By Cybele Zhang
“What happens when trees fall,” the Stanford Rowing Association Instagram asked on Friday.
Their answer: The rest of the forest hears it.
More specifically, alums from all 36 varsity athletics teams currently offered by Stanford join together to defend the metaphoric threatened trees.
On July 8, the University announced that it intended to cut 11 sports: 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 University cited a mounting financial deficit exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors that prompted the cancellations. The University also announced that the 2020-21 season would be the final year for each of the 11 varsity programs before being downgraded to club teams.
About 240 current student-athletes and 22 coaches are a part of the affected sports — but over the last four and a half months, alums, families and the larger Stanford community has shown that a lot more people have a stake in the University’s decision.
They’ve fought back through fundraising, conversations with administration, newspaper publications and social media. Now, alums are adding Stanford Magazine to that list.
Alums from across sports then joined together to pen a response in the magazine’s December edition, which was published on Friday. The alums’ letter — written by the newly formed coalition, 36 Sports Strong — criticized the University’s “fundamental shift” and called for “Stanford leaders” to engage “in an effort to remedy this situation.” Their ultimate goal: reinstate all 11 programs.
The signees include, but are not limited to women’s volleyball’s Foluke Akinradewo ’09; women’s soccer’s Julie Foudy ’93; men’s basketball and volleyball’s Adam Keefe ’92; football’s Andrew Luck ’12; softball’s Jessica Mendoza ’02 M.A. ’03; wrestling’s Patricia Miranda ’01 M.A. ’02; women’s soccer’s Kelley O’Hara ’10; men’s volleyball’s Erik ’12 and Kawika Shoji ’10; women’s volleyball’s Kerri Walsh Jennings ’00; and women’s golf’s Michelle Wie ’11.
“The impact of the cuts is being felt not only by the 4,000 alumni of the 11 teams but also by more than 40,000 alumni of the greater Stanford athletic community,” the letter said.
The letter does not specifically address University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, nor Athletics Director Bernard Muir, although they are the implied addressees.
Stanford Athletics did not respond for comment, nor did it provide further information on the conversations that have taken place between alums and the University.
“It’s such a special and strong coalition, really highlighting what our traditional athletic department has meant to all of us — no matter the sport,” Kawika Shoji said about 36 Sports Strong. “It’s an impressive list, leaders in the world of sport, that have come together to support one another. We get it, we understand what the 36 teams mean to our beloved Stanford and its values, and our hope is that the university now starts to understand that, too.”
Kawika Shoji is a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist and 2010 NCAA national champion setter. He now plays volleyball professionally in Italy for Pallavolo Padova.
Kawika and many alums have already spoken out against the University’s intended cut, but the 36 Sports Strong letter is particularly impactful because of its cross-team coalition and the fame of the participating alums.
One of the most impactful signees is arguably Luck — who’s been a poster child (quite literally) for Stanford’s student-athlete ideal for the past decade. This is his first major statement since he prematurely retired from the NFL last season. The former Colts and Stanford quarterback is notoriously private, and his former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh called him the “anti-celebrity” for his humility.
Signees, now scattered across the world, have played professionally in leagues such as the NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, MLS, NWSL and LPGA. Many have also appeared in the Olympics and/or are included in Stanford Athletics Hall-of-Fame, and most have not questioned their affiliation with Stanford until now.
“We were stunned by this decision because we love Stanford and this changes how we view Stanford,” 36 Sports Strong wrote in the response. “We are asking the university to reconsider.”
“For me, joining the coalition meant adding my voice to a growing outcry over Stanford’s unfortunate decision to eliminate 11 of our programs,” wrote one signee, Cameron Miller ’16, to The Daily.
Miller competed for the track and cross country teams, both non-revenue sports, while on The Farm. Leaders of 36 Sports Strong reached out to him about joining the coalition after reading his columns that he had written for The Daily on the future of the NCAA and NCAA policy.
“The Stanford Athletics family is a large but close one, and I have friends whose former teams are now gone — perhaps forever,” Miller wrote. “So even though I’m incredibly thankful that the track and field program still exists, I am crushed that many athletes and alumni no longer have a home here at Stanford. And it’s been really encouraging to see how the athlete community has rallied around each other in this challenging time.”
36 Sports Strong’s letter also argues that Stanford’s decision goes against the University’s fundamental values.
“We all recognize the importance of athletics to our Stanford education and disagree with this decision based on how it was made and communicated,” the letter continues. “This precipitous action was not based on values Stanford Athletics has demonstrated over decades, including our commitment to Title IX and our 25 consecutive Director’s Cup wins — an honor that recognizes the breadth of our athletics programs.”
“One of the reasons that makes Stanford unique is the fact that it had a broad-based athletic program that provided competition opportunities for so many students,” Miller wrote. “And we’ve lost some of that with the University’s decision. And with that, we’ve lost a bit of what makes Stanford unique. It was a point of pride — and inspiration — to see so many athletes and teams competing at a high level. And I think that ethos has been irreparably damaged by the decision the University made.”
Alums were also shocked by the lack of notice from the University preceding the cut. Stanford did not alert alums or solicit additional donations to endow programs in jeopardy before the short Zoom webinar that announced the cancellations to current student athletes.
“Stanford botched this in almost every conceivable way,” Miller wrote, “from the financial mismanagement that led to the supposedly precarious budget situation to the way they informed the athletes their teams would no longer exist.”
“We wish the university had reached out to us in advance of the announcement to discuss its financial challenges and to explore possible solutions,” the coalition’s letter said. “We could have helped. We still can.”
Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu.