Faced with severe economic challenges, many college athletic departments have pared back their varsity teams, confronting difficult decisions over which sports to keep and which to eliminate. Athletes on dropped programs are left feeling betrayed and wondering, “Why us?”
At the University of Richmond, such feelings are even more pronounced for its men’s soccer players and track athletes. Their sports are being discontinued after this academic year, but the economy is not to blame. Instead, the two teams will be nowhere to be found next fall for one simple but to them unsatisfying reason: The school decided it would rather add men’s lacrosse.
Opponents of the decision, including some Richmond alumni, coaches and student-athletes, have protested, decrying a lack of transparency and the roles of major donors who spearheaded a $3 million endowment that cleared the way for the addition of a varsity men’s lacrosse program at the expense of two others.
“The problem is, certainly from my standpoint, I’m not seeing a compelling reason why it’s happened,” Richmond men’s soccer Coach Leigh Cowlishaw said. “That’s the real major concern I have with the decision-making process. We’re still searching for answers, and so far they’ve not been forthcoming.”
In April 2011, the school released a 20-page strategic plan that called for a review of the school’s sport mix for the first time in 10 years. This resulted in an 11-member task force comprising faculty, administrators and members of the Board of Trustees, of which Athletic Director Jim Miller was the only athletics-related member.
Meeting for an hour and a half every Tuesday for “about 10 months,” according to Miller, the task force examined econometric models to determine whether to maintain the status quo, add or reduce sports.
In April 2012, the panel presented its findings to the Board of Trustees. According to Miller, the task force concluded that adding men’s lacrosse, without eliminating any sports, would cost the university $2 million and 20 extra admissions spots, not to mention the additional funds and admission spots necessary to create an additional women’s sport for the school to remain compliant with Title IX gender-equity regulations.
“In April, a decision was made by the board, not a vote decision, just a consensus decision, that they wanted to start men’s lacrosse, but we weren’t going to do it if there was any money taken away from the academic mission of the university,” Miller said.
But at some point during the summer, a group of benefactors presented a $3 million endowment to fund a varsity men’s lacrosse program.
“In April, we had no philanthropy,” university president Edward Ayers said in a telephone interview. “Over the summer, the lacrosse community, which had already been mobilized for four or five years, stepped forward.”
According to Ayers, 80 individuals made donations, and “more than 50” contributed $1,000 or more. Over the past few years, Ayers said that the university had maintained “constant communication” with lacrosse supporters, who vowed to raise the necessary money whenever Richmond decided to promote the program to varsity status.
“When you are ready to move to Division I, we’re ready to help,” Ayers recalled them saying.
On Sept. 21, following an overwhelming vote by the Board of Trustees, the university announced it was adding men’s lacrosse and dropping men’s soccer and track and field.
“Behind closed doors, there was no advocate on our side,” freshman cross-country runner Tim Gruber said. “The deck was stacked against us. The question was, ‘How can we get a lacrosse team here?’ There was no one to support our team.”
In the aftermath of the announcement, university officials have offered differing explanations for why the the sports were dropped.
At a “Save Our Sports” rally Sept. 30, Ayers told attendees that “because there are only 61 Division I men’s lacrosse teams, the university has the opportunity to build a highly competitive men’s lacrosse program while the field is relatively small.”
Ayers said during the rally that the university would save “$100,000 a year by cutting the track and soccer programs,” whereas Miller told a student advisory committee the following Monday that “the university and athletic department is not saving any money with this decision,” a point he reiterated to The Post.
Those upset with the decision have cited a lack of transparency by university officials. Men’s soccer alumni met with Tom Gutenberger, the school’s vice president of advancement, three times over a six-month period; each time, the former soccer players left with the impression that the program was not in danger.
Attempts to speak with Gutenberger were unsuccessful; the university requested that all interviews go through Ayers.
“I think transparency is a major hallmark of my administration,” Ayers said. “I love sharing responsibility when I can. In this case, the athletics task force said that we were talking about this. This was hardly a secret that we were examining it. To get everybody worked up when we didn’t know what, if anything, would happen, is poor leadership.”
As Ayers told attendees at the “Save Our Sports” rally, “There is no inaction or action that could have changed this outcome.”
Some students’ final course of action? Leaving school.
Sophomore runner Matthew Groff said that all but one or two freshmen track and field athletes will transfer, “almost all” all of the sophomores will transfer and even some members of the women’s team are considering leaving, disheartened that “half the track and field family will be gone.”
According to Cowlishaw, a similar exodus is expected among the men’s soccer team.
“I’m going to fight this dead in the ground,” Gruber said. “We’re not going to give up. I want to be here. But if we do lose this battle, I will leave.”