In what might be the understatement of the century, COVID-19 hit everyone hard. But collegiate athletic departments? Our favorite novel coronavirus might have hit them harder than Muhammad Ali teeing up Joe Frazier at the Thrilla in Manilla. Their lifeblood — ticket sales, TV revenues, donations — dried up overnight.
Those revenue-generating sports most central to the corporate machines known as athletic departments weathered the storm fairly well:
University officials heeded the advice, “Never bite the hand that feeds you.”
However, sports more downstream in institutions’ priorities experienced the worst of the drought, including cross-country and track. Our status as a non-revenue sport made us an easy target for athletic directors trying to make their balance sheets prettier.
Nevertheless, even with tough times on the horizon, the track world was not ready for the gut punches of teams being cut. Schools in places like Clemson, South Carolina and Minneapolis, Minnesota, battled for the fate of their teams’ athletic futures, their impassioned pleas reverberating throughout the track community.
Many of these athletes, through protesting, social media awareness, and rallying their schools’ alumni, were able to bring their programs back from the brink. Yet what happens once a program is back from that proverbial brink? How does a team move forward after being on the chopping block? We checked in with athletes from William and Mary, Clemson, Minnesota, and Brown to evaluate what opportunities and challenges their programs faced after such a turbulent time period.
The first of the athletes we spoke with was William & Mary’s Spencer Tsai. As a senior with an extra year of eligibility in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track, Tsai entered 2020 with plans of remaining in Williamsburg for his 5th year. Upon returning to campus in the fall, Tsai discovered William & Mary’s athletic department had other plans as they announced via a team zoom call that they would be cutting their Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams. Tsai and his teammates found themselves in the middle of cross country season without a single clue for where they’d be in just six short months.
“That spring we had a pretty terrible season,” recalls Tsai. “We were coming out of winter break, recovering from being cut, we had to rely on freshmen that were really untested, we had a lot of injuries, it was just really hard.”
The gut punch of having their program slated to be cut by the end of year had knocked the William & Mary men down to their knees and as they struggled to get back up, matters only worsened. “I think the low point specifically came when we had our cross country conference meet in the spring. We had this 20-year win streak, like it's one of the longest active win streaks in the NCAA, and we got our butts kicked by Northeastern. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
From there Tsai and his teammates went straight into their outdoor track season, still feeling the shock of their program’s anticipated fate.
“The mentality around racing and training was still recovering,” says Tsai. “I feel like we were just recovering from being cut and most of us didn’t know if we were coming back or not.”
The team had reached a dark place and it wasn’t just its own members who were beginning to notice. “I was told of a LetsRun thread that just eviscerated our team,” recalled Tsai, “and I couldn’t really argue entirely with it because we did have a really bad season. I think you can’t blame it all on getting cut because you still have to be strong and keep training and keep faith.”
“You can’t just give up entirely. But I think there was a bit of complacency that came with getting cut.”
It wasn’t until mid-March that William & Mary would finally receive some good news.
With the help of Russell Dinkins — a Princeton Track and Field alum and activist involved in the reinstallment of William & Mary’s, the University of Minnesota’s, Clemson’s, and Brown’s track teams — along with a long list of William & Mary track and field alumni, William & Mary’s president Katherine Rowe finally made the announcement that Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field would be reinstated.
Finally, momentum was back on William & Mary’s side and a light began to appear at the end of a very dark tunnel for Tsai and his teammates.
“After that spring season,” explained Tsai, “going into the fall, we got a couple transfers, the sophomores who are now juniors are really starting to become very strong, and we’re showing that we’re making our way back to being a very solid strong program… Now the mentality is ‘we’re back and we're here to stay so let's build something special here.’”
With a win at the Colonial Athletic Association championship meet this past cross country season and some very fast times on the track this winter, William & Mary is back on their feet and ready to move forward.
Down in Clemson, South Carolina, the story was quite similar.
Clemson University Cross Country and Track and Field athlete Samuel Garringer recalls being pulled out of class for a meeting regarding an unspecified subject. “I got a message from our track and field director,” recalls Garringer, “and she was like ‘hey you gotta come down we’re having this meeting.’ And I told her I was in the middle of class but she was like ‘no, get out, we’ll make sure you’re excused’ and I was like okay this probably isn’t a very happy meeting.”
To Garringer’s and his teammates’ chagrin, his prediction was correct. Clemson’s athletic director informed the men of the track and field and cross country teams that their sports would be cut at the conclusion of the academic year.
“They claimed it was mainly a Title IX issue,” recalls Garringer, “and they also told us that they financially couldn’t keep us which we were definitely frustrated by because we’re the cheapest sport on campus. And then they gave us a ridiculous amount of money that we would have to raise, like it was over 50 million dollars, to keep the program reinstated for a certain amount of time.”
Fortunately for the Clemson men, the reaction from their staff and alumni was swift. That same night the Clemson Track and Field team held a zoom call with multiple alumni in attendance to discuss a plan of attack.
“Our first approach was really tackling the most frustrating part which was that we were one of the most diverse teams on campus and you’re basically taking away a lot of opportunities from those student athletes,” explained Garringer, “and also track is the most popular sport in South Carolina for high school students so you’re taking away the number one sport from the biggest school in South Carolina.”
With the help of Russell Dinkins, the Clemson men began their campaign, organizing protests, creating a social media account/hashtag, and working with a lawyer to address the legality of the Clemson athletic department’s plan.
Throughout the Clemson men’s fight to keep their team, any sort of progress seemed to be met with a new problem proposed by Clemson’s athletic department.
“First they told us [the problem was] money, and then they just switched around the problem.” Recalled Garringer.
“Whenever we found a solution to the problem they came up and were like ‘no, it’s actually really this’ and they just kept on jumping around until eventually they ran out of excuses.”
After a Title IX investigation initiated by the team’s lawyer, Arthur Bryant, Clemson’s athletic department finally relinquished, reinstating Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field and ending the over five-month long battle the team had fought so hard to win.
Despite their confidence in their position, the decision came as a surprise to Garringer and his teammates.
“We were all nervous the whole time. Every single update [our lawyer] had for us he was like ‘no, we're good’ but then no good news would come and we were like ‘okayyy.’” Recalls Garringer. “And then just one night he was like ‘yeah we got all three of the teams back.’”
But after successfully saving their team from its arranged axing, there was still more to be addressed.
“Once the team got reinstated everyone kind of just forgot about it.” Says Garringer. “Like ‘oh you got reinstated, that's awesome’ and just kind of disregarded it but we were like ‘no, there's a lot more still going on here.’”
Despite being told by their athletic department that their team was being cut due to Title IX and financial issues, the Clemson men discovered during their investigation that Clemson’s athletic department planned to use the opening in their list of varsity sports to add more roster spots to their Men’s Football team. Clemson also stated in their press release regarding the reinstatement of the teams that “Covid-19 did not harm the University in as drastic a way as anticipated.”
Now standing on the other side of the campaign it's no mystery to the Clemson men how fragile their status as school-sponsored varsity teams can be. But while their status remains intact they’re determined to make use of it. With five men individually qualifying for the NCAA indoor championships this year in the 60 meter hurdles, weight throw, and 800 meters, Clemson is making it very clear why they deserve to stay.
Facing your team’s removal as a current athlete is difficult enough, but for Brown sophomore John McNeil, the decision to cut his university’s men’s track team came before he had even set foot on campus.
“There was this Zoom call to talk about this ‘Excellence Initiative’ but they didn’t really describe it much.” Recalls McNeil. “One of my friends on the team was one of the only ones who could go to it so people were asking in the chat ‘what’s going on at the meeting?’ and he was like ‘I think they might be canceling Men’s Track. I’m really confused.’”
The “Excellence Initiative” McNeil was referring to was a plan introduced by Brown’s athletic department which, as stated on their website, is meant to “[advance] a vision for a varsity athletics program to become among the most competitive among Brown’s peers.”
In order to accomplish this, Brown identified as their first step “[revising] the roster of varsity sports through a net reduction in teams from 38 to 29 (transitioning eleven varsity teams to club sports and two club sports to varsity), while enhancing existing club team offerings,” making it clear that Brown’s vision of an “excellent” athletic program did not include men’s track and field or cross country.
The news came as a shock to McNeil, his teammates and even his coach. “It was super weird.” Recalls McNeil. “[our coach] got notice like five minutes before the Zoom call… They said that men’s track was cut for Title IX reasons and a lot of other sports were cut for financial reasons. Title IX is a completely valid issue to have to do something about but it was just kind of destroying that they picked us out of everyone.”
In the blink of an eye, McNeil’s plans of competing at the Division I level were put on hold indefinitely. “By the time they announced that men’s track was canceled, the transfer deadline had already passed,” recalls McNeil, “so even if you wanted to transfer you had to wait. I thought about taking a gap year. I got in touch with some of the coaches I had been in touch with through the recruitment process. There were a lot of options going through my mind, but luckily I didn’t end up having to go through all of that again.”
Fortunately for McNeil and his teammates, the decision to cut men’s track and field and cross country was met with an immediate and impassioned backlash from the running community. “There was just this crazy amount of support.” Recalls McNeil. “There was a Change.org petition and something like 40,000 people signed that to get Brown men’s track and field back which was insane to see being a recruit.”
Included in Brown’s outpour of support was former Ivy League track and field athlete Russell Dinkins who led a social media campaign that argued if Brown was “actually serious about racial justice, [they] would not be cutting the men’s track and field team.” Dinkins explained via social media that with diversity not exactly being a strong suit in Ivy League athletics — as 65% of Ivy League athletes are white — Brown’s decision to cut one of their most diverse teams on campus would mean failing to uphold their promise towards diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The campaign was clearly successful as less than a month after the announcement, Brown decided to bring back men’s cross country, men’s indoor track and field, and men’s outdoor track and field.
“We had a call with the president when she told us they were gonna bring it back, and when she told us I just left the room and started celebrating.” Recalls McNeil, laughing. “But for this most recent Heps Championship that was huge for us because that was the first one since we had gotten cut. The night before competing we were like ‘okay, we shouldn’t be here right now. We allowed ourselves to get back, so we have to show that we’re meant to be here.”
With a fourth place team finish at the Indoor Ivy League Heptagonal Championships – supported by an individual win in the high jump by McNeil – Brown’s men’s track team is showing exactly why they are “meant to be here.”
Unlike William & Mary, Clemson, and Brown, the University of Minnesota men’s track team is still in the process of fully reinstating their running programs. When the University of Minnesota’s athletic department decided to cut several men’s teams in light of the pandemic – including Men’s Gymnastics, Men’s Tennis and Men’s Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field – Men’s cross country was spared. But despite the many efforts of the men’s team and their supporters, the athletic department has only reinstated Men’s Outdoor Track, still refusing to bring back Indoor.
University of Minnesota Junior Seth Eliason recalls being shocked by the decision from the athletic department. “We had no idea prior [to the meeting,]” recalls Eliason, “nobody did… nobody on at least the track side of things. I’m sure some people higher up in the athletic department had some idea, but our coach found out probably 30 minutes before we did.”
Much like the other teams across the country that were subjected to the same fate, the news came in the form of a Zoom meeting.
For Eliason and his teammates, the Zoom meeting included the entire Men’s Gymnastics, Tennis, and Track and Field teams and consisted of a short speech from athletic director Mark Coyle explaining the decision.
“It seemed very abrupt to me that we didn’t have any prior notice.” Says Eliason. “It just seemed like a cop out, from the very start of it. There was no reason that our team shouldn’t have known that we were even on the chopping block prior to this happening”
Determined to fight for their program’s status, Eliason and his teammates started their campaign led by pole vaulter Mike Herauf and activist Russell Dinkins. The team began by hand-writing and hand-delivering letters to the school’s Board of Regents. “We were trying to really show them ‘you’re cutting these people,’” says Eliason. “‘You’re not just cutting a team. We are real people and this is our livelihood. This is something we love to do, this is something we’ve grown up doing, and you’re just trying to take it away from us.’”
The Minnesota men continued their fight throughout the coming months, writing more letters, holding meetings, and even marching from the university’s athletic facility to the Dean’s house. The march concluded with speeches from members of the team including several student athletes of color who explained the implications of the University cutting its most diverse team on campus.
The campaign was relentless and as the Board of Regents’ meeting to determine the course of action for cutting the three sports approached, the Minnesota men felt confident they had done enough.
“At this point we thought it was going to get refuted.” Recalls Eliason. “But the day of the board meeting Mark Coyle, our [athletic director], went into the Board of Regents and said ‘we will still cut the Men’s Gymnastics team and the Men’s Tennis team and we’ll also still cut the Men’s indoor track team, but we’re gonna save the outdoor track team.’”
With no time to respond, the Minnesota men had no choice other than to accept the bittersweet decision.
Today, the Minnesota men are still fighting to get their indoor track team back, continuing their social media campaign through their Instagram account @savegophertf, and discussing even taking their fight to the Supreme Court.
More uncertainty awaits Minnesota as they continue their battle for full varsity status of their running program. But in this sea of uncertainty, the one thing they do know is the running community's support isn’t going anywhere.