University Athletic Departments Are Cutting Sports – Is This the New COVID Trend or Was it Planned?

Photo Credit: Chris Chavez (Twitter)

Over the past 6 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrecked havoc. From unemployment and furloughs to small businesses closing, almost everyone has suffered in one way or another. As the months pass, the drastic and long lasting effects are beginning to show their face. One of these long lasting effects is the cutting of collegiate sports and there are sure to be more to come.

The pandemic has financially strained athletic departments. For example, schools did not receive distributions from the NCAA basketball tournaments, they have lost revenue from student fees and donations, there are fractioned or no ticket sales, and there are no payouts from non-conference matchups.

Currently, twenty-six colleges and universities have cut more than 90 sports programs, affecting roughly 1,500 student-athletes. Stanford University has cut eleven sports, affecting close to 300 student-athletes and staff. Furman baseball, which had a 125-year history – cut. East Carolina men’s swimming, that won a conference title this past year – cut. Power Five schools – also making cuts. This just goes to show that success and prominence does not guarantee immunity.

University of Minnesota Debacle

The University of Minnesota – a Power Five school, part of the Big Ten Conference – is the latest to make the difficult decision to cut sports from its athletic program. In September, the University announced a proposal to cut men’s gymnastics, men’s indoor track and field and men’s tennis, and in October, a revised proposal was submitted which also included a cut to men’s outdoor track and field. The school’s Board of Regents recently voted to eliminate the three initially proposed sports and removed men’s outdoor track from the sports slated to be cut. The cuts will take effect after the 2020-21 academic year. On the bright side (if there is one), the current athletes who will be impacted by this will have their scholarships honored through graduation or they have the option to transfer to another school.

Like many other athletic departments, Minnesota made the decision based on projected revenue loss. The school’s Board of Regents estimated that the athletic department stands to lose at least $10 million due to the coronavirus and potentially as much as $75 million if sports schedules do not resume within the academic year. While these cuts maintain Minnesota’s Title IX compliance, they will only save the school about $1.6 million.

But not everyone is just going to roll over and let these cuts happen without a fight. 2016 Olympian and former Gopher, Benjamin Blankenship, expressed his anger with this decision on Twitter and more than 25,700 people have signed a petition to reinstate the men’s track and field program.

Blankenship accused the University of making these cuts by choice and not out of necessity, which doesn’t appear that far off. In 2019, Minnesota’s athletic department began including program-elimination clauses in coaches’ contract. Seven Gopher coaches have such clauses in their contracts, including women’s cross country, women’s and men’s golf, softball, rowing, and you guessed it, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics (two of the three sports being cut). Director of track and field, Matt Bingle – whose 2018 contract extension did not include the clause – would not be affected, since he is the head coach for both the men’s and women’s teams.

The new clause would automatically terminate the coach’s employment if the university decided to cut the sport. An example clause reads as follows:

[Section] 3.7. Program Elimination. If the University makes the decision, which it may make in its sole discretion, to eliminate its softball program, then this Agreement, as well as Coach’s appointment, will automatically terminate 120 days following the effective date of the decision, without the need for any further notice, and without the payment of any Termination Fee. Termination under this Section shall supersede all rights Coach may have under the Policies and Procedures, including but not limited to any rights to notice of termination or to participation in any layoff program.

The program elimination clauses are evidence that the University appeared to have been secretly planning to cut these sports since before the pandemic. Several current and former Minnesota athletes retained counsel, Andrew Militenberg, and demanded that the Regents vote “no” on the resolution to eliminate the sports (which we know didn’t happen). Militenberg argues that there is no reason to include elimination clauses in coaches’ contracts unless there is an “unspoken intent to cancel certain teams in the near future”, and by not disclosing those plans to student athletes, the “university engaged in fraudulent and bad-faith conduct.” Since the three sports have been eliminated, legal action could be taken against the university.

Who Else Is Getting Cut?

Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Universities in all three NCAA Divisions have cut sports. In addition to the schools mentioned above, some of the other most notable cuts in Division I include cuts from Cincinnati, UConn, George Washington, Dartmouth, Brown, La Salle, Old Dominion, and Iowa. George Washington University and La Salle University are in a close second behind Stanford as they both plan to eliminate seven sports at the end of their upcoming seasons. The majority of the schools making cuts identified a shortfall between expenses and expected revenue, which is primarily attributed to the pandemic, and had to make the tough decision to eliminate certain sports. A list of all school cuts, closings, and suspensions can be found here.

But sport programs are not the only thing being cut. University athletic departments are also cutting budgets and athletic director and coaches’ salaries. Washington University cut its athletic budget by 15% for the 2020-21 academic year and all of the school’s head coaches agreed to a minimum 5% pay reduction. A number of other programs have implemented pay cuts to athletic directors and coaches, including Kansas, Rutgers, and Colorado. Additionally, Syracuse coaches Jim Boeheim and Dino Babers both voluntarily took pay cuts.

As the pandemic continues to threaten collegiate athletics, programs are not safe. If the NCAA basketball tournaments and FBS and FCS Bowl games don’t happen, universities will suffer an even greater deficit than they are already experiencing and the number of programs to be cut in the next few months and years will surely rise.

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