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Bernard Muir defends cancellations in press conference

Athletic director explains compounding factors that led to termination of 11 varsity teams

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In a follow-up press conference to the sudden news that Stanford Athletics planned to cut 11 of its 36 varsity programs, Athletic Director Bernard Muir clarified that the decision was not solely based on COVID-19 concerns.

“To blame this all on COVID would be erroneous, and it would not be accurate,” he said. “But it certainly helped contribute to the growing deficit moving forward.” 

The affected sports are men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling. The teams include 240 students and 22 coaches. The decision also included eliminating 20 support staff. 

The athletics department faced a $12 million structural deficit before the pandemic, which caused the deficiency to balloon to $25 million. In the potential and increasingly likely event that football will not be played, Muir said that the deficit would double again to $50 million. Keeping with the university’s wishes for the department to be self-sustainable, Muir said the choice had to be made. 

Stanford athletes were sent an email just after 9 a.m. PT about a  Zoom meeting to be held just 50 minutes later in which Muir delivered the news. During the conference call, Muir expressed regret that the announcement could not be made in person. Coaches were told in an earlier announcement. 

“We did that this morning on relatively short notice, just trying to get that word out,” Muir said. “I have not had the opportunity to interact with our student-athletes to this point since the call this morning, but our sport administrator for each sport is going to be on calls with the teams — just so we can process, help answer questions, and then go from there.”

Teams planned meetings for the afternoon to discuss options. All teams would be allowed to play one more season with full support. Coaches will receive a bonus to incentivize staying on for the year and will have their full contracts honored, while students will be able to stay on scholarship for their entire time at Stanford. 

This scholarship extension includes incoming freshmen that were accepted but have not yet stepped foot on campus as an enrolled student. As equivalency sports, however, most programs were able to offer only partial scholarships to many players instead of full scholarships. This means that while 240 students will lose their sport at Stanford, only up to 35.4 full-ride scholarships will be honored, according to Troy Clardy of the TreeCast

That number comes from 4.5 scholarships from men’s fencing, 5 for women’s fencing, 12 for field hockey, 4.5 for men’s volleyball and 9.9 for wrestling, the five sports that were recognized as NCAA Division I programs and adhered to the governing body’s scholarship limits. The number does not include any scholarships given to athletes in the other six sports. Programs are free to offer fewer than the maximum number of scholarships, and it was known that wrestling was not offering its full complement of scholarships.

“This has been a heartbreaking day for all of us, especially those student-athletes and coaches who are involved,” Muir said. “We made this decision only after exhausting all viable alternatives. It recently became painfully clear that we would not remain financially stable and support 36 varsity sports at a nationally competitive level, which is what we so desire.”

Muir did not know if any of the athletes in the 11 affected sports were on campus currently for voluntary workouts, but some local students told The Daily that they are using Stanford facilities to train.

In order to maintain all 11 teams on a permanent basis, to endow scholarships, coaching positions and “other elements to the department that we would need to do and not take away from the 25 that we’re going to continue,” Muir said, would cost $200 million. On a yearly basis, the 11 teams cost the department a combined $8 million.

On the announcement’s FAQ page, it was stressed that the decision was final. Even if a donor was willing to support the team, the athletic department would direct it toward the club level. If a team wanted to play as a club sport, it would be student driven.

Because none of the affected sports are baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football or men’s ice hockey, any transfer would be immediately eligible to play at any other school — provided that they are academically and athletically eligible. Stanford has said they will be supportive of an athlete’s decision and would offer a transfer-release agreement.

“We also know that some [athletes] might choose to go elsewhere and want to continue to play their sport at the Division I level, and so we will help, assist in that regard with our compliance staff and make sure that they have the opportunity to transfer,” Muir said.

A recurring theme of the press conference was that Muir wanted the 25 remaining sports to live up to the moniker “Home of Champions.” Stanford has won a national championship for 44 consecutive years, and its 126 total is more than any other college. The 11 sports have accounted for 20 of those championships, but a list of 11 factors —  including NCAA sponsorship, postgraduate participation, fan interest, savings, impact on diversity and history contributed — to the eventual decision to cancel those programs.

Muir said in the press conference that the alternative to cutting certain sports was a “broad and deep reduction in support for all 36 sports, including eliminating scholarships, ceasing to be competitive in our efforts to attract and retain the very best coaches and staff.” This path was simply not followed, he continued, as it “would be antithetical to Stanford’s values and its determination to be excellent in everything that it does.”

Muir stressed the desire to maintain the remaining 25 sports at the highest level. In talks with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell — both of whom co-signed the letter sent out to the community today — and the Board of Trustees, it was clear to Muir that athletics would be important to this campus moving forward, “making sure that we’re fiscally responsible and sustainable.” 

To stress the existing financial strain, Muir shared past stories in which coaches requested “legitimate things” that the department was forced to say “no” to. Cost-saving measures have included a voluntary pay cut taken by head coach of the football team David Shaw ’94, head coach of the women’s basketball team Tara VanDerveer and Jerod Haase, her counterpart on the men’s side. The department has also reduced sport and administrative operating budgets “to the greatest extent possible” and asked teams to limit their travel plans for the upcoming academic year.

The football team, however, is scheduled to travel to Notre Dame in Indiana and men’s basketball has a trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational during the 2020-21 season — assuming COVID-19 restrictions will not pose an impediment.

Prior to the announcement, Stanford had the most NCAA Division I offerings of any FBS school outside of Ohio State, which Muir estimates operates on twice the budget. After years of “punching above our weight,” he said it was time to scale down. Among other factors, Ohio State is generating more in TV revenue, where the Pac-12 conference is notably lackluster, and the Buckeyes have more seats in their football stadium.

At the end of the Zoom call with the media, Muir said that he has had weekly calls at the conference level about the upcoming season. He expects a decision to be made by the end of the month.

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Corrections: The equivalent scholarship numbers were not added correctly. The number is 35.4, not 56 as stated in the original article. The article was also updated to reflect the fact that scholarship limits apply to a maximum, but that not all programs had been able to support this number.

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Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a staff writer in the sports section covering football, women's soccer, women's basketball and baseball. He is originally from Berkeley, California. Contact him at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.