Ten months after cutting nearly one-third of its varsity athletic programs, Stanford announced on Tuesday that those 11 sports — including 10 featured at the Olympics — won’t be discontinued after all, ending a fraught battle between supporters of those sports and the university within weeks of the teams potentially dissolving.
“It’s hard to say exactly why Stanford changed their mind, but cutting the sports was a huge P.R. problem and huge bad look for them,” Kyler Presho, a senior on the men’s volleyball team, said. “We were relentless in giving them every reason to reconsider and we just didn’t go away. In the end, hey, it worked.”
Presho said the volleyball team had heard the news Tuesday morning when its coach, John Kosty, called a videoconferencing meeting. Jeremy Jacobs, a men’s volleyball alumnus who helped lead the 36 Sports Strong advocacy group that worked to keep the 11 cut sports, was the person to deliver the good news.
Afterward, the players, many who live on the same floor of the same dormitory, poured into their hallway from their rooms, cheering and hugging and shoving each other in a giant celebratory mosh pit.
“It was just joy, relief, happiness, just so many positive emotions at once,” Presho said.
Last July, Stanford made the cuts, saying they were a last resort and blamed “the harsh new financial realities imposed by Covid-19,” blindsiding both the coaches and the athletes who were affected. This season would be the last for those sports, the university said.
In subsequent months, supporters of those sports, including current students, alumni and students’ parents, had mounted a vocal, organized and growing push to raise tens of millions of dollars to save their programs and pressure the university to let the sports stay.
Just last week, a pair of lawsuits were filed in federal court, alleging that Stanford defrauded recruits by not telling them their sports might be dropped and also saying that the university would be violating Title IX edicts if the sports were not reinstated.
Students in the sports that were cut took the decision hard, particularly when the university repeatedly told them that the decision would be final and that there would be no way the teams could fight for their own existence. Many athletes said they doubted the university’s reasoning for the cuts being a financial one. Stanford has a $27.7 billion endowment, but officials said that money was earmarked for other things. It projected a $70 million deficit over the next three years if the 11 teams were not dumped.
“It feels very clear to me it’s not about the money, at least in the case of rowing,” said Silas Stafford, a rower who competed in the 2012 Olympics. “There are plenty of alumni who would gladly pony up to fund the program. I think rowing doesn’t fit into their agenda. It’s a headache to them more than it’s a boon.”
Eliminating men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s fencing, women’s lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, field hockey, squash, synchronized swimming, wrestling and coed and women’s sailing would save the athletic department $8 million, the college had said. Those sports have won a combined 20 national championships and produced 27 Olympic medalists.
Just as the athletes were being informed that their sports were being cut last July 8, an open letter was published by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Athletic Director Bernard Muir that asserted that the athletic department — despite Stanford’s enormous endowment and vast property holdings in Silicon Valley — needed to be self sufficient.
The letter said the school had examined covering budget shortfalls through ticket sales, broadcasting revenue, university funding, philanthropy and budget cuts, but found those measures would not be enough.
The university said in its announcement Tuesday that the financial challenges still existed, but efforts to raise money had created a new path for the sports.
“We have new optimism based on new circumstances, including vigorous and broad-based philanthropic interest in Stanford Athletics on the part of our alumni, which have convinced us that raising the increased funds necessary to support all 36 of our varsity teams is an approach that can succeed,” Tessier-Lavigne said.
Though the sports teams on the chopping block usually generate scant attention beyond campus, they have — along with the challenges posed by the pandemic — often served as the backdrop for the school’s athletic programs this year.
When wrestler Shane Griffith won the 165-pound national championship, he did so in a black singlet without the school’s logo and afterward donned a sweatshirt that read: Keep Stanford Wrestling.
The cuts outraged athletes who bought into the promise that Stanford had sold for years as a place where students in a broad swath of sports could get an elite academic and athletic college experience.
The decision also galvanized Stanford’s athletic alumni, leading to many famous athletes supporting the 36 Sports Strong group — including baseball Hall of Famer Mike Mussina, Senator Cory Booker, golfer Michelle Wie West and gymnast Kerri Strug.
Coaches, like the players, were miffed that they had been given no voice in the decision.
The coaching fraternity at Stanford is particularly tight, which some attribute to a common ground of striving to compete for national titles at a school where recruiting is more stringent than at other athletic programs. Also, many coaches at Stanford — which provides on-campus housing to dozens of its coaches — are neighbors.
“Everyone understands that a challenge of winning at Stanford is the ultimate challenge in terms of who you recruit, the students you need and the high caliber athlete you need, and the character is special,” said Tara VanDerveer, the women’s basketball coach whose team won its third national championship in April. “We all know it’s not easy.”
That’s why, she said, there was so much emotion last month when Stanford’s synchronized swimming team won the national championship at its home pool at the Avery Aquatics Center, cheered on by several hundred fans who chanted “Save Stanford Synchro.”
“Everyone was crying,” VanDerveer said.
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