This summer, the Olympic Games in Beijing will highlight the best athletes in the world. Some Olympic sports, like basketball, will feature professional superstars in a modern day “dream team.” But most sports, true to the Olympic tradition, will highlight the best amateur athletes in the world. Colleges have long served as a training ground for elite amateur athletes, but, unfortunately, several Olympic sports have been under attack on colleges across the country. Sports — especially those like men’s gymnastics and wrestling — are endangered species on campuses where few programs remain and more get cut each year.
Athletes at Arizona State University are the latest victims of this disturbing trend. In May, the school announced that it was cutting three men’s sports: wrestling, swimming, and tennis. Following public outcry (see SaveASUwrestling.com) and a massive fundraising campaign, wrestling has since been reinstated. ASU swimmers, tennis players, and several coaches were not so lucky.
ASU sports fans were rightfully caught off guard by the recent string of events. The men’s wrestling program has logged numerous NCAA championship appearances and a national championship in 1988. The program is one of the only Division I wrestling opportunities in Arizona for the over 5,400 high school wrestlers in the state. The men’s swim team also has a history of success, including generating four Olympic gold medalists. The team recently picked up one of the top recruiting classes in the nation for next year. Now those athletes will have to follow their dreams elsewhere.
But perhaps nobody was more surprised by the cuts than the coaches themselves, who were not consulted before the announcement. The school insists that the decision was not a hasty one, so it seems odd that they did not involve the coaches and other official bodies, such as the relevant sports associations and the NCAA, in the search for solutions other than full-scale program cuts.
ASU claims that the primary reason for the cuts was budgetary. However, when one looks at the numbers, that simple explanation seems dubious. Arizona State has an athletic budget of $42 million. The cuts will save the school an estimated $1.1 million — a small sliver of the overall athletic budget. The fact that the coaches and athletic community were not consulted before the cuts (when they could have started to preemptively find endowments for the programs) is suspect. Swimming coach Mike Chasson expressed the team’s frustration: “When you’re pressed against the wall, people step up (financially). In this situation, we didn’t have an opportunity to do that, and that’s what the team is upset about.”
The latest cuts are not the first time that successful programs have been dropped at Arizona State. In 1993 the school eliminated three men’s sports including a competitive gymnastics program that won a national championship in 1986. Like the present-day cuts, the sports had a minimal effect on the athletic budget, saving the school only $350,000 annually.
So, if the budget impact is minimal, what other factors are at play? A release from the school says the cuts were made on the following criteria: financial impact, potential competitive success, conference/regional support and gender equity. The programs were competitive on a national level and popular in the region. That leaves the gender equity — a veiled reference to Title IX — which looms over the heads of every athletic department in the country. Arizona already offers more sports for women than for men. After the cuts the school will offer 21 sports: nine for men, 12 for women.
Title IX proponents have long stated that schools can comply with the law by adding sports for women, without a negative impact on men’s teams. Unfortunately, reality tells a different tale. With the current enforcement measures for Title IX, the easiest way for schools to demonstrate compliance is to cut teams to achieve a politically-correct gender balance. The cuts at Arizona State are simply the latest in a long, unfortunate history of program cuts.
It is a shame to see Arizona State shy away from discussing Title IX’s role in this decision and lay the blame entirely on the budget. Where budget issues truly are a concern, let’s hope that more schools consult with coaches and potential funders to avoid these kinds of cuts. And if Title IX is the real cause, university officials need to speak up so that the public understands the full consequences of the current Title IX enforcement regime. That’s the only way change will ever take place.
– Allison Kasic is the director of the R. Gaull Silberman Center for Collegiate Studies at the Independent Women’s Forum.