What is the future of William & Mary athletics? Will it include 23 varsity sports, just 16 or something in between in the wake of the announcement in September that seven would be cut?
A virtual Moderated Session at 7 p.m. on Thursday will be the beginning of a dialogue between the school administration and those in the college community upset by the proposed elimination of men’s and women' gymnastics and swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and women’s volleyball.
It will also be the first public moment for interim athletic director Jeremy Martin, who will moderate the event, to begin restoring credibility to the athletic department. On Tuesday, Martin replaced Director of Athletics Samantha Huge who resigned as dissatisfaction mounted at W&M over her leadership.
Martin’s first full day on the job on Wednesday could not have been an easy one, as W&M announced a temporary pause to athletic activities because 12 people associated with athletics tested positive for coronavirus. On his second day, he will begin a dialogue with student-athletes, coaches, staff and others from the seven affected teams that will continue in subsequent meetings with each team.
He will confront issues such as trust from swimmers told twice in person by Huge during the past year that their sport would not be cut. He will also deal with the pain of athletes who learned of the elimination of their sports following this academic year via a virtual announcement with no questions allowed.
Most of all Martin will be reminded of their uncertainty and the question most on their minds following Huge’s departure: “Will our sport be reinstated?”
The swimming and track and field teams have voiced those questions loudest during the past six weeks. The question takes on greater urgency daily as the semester progresses and affected athletes near decisions on their futures.
Both sports have well-organized groups of alumni leading the charge for reinstatement and, while members from both groups were generally pleased about Huge’s departure, they enter dialogue with W&M administration skeptically.
“I think we’re taking a step in the right direction, but I think the teams need to be reinstated before there can be a constructive dialogue,” said Mark Moran, a former middle distance runner at W&M and board member of BackTrack Inc., which is trying to save track and field at the school. "If the school continues to go down this path of essentially trying to buy more time to justify decisions that they made off of poor-quality data, consultants and from misinformed parties, they’re going to create irreparable harm that will last for a significant amount of time.
“The (desired) outcome wasn’t for (Huge) to get fired. The outcome was for the teams to get reinstated.”
Like BackTrack, the Save Tribe Swimming group is insistent on an immediate reinstatement of the sport. Its letter Wednesday to Martin, W&M President Katherine Rowe and Rector John Little read, in part:
"It is our position that full reinstatement must happen on or before October 8, 2020. If it does not, we request that you respond with a specific date/time this week to begin meetings with our representatives on a path forward. Simply put, waiting until November to decide the fate of these students is unacceptable.
“Together, we can creatively overcome the financial hurdles, arm the program for continued success, and come to a mutually satisfactory definition of ‘competitive excellence.’ These discussions can begin immediately; we represent a community of constituents eager to partner with you to ensure the lasting success of our programs.”
The swimming program recently raised $1 million in several weeks in an effort to show that it can self-fund.
“It’s unfortunate (Huge) had to lose her job over this,” said Matt Crisci, a member of Save Tribe Swimming. "There were better potential outcomes for everyone if this had been handled better, even going back one to two years.
“All of these programs, if they’re reinstated, can sustain themselves in a way that is not a burden to the college and is an asset to the college.”
Randy Hawthorne, who has raised more than $15 million for track and field, says that sport’s current endowment is more than $7 million. Former Tribe cross country and track coach Alex Gibby, now a coach at Harvard, highlighted that sport’s contribution to diversity at the school.
“William & Mary has always struggled to incorporate diversity, and track and field can be a big part of that,” said Gibby, who ran at W&M as an undergraduate. "It’s obviously good to see William & Mary step back and reconsider a decision that’s caused a lot of pain.
“When I was at William & Mary we were told athletics taught lessons that you could not learn in the classroom. It’s heartening to see some of our professors rally around some of those same values.”
One of those professors, Katherine Guthrie, who is also a member of Save Tribe Swimming, hopes the appointment of Martin leads to more openness in the athletic department.
“I will work with him in good faith, take him by his word to honor transparency and President Rowe’s promise to include faculty in the discussions of what we mean by competitive excellence and the role of athletics on our campus,” she said.
Speaking, perhaps, for all of those affected, Tribe swimming coach Nate Kellogg said, “I hope they’ll reinstate (the sports) because it’s the best thing for the kids.”
Marty O’Brien, 757-247-4963, firstname.lastname@example.org
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