you’re gone, argument. When the deal, in the beginning, wasn’t to pursue profit but to develop people.
If the problem is financial, then it largely rests with the administration: a misappropriation of funds and budgets; a runaway spending on exorbitant salaries; constant upgrading of facilities; a chasing of the golden goose of TV revenue contracts. Like a gambler or drug addict, a craving for more, more, more, all in the hopes that you hit the jackpot.
If your school is cutting sports, you went for broke. You bet the farm on the golden paved road of facilities with slides and putt-putt golf, of TV’s in every locker room. You fell for the hit of dopamine, the desire hormone that propels us forward, neglecting the bigger picture. To be fair, coaches and athletes fell for it too. A desire to keep up with the Jones’s, often in the guise of setting ourselves up for recruiting success.
If you are cutting sports, the fault lies in a collective push for excess. Not on title IX, not on the pandemic. It’s the result of chasing the fortune, until the boat took on too much water, then sacrificing your own, kicking them to the curb, all to keep the ship afloat.
Why Sports are Needed for Real Success
So let’s get to the main point. Why do we need sports in college? We could bandy around stats and figures, look at the history of sport, and detail the research on its impact of well-being. But I’m here to defend the sport I know best, track and field.
The “father of American college athletics” was a man named Charles Follen. How did he attain such a distinction? In 1824, he took as many students as he could from Harvard on a run. “The entire body of students, except the few lame and the fewer lazy, on a run without pause, from the Delta to the top of the hill now crowned by the most conspicuous of the Somerville churches, and back again after a ten-minute halt.” In a way, modern college sports are all thanks to a professor taking his students on a run…
Track is an interesting sport. It’s sometimes thought of as an individual sport that comes together as one. But I tend to see the sport of track and field as a reflection of society.
A group of individuals tied together by a commonality that may not have the same background or perform the same job as their neighbor, but for society to function best, they need to put those differences aside and function as one.
That’s a track team: Sprinters, jumpers, throwers, distance athletes, multi’s, pole vaulters. And if we peer into those groups, we see diversity. A collection of athletes from a myriad of countries. Of every race and ethnicity. Coming from suburbs, the inner city, border towns, small islands, and every point along the socioeconomic status spectrum. All come together, mixing and matching.
And that’s the beauty of the sport. Great teams figure out a way to come together. And they thrive in seeing and understanding those differences. Some of the proudest moments in my coaching career aren’t victories or records, but moments of humanity. Moments where walls were broken down, where perspective was changed. It’s the kids who grew up in a small town, never interacting with a black person, becoming deeply close and connected with one. It’s seeing the elimination of prior prejudices and biases. Ones that were a product of where they grew up, more than what was in their heart. It’s when in the moment of one of your greatest successes, you take the focus off yourself and show humanity and compassion to your teammates. “We’re here to lean on each other, when we need each other.”
Now more than ever, we need sports like track. Ones where we bring together individuals from a wide variety of places and races. And they are forced to interact, to become a family, to see that the world is much larger. Every day I see the benefits of those experiences. The breaking down of racial divides, the understanding of what someone else has gone through, and how they don’t have to worry about the things that you or I do. The times we go through the airport security, and everyone sees that the man of Muslim faith on the team always gets searched…randomly. The long car rides through the middle of nowhere, stopping at the sandwich shop and seeing why our African American brothers feel uncomfortable and uneasy in such situations. And yes, even that one time when running with a minority, a cop pulls up beside him and asks if he was involved with a burglary…because a man running in short shorts and no shirt obviously stole something… Being around suffering through trials and tribulations. Being at our lowest lows together and being forced to be vulnerable is a good thing.
According to Brené Browne’s brilliant work, vulnerability comes before trust. We need to be open, to see each other at our lowest moments, to recognize the humanity in others. That vulnerability triggers a response of trust and acceptance. It creates bonds, breaks down barriers. And in all my years of coaching, I’m convinced that the best place for that to occur is out on the athletic field. When you push yourself to the brink of exhaustion in practice and races, vulnerability follows. We see each other succumb to pressure, breakdown and cry, feel the weight of expectations or disappointment, collapse on the side of the track from pure physical and emotional exhaustion. We see ourselves at our most vulnerable. The raw, unfiltered self. We see each other as humans, all trying to do a little bit better.
Can it happen out in the real world or the classroom? It should. It doesn’t nearly enough. We can hold on to our facade of toughness and put-togetherness, keep to ourselves, stay in our group, ignore the discomfort. But one place I KNOW it does happen is on the track—a place where discomfort finds you. The military understands this concept, recognizing that going through adversity, physical and emotional suffering, brings a squadron together. The same holds true for athletics. When you’re part of a diverse team, who all come together and have to make sense of this new bubble of a world they live, eat, and train in.
So in this moment of recognition of injustice and inequality, taking away a sport so valuable that opens eyes is just not right. I’m not saying track and field is perfect or the cure-all. It isn’t. But having been involved in it from the age of 12, I can assure you that it changes perspective. And we desperately need more of that.
So as we head down the path of cutting track and field from universities, let’s at least understand what we are losing. We are willfully giving away the most diverse sport, the most egalitarian one. A place where your spot on the starting line is determined by your performance. Not favoritism or bias. But what you’ve done.
When American colleges adopted sport, they did so for a reason. It wasn’t to make money, though that may have come in some sports. It was because it aided in the development of the person. It helped the school, providing outlets and an experience.
We may have strayed far from that ideal. We may have gone so far down the rabbit hole that we can’t see how ridiculous the arms race in facilities and spending has become. We can’t see that we are sacrificing the experience of athletes on campus and generations to come, all in the name of the all mighty dollar. The quest for glory in a few sports (read: football, and maybe, for a select few schools, basketball). The quest for titles, promotions, and glory. All the while, we portray our athletic departments doing everything for those we are put in charge of developing. Funny, right?
There are still programs left that value their real mission. Who willfully let students voices be heard, who support their athletes and staff, who fight to keep opportunities available. Kudos to you. But if you have not, if you have chosen the easy route and eliminated sports without even a whiff of trying to ask how can we keep these opportunities available—even if that means significant adjustments—then you’ve failed