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Opinion: Varsity Blues – Reexamining fundraising priorities amid athletic program cuts

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Last Wednesday, President Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Drell and Director of Athletics Bernard Muir announced the permanent discontinuation of 11 varsity sports programs following the conclusion of the 2020-2021 year. To me and my fellow student-athletes, this news was heartbreaking, abrupt and mystifying. 

I recognize that the effects of the athletics cancellation are nowhere near as dire as the struggles of several other Stanford communities — I’ve written about the plight of campus service workers (donate here), heard the struggles of international, FLI and BIPOC students and witnessed firsthand the impact of athletic budget cuts. I also recognize that President Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Drell and Mr. Muir have been forced to make difficult decisions amid extraordinarily challenging times, and I thank them for their thoughtfulness thus far. However, the common thread is that students feel that Stanford’s administrative decisions have fallen short of the expectations of several communities during an unprecedented time of need. 

If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: the rationale behind Stanford’s “sports realignment” goes far beyond athletics and pandemic-related struggles. The decision was not a COVID-19-related financial decision, but a value signal. Stanford Athletics happens to be the victim of very difficult times, and its program cuts, in reality, are a reflection of wider University fundraising priorities. It is unfair that much of the decision’s criticism now falls on athletics leadership. 

“There are other significant fundraising priorities across the university and within athletics,” the University stated in its open letter. For an institution like Stanford, with a large university and athletics endowment and high-profile donors, shelling out the funds to save 11 varsity sports teams does not seem unfathomable (and neither does increasing its funding for Stanford’s King Institute or the African and African American Studies program, for example.) The Stanford community ought to instead question what, exactly, the University’s fundraising priorities are. 

To be clear, the athletics department operates using its own endowment, completely separate from the University’s. While I recognize that the athletics endowment is not a checking account (and the majority of funds are earmarked), the decision suggests that University administration believes the elimination of non-profit-generating athletic activities is a reasonable cut. Beyond this particular decision, I fear for all the non-profit-generating programs on campus — the academic, the extracurricular and the athletic. The disregard for profit-losing programs is especially discouraging given that Stanford itself “loses money on every student it admits,” since tuition does not fully cover the cost of attending the University. 

This article will explore possible reasons for the carnage of Stanford’s athletics programs and question the legitimacy of these motives. The athletics announcement was the first time I felt motivated to understand how University and athletic endowments operate, seek out public information on athletic revenue and expenses and put myself in the shoes of an administration confronting the challenges of a global pandemic and social unrest. Because Stanford failed to do so, I hope to turn this announcement into a thought exercise and teaching lesson out of genuine love for the University and athletics department I’ve called home for three years, both to better understand this devastating decision and to prevent ones like these being made in the future.   

The deficit

In a five-minute Zoom call with affected athletes, the athletics department announced that they plan to cut 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 from the athletics program. The announcement was curt, unceremonious and unsympathetic given the magnitude of the decision. Coaches and student-athletes alike were blindsided. 

University administration’s decision to discontinue 30% of Stanford’s varsity sports was painful to me as an athlete, though my sport was unaffected. It was a harsh divergence from the standards of a program consistently revered as “the best in college sports.” Stanford Athletics revealed that they operate a deficit, but the reality is that so do 90% of NCAA Division I athletics departments. It’s commonly known that the only two profit-generating sports in college athletics are football and (barely) men’s basketball. (This is the case for Stanford, too — the team-by-team revenues and expenses of Stanford Athletics are publicly disclosed by the U.S. Department of Education.) 

Therefore, when athletics departments elect to field a team that is not football or men’s basketball, University administration knows without a doubt that the revenue made from that sport’s ticket sales, jersey sales and TV contracts pales in comparison to the cost it takes to support that team. Yet as protectors of the athletic department, athletic directors nonetheless choose to uphold their commitment to these teams, because they see value in honoring the hard work and camaraderie that comes with supporting them. What Stanford loses in revenue they make back in sponsorships and donations from alumni who fondly remember their days as college athletes. And most importantly, the returns manifest in pride for an athletics program that has always pledged to foster excellence. 

Stanford Athletics exists knowing that they operate at a deficit. Stanford leadership failed to show common decency to their athletics department, student athletes, coaches, support staff and recruits when they axed 11 of its varsity teams with no warning, given that the decision to cut these programs had been discussed long before the pandemic struck. Why University leadership did not engage the athletics department in long-range planning discussions is a mystery to me. They failed to demonstrate a commitment to reviving programs they knew were already drowning. 

The COVID-19 cover-up

The announcement’s FAQ page made it clear that “the decisions to reduce our sports offerings are final.” Even if a donor was willing to fully sponsor a team, the philanthropy would be directed toward the club level. This particular clarification is difficult to understand. University leadership admitted that they were always planning to axe these 11 varsity programs, but a nationwide pandemic that threatens to diminish revenue generated by college football served as the perfect pretext for the decision.

If the motivation to axe these teams were purely related to pandemic budget cuts, then perhaps Stanford Athletics would accept a last-minute bail out by a donor. However, University leadership made it clear that even if the programs could be saved, the program would nonetheless be permanently discontinued. Thus, the financial stress due to COVID-19 was not the tipping point in the decision to cut 11 teams. “To blame this all on COVID would be erroneous, and it would not be accurate,” Muir acknowledged. 

In fact, the athletics department actually ended up in a better financial situation at the end of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 and the cancellation of all NCAA competition because all of Stanford’s spring sports are profit-losing. Admittedly, the potential loss of NCAA football this upcoming fall would be a devastating loss of revenue for athletics departments across the country, including Stanford (last year, Stanford football alone raked in $26 million in profit.) However, that does not clarify why Stanford’s athletic teams would refuse the support of donors. 

Cutting sports is an issue in itself. Cutting sports and refusing donor funding to save these sports indicates that University leadership no longer sees value in the existence of these programs.

The announcement’s FAQ section writes that even if donors stepped forward, “their support simply could not cover the escalating costs of ensuring excellence across the board in our 36-sport model.” However, this rationale is baffling considering programs like men’s and women’s fencing, which are almost fully endowed by donors through philanthropy secured after the 2008 recession. It is a disservice to the athletic department as well as the fencing team’s coaches, staff and athletes and a crime against its donors to discontinue the program by claiming Stanford had “exhausted all other viable avenues” and conducted a “thorough exploration of all potential revenue-generating and cost-saving opportunities.” Clearly the discontinuation of a nearly-fully-endowed team was not a financial decision, but a value signal. 

In short, these 11 varsity sports were destined for the chopping block. Out of convenience, University leadership timed the announcement to exploit COVID-19 as a mitigating circumstance for a devastating decision. 

The diversity argument

One of Stanford Athletics’ considerations in the selection of sports to discontinue was the “Impact on the diversity of our student-athlete population.” A search of each of these sports’ rosters reveal that these are teams composed of predominantly white athletes. The demographic of Stanford’s teams reflect a larger trend — this is also true on an NCAA-wide level, according to publicly-available data on NCAA demographics. For example, according to the NCAA, of the 232 Division I sailors in 2017, none were black. Amid a necessary national reevaluation of both individual and systemic racism, Stanford Athletics might have eliminated these particular sports in an attempt to align the demographic of the student-athlete population with the University’s diversity goals, which I understand and applaud. After all, college athletics has been referred to as “affirmative action for white students.” 

However, if racial diversity was a motivating factor in the decision, then University leadership should have been transparent about this criteria and involved each team in this diversity realignment. The athletics department could have collaborated with program head coaches and the sport’s national governing bodies to establish clear diversity initiatives and tangible goals to achieve in order to merit the existence of the sport at Stanford. In addition, this could have been an opportunity for University leadership to clearly state its commitment to honoring diversity in college athletics, which has long been dominated by white athletes. 

A poor precedent 

Stanford Athletics’ status as a leader in college athletics means that the University’s drastic decision to eliminate 30% of its college teams sets a precedent for athletics departments nationwide to follow in these footsteps. Indeed, schools of similar caliber are following suit, though none have gone as far as to cut as many sports as Stanford did (most recently, Dartmouth announced the cancellation of five of its programs: men’s and women’s golf, men’s lightweight rowing and men’s and women’s swimming.) Stanford’s decision might be a harbinger for similar athletic announcements in the coming months as COVID-19 exposes the instability of the college sports economic model. 

The program realignment is a devastating precedent for all non-profit-generating sports (which are all sports except football and men’s basketball.) By cutting 11 teams, University leadership makes a statement, via its athletics department, that condones the divestment from activities that do not generate revenue. When Stanford’s decision puts profit over people, they signal to schools nationwide that this is acceptable behavior. 

University leadership named “sponsorship of the sports at a national level” as one consideration for the selection of these 11 sports. “Six are not NCAA-sponsored championship sports. All 11 sports being discontinued are sponsored by less than 22% of the more than 350 Division I institutions,” Stanford wrote. The “average” representation of the sport at the college level should not be a standard to which Stanford ought to compare itself. Stanford has always prided itself on being the gold standard. 

For many of these sports, like wrestling and men’s volleyball, Stanford’s athletic programs were bastions of excellence that fostered the sport’s growth at the local, West Coast and even national level. The death of Stanford’s teams will very likely diminish interest at all levels in these 11 often-overlooked sports. 

Final thoughts

The announcement’s lack of transparency, unclear reasoning and failure to empathize with the 240+ student-athletes and 22 coaches whose careers ended on a five-minute Zoom call are not what I expect from a University and athletics department that have consistently held a reputation for being the best in the nation. 

The elimination of sports that have not only produced Olympians and national championships — but also fostered a family for its athletes — is heartbreaking. I recognize that the University is facing devastating financial losses and uncertainty regarding the economic viability of college athletics, but University leadership should not capitulate in the face of a challenge. COVID-19 is merely exposing the flaws in an already precarious economic model of college sports. Perhaps Stanford could have been the first to innovate a new one. 

If Stanford Athletics taught me anything, it’s the importance of grit. University leadership ought to have had faith in the athletic department’s ability to persevere through unprecedented times, hand-in-hand with its devoted community. 

Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Alex Tsai ’21 is a senior staff writer for The Daily. Previous roles at The Daily include news desk editor and mobile app developer. Alex is majoring in Computer Science and is a member of the varsity lacrosse team. Contact her at aotsai 'at' stanford.edu.