When the Faculty Lounge Goes After College Sports

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A growing number of college administrators are trying to convince students, alumni, and donors that the time has come to eliminate college sports.

Dozens of universities — including Brown, Michigan State, William & Mary, Iowa, and George Washington — have abruptly eliminated scores of athletic teams this year, in sports including swimming, tennis, gymnastics, lacrosse, rowing, wrestling, and track and field. Hundreds more are on the chopping block.

The decisions usually come with hand-wringing about budget woes, COVID challenges, and fundraising shortfalls necessitating “painful cuts,” but the reality is far simpler: Many administrators have always looked down on college sports, and they finally have a pretext for axing them.

When college leaders were surveyed in 2009 by the landmark Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, one respondent expressed this prevailing attitude among so many in the ivory tower: “There’s too much identification of a university with non-academic aspects, distracting from the values of higher education and from desirable values in society.”

In a piece for The Atlantic, Columbia sociology professor Jonathan Cole was even more blunt. “Admitting too many athletes,” he insisted, means “denying admissions to . . . future artists and writers and political scientists and economists,” which “deprives these universities of the greatest possible diversity of students.”

It takes a special kind of prejudice to believe that artists can’t also be athletes, or that economists can’t suit up on game day. The Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans is chock full of former varsity athletes. And a Gallup study out last summer showed that “college students who participated in athletics tended to fare better than nonathletes in their academic, personal, and professional life during college and after,” including “nearly all aspects of well-being [such as] health, relationships, community engagement, and job satisfaction.”

Those sparkling outcomes don’t seem to have reached administrators. Setting the worst example of all, surely, is Stanford University and its president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. The school recently announced that it would be cutting eleven varsity sports, most of which had produced multiple Olympic champions. The school’s reasoning? Stanford can’t afford it.

That seems puzzling, since it sits atop a $30 billion endowment (narrowly behind only Harvard and Yale) and counts among its alumni a litany of the wealthiest people in the world. But the students who had their athletic dreams dashed never got the chance to resolve the cognitive dissonance. Instead, the decision was made behind closed doors, with no forewarning and zero chance for input or creative solutions from those most affected.

That callous indifference has become the default method among university bureaucrats. When Dartmouth College announced its own program cuts, the athletic director, Harry Sheehy, icily revealed why he wouldn’t consult the students he was harming. “I know it sounds like the right thing to do but no school will . . . vet the decision to coaches and players [because] we knew it wouldn’t be welcomed.” he told the school newspaper. “The young men and women think it’s cold and heartless and cruel and in many aspects it’s true.”

Dartmouth eventually delayed its planned cuts indefinitely, but it took threats of a dreaded Title IX lawsuit to move them. Stanford hasn’t budged. Incredibly, though athletes at both schools themselves raised millions with the aim of self-funding their teams in perpetuity, in each case administrators refused the money. By Stanford’s own accounting, cutting eleven teams as planned would save about $4 million per year. Yet when the school’s athletes raised $30 million to fund the programs, the administration said it wasn’t good enough.

The claims about cuts’ being necessary to diversify the student turn out to be bunk too. For a start, athletics have long been recognized as a bridge builder into underserved communities. And many of these teams are already far more diverse than the overall student body. Nearly half of Stanford’s wrestling team, for instance, are either first-generation collegians or from low-income households, compared to just 17 percent in the school overall. The teams Stanford is poised to cut also represent fully half of the Asian student-athletes on campus.

And there is a deeper significance to athletics that transcends demographics in creating camaraderie, common purpose, and community. Young women and men from different backgrounds can train together, support one another, wear the same uniform, and unite around the same goals and aspirations. Classics professors might remind their colleagues that athletic competition has been an inherent part of building character — and even keeping peace — since at least ancient Greece.

The good news is that students and alumni at all schools facing cuts are pushing back, signing petitions that promise to withhold donations from their institutions if sports are eliminated. Anyone concerned about the trajectory of America’s institutions of higher learning would do well to join their cause.

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