College cancels seven varsity sports: COVID-19 exacerbates athletic department’s budgetary concerns

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JAMIE HOLT / THE FLAT HAT

At 4 p.m. Sept. 3, the athletic landscape of the College of William and Mary was significantly altered with the discontinuation of seven of the College’s varsity sports. The College cited ongoing budget concerns that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as their reason for disbanding the seven sports. 

Men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field and women’s volleyball comprise the list of cut programs, which will lose their Division 1 sponsorship after spring 2021. Pandemic-permitting, the affected teams can participate in a last season before the decision takes effect. 

College President Katherine Rowe, College Provost Peggy Agouris and Director of Athletics Samantha Huge penned an “Open Letter” to the Tribe community to accompany the release of the news. In the letter, they described both the context and process by which the decision was reached, detailing a structural deficit of more than $1 million prior to the economic effects of the pandemic, and projections for deficits exceeding $3.2 million over the next three years. 

“The pandemic has made these budget constraints acute and has brought us to a point of reckoning,” Rowe, Agouris and Huge said in the letter. 

Huge explained that a lot of factors led to the final decision to cut the seven sports and was made in correspondence with the College’s Board of Visitors. 

“It was a very thoughtful, deliberative, consultative process,” Huge said. “We looked at a lot of different factors; we talked with leaders of the university and took so much into consideration — the history of the program, to NCAA caliber facilities, to alumni engagement and community building, and it can go on and on. In the end, the decision was made for these seven sports. It was made in very close consultation with the Board of Visitors and with their full support.”

The cutting of these seven sports affects 118 student-athletes and 13 coaches. The athletic department stated in the letter that students on scholarship can retain their scholarships through the student’s graduation.

“Our focus is on the 118 student-athletes whose athletic career was changed today,” Huge said. “For them, for the amount of work that they’ve done, the dedication they’ve shown and what they’ve represented for this university … We honor them, we respect them, in addition to their coaches who have given so much to ensure that their four years at William and Mary and beyond are years that prepare them for life after William and Mary. And not only for the coaches and the student-athletes, but for the many alumni donors, parents, families and others who care so deeply for William and Mary. But particularly for our students; this is a difficult day for them and that’s where our focus should be.”

That difficult day came as a surprise to many of the affected athletes. While it was nationwide news that COVID-19 was slashing budgets across the country, athletic and otherwise, several athletes were caught off guard both by the decision. 

Swimmer Megan Bull ’21 was going about her day when her mom called around 1:30 p.m.— a little over two hours before the Sept. 3 announcement.

“She said she saw on a Tribe swimming parent group that some alumni had heard through whatever grapevine that we were going to get cut,” Bull said. “When my mom called me that was the first time I had heard about it. About an hour after that, our coach texted us though Teamworks and was like hey, check your emails for something coming up. So yeah, I probably truly knew about the meeting at like 2 or 2:30, like an hour and a half before it happened.” 

Bull recalled how the team constantly checked in during the pandemic about cuts to the programs, which they were repeatedly informed there would not be any cuts. 

“Even during COVID there were continued questions of are you cutting programs, what’s going on with the budget,” Bull said. “We continued to ask those things, and the answers were no, we aren’t cutting you.”

Gymnast Christian Marsh ’22 was present at the meeting as well and came away very disappointed by how it was conducted. 

“It was the most disingenuous speech I have ever heard in my entire life,” Marsh said.  “Samantha Huge popped up on the screen and she read from a script into her camera to tell us that our programs were being discontinued. Then she switched to Deidre Connelly, and she was talking about the emotional support we were going to have, and then the call ended. I don’t even think she said goodbye. I think it was probably the rudest way they could have done it.” 

Bull also pointed out the hypocrisy of the statements made by those leading the meeting, particularly in reference to Huge.

“One of the things that stood out about that was that she said something along the lines of ‘Oh you guys all have your own voice and everything’ and then they just cut off the meeting without letting us ask questions,” Bull said. “I’m sure there would’ve been multiple questions and multiple people who were frustrated, but to say you have your own voice and then not let us use our voices even to just ask questions in any kind of manner is very insulting.”

When the meeting ended, Marsh explained that many of the athletes had to try to process the news while dealing with the reactions of the public.

“The call happened, they told us our programs were being cut, and at the same time they broke the news to the public,” Marsh said. “So before the call was over, I was getting texts, I was getting calls from people all over the country sending me their condolences, and I hadn’t even had time to process it myself yet.”

Bull added that emotions were high for both the athletes and coaches after the call. 

“At 3:45, our coaches had a meeting so we could all zoom right afterwards,” Bull said. “Basically, it was just, everyone was upset. Kelly, one of our coaches, was just crying, she was really upset.”

Around 4 p.m., the athletes of the discontinued teams were notified that Tribe Athletics had arranged for all the teams to gather on the football field.

“They gave all the teams who were being cut a chance to come to the field and gather in a place as a team,” Marsh said. “They said we’re cutting your team, be at this field at five o’clock if you want to talk to each other.”

The gathering occurred three weeks after an Aug. 21 email by the Dean of Students office, announcing a zero-tolerance policy in regard to large gatherings at the College during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Large student gatherings of any kind — both on- and off-campus — are not permitted,” Dean Marjorie Thomas said in the email sent to students. “Students may not gather in groups of more than 10 people.”

All seven teams were brought to the football field at the same time to interact with their fellow athletes over the news. 

With the discontinuation of these sports, many athletes will look into transferring. For small programs like men’s gymnastics, this process can be especially difficult.

“Men’s gymnastics is rare,” Marsh said. “It is a small sport, and there are maybe 14 programs at the NCAA level. So when they were talking to us about transferring, it didn’t sit right with me because they know it’s not an option. What they did was they just trophy-hunted our sport. This is a fatal blow to NCAA Men’s Gymnastics. Iowa, they cut their team two weeks ago, we got cut this week. That pattern, it’s going to continue, and Men’s Gymnastics will not exist at the NCAA level because of this decision.”

Many of the discontinued sports are smaller teams who are not given much funding, but whose athletes are extremely successful in their sports and in the classroom.   

“I am just so frustrated, I don’t even have the words for it,” Bull said. “A lot of the programs that she cut are the ones that have really done well athletically and academically, so it’s really frustrating to see that even though our programs are doing so much for the school, albeit they’re not, like revenue generating, that she just doesn’t seem to care about that. It just really makes me feel like she has absolutely no compassion for how programs can be special without having to generate revenue for the school.”

Men’s and women’s swim alone has won eight CAA Championships, all of them coming in the last 15 years.

The men’s and women’s gymnastics teams have amassed 10 ECAC Championships between them, and the men’s team consistently has athletes honored as All-Americans, including 23 in the last three seasons alone. Women’s volleyball has won eight CAA championships.

Men’s track and field has had six athletes honored as All-Americans in the last five years, while also winning five CAA championships since 1990.

“The impact of our program on this school, considering how small we are, is insane, it’s unreal,” Marsh said. “We had three Phi Beta Kappa Initiates last year, including most outstanding initiate, and Thomas Jefferson Award winner, and that’s just within the past two years. We have National Championships; we have Conference Championships; we send people to NCAA Championships regularly, we send people to finals; we have All-Americans. We are incredibly distinguished athletes and scholars all around. We have one of the highest GPA’s in the Athletic Department — we consistently do. And not only that, we have won the academic championship at least eight times. We are self-functioning; we fund ourselves; we don’t give out scholarships; we have our own facility off campus, so we are a very low-impact sport when it come to the Athletic Department, but we yield them all these benefits.”