Pandemic Problems

Should we be cutting college sports because of COVID-19?

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Let me first say at the outset how heartened I am at the support I’ve received since publishing Grant Norton’s story yesterday. I also want to publicly acknowledge the courage it took for Grant to come forward with his story. Grant had various personal reasons for wanting to tell his story but I know that one of them was to provide an opening to others who also might have stories that they want to tell about their trials in college athletics. And since Grant’s story posted yesterday, I have received numerous emails from others who want to tell me their own stories just as Grant had hoped.

Right now, almost all of the emails have been from those who were or are still involved in athletics at the University of Minnesota. If you have sent me an email from Minnesota or anywhere else in the country and I have not yet responded, rest assured that I will. If you have a story to tell from Minnesota or any athletics program in the United States, do not hesitate to reach out at jmstahl@gmail.com. You can be involved with any program, any sport and in any role. I’ve now heard from coaches, players, former players and staff from multiple sports. Do not hesitate to email me with your story. I will respond to every email I received—you have my word.

However, I will say at the outset that I have been grappling with how big to make this project. Should it be about just college football or all college sports? Should it be national in scope or simply local? My answers will always be somewhat in flux as I receive new information and new story ideas, but essentially here are my current answers to these questions. I am currently at work writing a book which will expose the hidden dark side of college football. This book will be national in scope but the University of Minnesota will be my primary case study for the book.

At this newsletter I will tell stories which, in some cases, will end up woven into the book—sort of a running advance preview. These long-form, heavily-researched, investigative endeavors—like the story I told yesterday—will come out every 1-2 months. I want to use these not only to promote my book, but also to promote why I think a College Football Players Association is so desperately needed right now. I know I want to be part of the effort to form such an organization because college football is, in my opinion, the most exploitative college sport there is. Players, especially in the “Power Five” conferences, need an association now to defend their rights and advocate on their behalf. I want my project, and the work I’m doing here, to be an integral part of these efforts.

With all this said, there will also be times where I choose to write on other college sports in this newsletter as I know student-athletes in every women’s and men’s sport that have been mistreated. However, when I do these asides, I want to also try to connect them to the larger administrative problems which plague universities around the country—particularly in athletics departments. So for today’s newsletter, I am turning the lens to the question of whether non-revenue generating sports should be cut during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

On the face of it, the answer to the question seems like it should be a straightforward “yes.” Most recently Stanford and Iowa chose to make such decisions. Athletics departments around the country are facing mammoth budgetary holes because of the pandemic and if sports are not carrying their weight it stands to reason that they should be cut.

The University of Minnesota is now facing this same decision with The Board of Regents set to make the final call on whether to axe men’s track & field, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics at their meeting tomorrow. Minnesota’s Athletic Director Mark Coyle announced on September 10 of this year that such a decision was necessary given that the department is facing a $75 million deficit because of the coronavirus pandemic. Coyle also stated that such a move was necessary to comply with Title IX gender balance in athletics at Minnesota. Coyle asserted at his announcement to cut the three sports that male athletes would have to have some of their scholarships taken away because the overall undergrad population skews more female than the overall population of student-athletes.

However, the two stated rationales behind these decisions fall apart upon closer inspection. As to the money saved, it turns out that the savings are a drop in pandemic-deficit bucket. Only $2 million saved this year and $2.7 million in subsequent years. As to Title IX compliance issues, Coyle almost immediately undermined this rationale when he came out and said that 41 female athletic scholarships would also be cut.

So, the question we’re left with is why these programs are still on the chopping block tomorrow when both of the stated rationales for cutting them have evaporated? Additionally, Coyle and others in Minnesota’s central administration seem intent on carrying forward with this decision despite massive public backlash and backlash among student-athletes themselves. Why are they pressing on?

At this point, I only have speculation but it is speculation informed by twenty years of experience inside the institutional bowels of higher education, specifically at the University of Minnesota. I think what we’re looking at here with this decision to axe the three sports is a combination of self-preservation and simply the need to look as if they’re doing something about the deficit. As to the first, everyone knows where the money is if you want to cut money from the athletics budget—endless lines in a bloated central athletics administration and endless lines in a bloated football budget. But this where Mark Coyle and all his closest associates sit and so this will be the last place they try to look for money.

So, I think the decision to cut these sports is simply to look as if they’re trying to “do something” all the while hoping the pandemic blows over and/or some sort of football and men’s basketball season can happen so they don’t have to take any substantive action on the budget at all. Because here is the crux of the matter at universities like Minnesota nationwide. For quite awhile now, universities like Minnesota have been led by leaders like Mark Coyle who have never really had to lead in any substantive way. This is true because universities, and athletics departments especially, are like corporations without the cost controls.

For decades, athletics departments have engaged in an “arms race” that they thought would never end. They spent money as fast as they could bring it in and when you don’t have to pay your workers you can bring in money very, very fast. Where did all the money go? More administrators, more lines in the football budget and new facilities. Hell, just two years ago Minnesota opened a brand new $13 million outdoor track and field facility even though they’re now cutting the men’s team! Hilariously, you can still donate to the project on university website. Not so hilariously, however, will be the real people who will be affected by their actions which seem only designed to convince outsiders that they’re “doing something.”