“We have new optimism based on new circumstances, including vigorous and broad-based philanthropic interest in Stanford Athletics on the part of our alumni, which have convinced us that raising the increased funds necessary to support all 36 of our varsity teams is an approach that can succeed,” Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said in a statement.
The school intended to cut 11 sports: men’s volleyball, wrestling, field hockey, men’s and women’s fencing, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash and synchronized swimming. Stanford has won the Directors’ Cup, given to the top athletic department in Division I, for 25 straight years. Those 11 sports have produced 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medals.
As at other schools, Stanford’s decision sparked a backlash among athletes and alumni. A group of former Stanford athletes called 36 Sports Strong gathered support from notable alumni, including former football players Andrew Luck and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), golfer Michelle Wie West and soccer star Julie Foudy. The group raised several million dollars in pledges, proposed solutions to save the threatened sports and disputed the university’s claim that eliminating them would ease the athletic department’s budget deficit.
Stanford’s cuts would have affected 240 athletes and 22 coaches, and 20 support staff positions would have been eliminated.
The school said that before the pandemic, the athletic department was projected to operate at a deficit of at least $12 million in the 2021 fiscal year. In the wake of the pandemic, it said the best-case scenario was a $25 million deficit.
In an effort to reinstate some of the endangered sports, athletes filed a pair of lawsuits in federal court last week. One, filed on behalf of eight athletes, alleges breach of contract, arguing that the university misled them as recruits by withholding plans to discontinue their programs. The other suit, filed by athletes on five women’s teams, argues the school’s cuts violate Title IX, the federal gender-equity law.
Winston & Strawn, the law firm representing the eight Stanford athletes, said in a statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday that it will withdraw its action, calling the school’s reversal “a complete and total victory.”
“This is the best possible outcome,” lead counsel Jeffrey Kessler said in a statement.
Rebecca Peterson-Fisher, an attorney representing athletes from the women’s teams, said they will not withdraw the lawsuit, adding that more information about the school’s Title IX compliance is needed.
Advocacy groups claim large numbers of Division I schools have long been out of compliance with Title IX. But with little enforcement from the federal government, there was little incentive for them to change — until the sports cuts gave athletes a reason to sue their universities over the disparities.
William & Mary, Dartmouth, Brown and Clemson reinstated teams after lawsuit threats, and several other schools, including Iowa and Fresno State, remain embroiled in lawsuits.
In its statement Tuesday, Stanford acknowledged the lawsuits but said “our discussions with 36 Sports Strong and other constituencies were already far along, and we reached the conclusion we are announcing today independent of their filing. We were disappointed by these suits since it was well known that we were engaged in these discussions, and we are pleased to be embarking on a more positive path.”
Alex Massialas, a former Stanford fencer, won two medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. As a member of 36 Sports Strong, he said he has spent every day since the July announcement helping the group strategize and communicate with other alumni to help preserve the 11 sports.
Following conversations between the group and Stanford’s leadership last week, Massialas knew the school would announce its plan for the endangered programs Tuesday. He felt “cautious optimism” until the outcome became official.
“I’m at a loss for words a little bit, just still astonished,” he said in a phone interview. “They made it official, and our group was just so ecstatic to hear the news. This has been a long and difficult year for everyone involved. ... It wasn’t really for us; it was all for the next generation.”
The university’s about-face also may be welcome news for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which relies on American college programs to supply its pipeline. The United States sent 558 athletes to Rio in 2016. Of those, around 75 percent came from the college sports system. Twenty-nine current or former Stanford athletes competed for the United States in 2016, and 15 won medals — more than any other school in the country.
Following Stanford’s initial decision, many athletes from the targeted sports assumed heavier course loads to finish their degrees before they had to leave school. Many decided to transfer, including wrestler Shane Griffith, who won an NCAA title in March while protesting the school’s decision by wearing a black singlet sans Stanford’s logo with the rest of his teammates.
Following Tuesday’s reversal, Massialas said 36 Sports Strong is exploring what its future relationship with the school will look like. He said the group is focused on ensuring the 11 teams can be self-endowed.
“I’m just grateful that they were able to really listen to us and dig into the numbers themselves,” Massialas said. “That’s all we’ve been asking for from the very beginning, for them to listen. And they really did.”
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