Toeing the Rubber: How the University of Akron​ saved money for football by costing its baseball players thousands

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by Chris Horne

NOTE: The Devil Strip is still waiting for responses from the University of Akron regarding the cancellation of the baseball program. In lieu of that, we’re leaning on interviews President Scott Scarborough has given to other media, notably the long audio interviews granted to 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland and Akron’s WAKR. We’ll post a second part when our public records requests are fulfilled. – Chris H.

 

On July 10, the University of Akron’s 35 baseball players were told by the administration to find another college if they wanted to continue their Division I career. As hard as it is to make it to the majors, it is possible from Akron. In fact, the day after the announcement was made, former Zips pitcher Chris Bassitt carried his sub-3.00 ERA with the Oakland A’s to face the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field.

While President Scott Scarborough and former interim athletic director Nathan Mortimer point to the $649,889 savings budgeted for fiscal year 2015, several student-athletes and their families are spending thousands of dollars for the privilege of not attending the University of Akron as they had, just months ago, hoped to do this fall. Thus far, the university is refusing to help cover—and in some cases, even discuss—the expenses with which they’ve saddled these players and families.

They aren’t just bothered by the unexpected financial hardships they’re now facing but also the sense that baseball, representing a meager 2 percent of the total athletics budget, wasn’t axed to help fix the university’s reported $40 million financial problem—that, at best, baseball was a sacrificial lamb, “symbolic” as Scarborough described the decision to WAKR.

At worst, some wonder if the “financial challenge” masked the university’s plans to further pad football’s already large budget. That became more believable when the university announced it would pump an additional $650,000 to $700,000 into athletic scholarships. It’s a difficult connection to ignore in context with comments Scarborough made July 23 to 92.3 The Fan.

“It came to baseball because we already make a very high investment in our intercollegiate athletic programs by MAC standards,” he said. “We invest $32 million a year. Most of that comes from student fees. There’s a limit that we can ask students to pay for—the legislature really sets that limit—and frankly we needed to make additional investments in football.”


PASSING THE BUCK

 

CJkWs42UwAENtSkSome players signed leases intending to return in the fall and now either have to pay fees to break the contract or are still paying monthly on apartments they aren’t living in.

Others found out that some credits at the University of Akron won’t transfer with the student.

That’s the case for Jim Meeker’s son, James Meeker III. He came to the University of Akron for baseball but was working on a degree in applied mathematics with an eye on graduate school in their polymer chemistry program.

A junior infielder from the Cincinnati area, he’s since found a home on the baseball team at the University of Delaware. However, eight credit hours from Akron won’t count, which alone Jim says will cost them more than $10,000 extra. Even though James has a scholarship to play in Delaware, the institution’s advanced academic reputation means the Meekers will pay a lot more in the long run.

“That’s what happens when you go to a better school. It costs more,” Jim says. “But that’s okay.”

He’s even okay with the decision itself.

“I’m a big boy. I live in the real world. I know you have to make difficult decisions,” he says.

What’s not okay with Jim is the timing. The players and families received an email early on Friday, July 10 from head baseball coach Rick Rembielak—“Coach Rem”—warning them the university would be making an announcement a couple hours later about the elimination of the program.

“The worst thing about it was they chose that time. It was the worst time possible for baseball players,” he says. “They only gave our boys two or three weeks to find somewhere else to go, let alone play.”

Akron officials offered to honor the scholarships for players on the team. However, all but five of the 35 players on the 2015 roster decided to move along, some to more prestigious programs like LSU, Ohio State and Michigan State.

Jim likened it to a divorce.

“If your ex offered to let you stay in the house so you could help pay the mortgage and the bills, you probably wouldn’t stay either.”

This analogy applies to more than how these students may feel unwanted at UA. It’s apt about paying the university’s bills, too.

Looking at the so-called bottom line makes the elimination of the baseball program look like a savings of almost $650,000, but that’s only true if all the players stayed at UA where their tuition, food plans, housing, books and other expenses would have contributed to the revenue. However, most of the players were paying something to attend.

By NCAA rules, the baseball team only gets 11.7 athletic scholarships to spread around to the 35 players, which means the equivalent of 23.3 players pay tuition.

Most of the players pay in-state tuition, but 11 come from outside Ohio which comes to $216,106 in tuition costs, nearly matching the $251,758 for in-state players. If only the 16 freshmen and sophomores on the team signed up for the cheapest housing option ($7,020 a year) and the cheapest meal plan ($3,428 a year), that comes to an addition $167,168. Between the two, that’s $635,032. Again, the baseball budget comes to $649,889. That figure includes as an expense the costs of scholarships—$291,173 for fiscal year 2015.

So, the team may not have paid for itself completely, but it seems like it was close.


KICK IN THE SHINS

 

John Malott was an incoming freshman outfielder from Cincinnati. His parents were excited about being able to make the short drive up to Akron to see him play. That won’t happen now that John has landed at Glendale Community College, a junior college in Los Angeles that, oddly enough, was the inspiration for the TV show “Community,” which starred UA graduate Yvette Nicole Brown.

How Matt Malott returned his Zips merchandise after finding out the baseball program was being dismantled. (Photo courtesy of Matt Malott)
How Matt Malott returned his Zips merchandise after finding out the baseball program was being dismantled. (Photo courtesy of Matt Malott)

“Akron is not the first place you think of when it comes to baseball but he loved the baseball program and the coaches,” John’s dad, Matt Malott, says.

He called the program’s sudden shutdown “a kick in the shins,” but says—compared to the juniors and seniors on the team, who had a lot of “sweat equity” into the improving program—the Malotts feel lucky. No problems with a lease, no worries about transferring credits. Still, Matt says he has a few questions, especially about the announcement that the university is adding $650,000 in scholarships for athletes in the remaining programs.

“What the hell is that all about?” he says. “It’s amazing to me this guy [Scarborough] is getting by with this. I’m sure there’s more to it than just this guy—I’m sure there’s a Board [of Trustees] involved too—but what they’re doing seems criminal. To spend $950,000 on renovations to a house—a house he’s not paying for. He’s got a $400,000 salary [$450,000 actually, plus an annual performance bonus worth up to $80,000. – Ed.] and he gets a free house.”

A “website guy,” Matt set up ScarboroughSquad.com to help baseball alumni and supporters know where players have landed, but Matt is also a self-described “smartass” so he also posts news stories and commentary about the university’s other troubles. He even shared a photo of the letter he sent Scarborough along with a package of Akron Zips merchandise he wanted to return.

Matt thinks the students could have been handled with more respect. By the summer, most rosters have filled up and most programs have handed out all their scholarships. So when the announcement came July 10, there were barely six weeks before the start of the fall semester, which didn’t leave a lot of time for players to find a new team.

“Well, I don’t know what time would have been good. It could have happened September 1 after he (John) had already moved in so I guess it could have been worse,” he says, “but if they’d done something like Temple did, it would have been better.”

When Temple University cancelled baseball—among seven intercollegiate sports cut—they made the announcement December 2013, giving players another full season, which they could treat as an audition for other teams to improve their chances of finding potentially better teams with better scholarship offers.

“If they’d done that, John would have entered as a freshman at the University of Akron, played and been re-recruited to play the following year,” Matt says.


WHY BASEBALL IS DIFFERENT

 

Once the baseball team was dismantled, which happened the day of the announcement, it couldn’t just be put back together again. Unlike the layoffs that hit employees of UA Press and EJ Thomas Hall, these students are scattered around the country. To give them each some shot at playing next season, there was no time to mount protests and rallies to save the team.

It’s just gone now.

That’s a big source of frustration the team’s supporters express. Their best case scenario right now is to revive the program in three years. Maybe. The team counts as alumni doctors, lawyers, scientists, CEOs and the like, so had they been offered the chance upfront to raise money to save the program, they would have been likely to do it. That is, supporters and parents say, what Rembielak was trying to pull off when the announcement was made.

Ken Marnon is one of them. He found out about the program before his son, Kevin, a 6’7” transfer from Shelby Township, Michigan who had a full scholarship—70 percent covered by athletics, rest by academics. Since he was signed to play on a team that had taken the field for 142 seasons since 1873, the finance major felt confident about signing a lease in Cuyahoga Falls. But the landlord won’t let him break the contract, so the family will end up paying thousands of dollars for a place far from Ball State where Kevin will soon be playing.

“That wasn’t because of the coach’s fault,” Ken says. Coach Rem, he says, has done everything he could to protect the program.

CFO Nathan Mortimer addressing the Board of Trustees at their August 12 meeting. (Photo: Shane Wynn)
CFO Nathan Mortimer addressing the Board of Trustees at their August 12 meeting. (Photo: Shane Wynn)

“He (Rembielak) had met with them (university administrators) and they’d said that they didn’t think they were going to get rid of baseball (if they could cover the costs), and they told him, ‘Why not try to raise $500,000?’ So, he tried to raise the $500,000 and apparently at around $300,000, that’s when the announcement came out.”

Multiple people involved with the university’s baseball program have said the same thing, that Rembielak asked CFO Nathan Mortimer how much money they’d needed to save baseball. The answer: Half a million dollars, enough to cover operational costs. He was supposedly given a week to do it. The next morning, parents say, Rembielak was more than halfway there with more coming when the deal was yanked off the table and told the budget cuts, baseball included, would be announced a few hours later.

The Devil Strip made multiple attempts through different channels to speak with Rembielak, who is still employed by the university, but he couldn’t be reached for comment. Likewise, efforts to reach Mortimer have thus far failed, as have questions asked directly of the university.

We have reviewed a copy of the email Rembielak sent to the players and their families. In the email, he explains he had “caught wind” of rumors three weeks earlier but had not been told anything official until the day before the announcement when Mortimer met with the baseball staff. That’s when he was told he could save the baseball team if he raised the money in time. Rembielak doesn’t mention how much he had been pledged by that point but wrote that he planned to finish collecting the $500,000 so he could present it to Scarborough, who he also noted made the decision, not the athletic department.


WHAT DOES SCARBOROUGH SAY?

 

On June 10, the Board of Trustees approved the university wide budget Scarborough presented for FY15, which leaves blanks for the entire UA Press budget and excludes salaries as well as ticket sales for EJ Thomas Hall. There are no such details for athletics. However, Scarborough told the Akron Beacon Journal at the time that cuts would involve sports but not likely football, basketball or soccer.

The president as a young man in Texas, from site.scottscarborough.us
The president as a young man in Texas, from site.scottscarborough.us

Later, the president told WAKR why they specifically chose to make the announcement in July: It’d be too hard for students who are enrolled to find another school so late in the summer.

“We made the determination that the July month—the timeframe—would absolutely be the best time to make these adjustments. Why? Because in July, most students have already locked in and decided where they are going to go school in the fall. And then whatever negative publicity we got out of the adjustments, affect not this class but the next class, but we’d have a full recruiting cycle, a full—you know—over a year to correct whatever misconceptions that might have been created as a result of the adjustments.”

As much as Scarborough has bemoaned the “misconceptions” by local media, he admits he anticipated “bad publicity” and hoped to get it out of the way before the new semester started up again. This is what he told 92.3 The Fan:

“The bad publicity was by design. I mean, when you come into a situation where you have a $60 million challenge, you have really two choices: I mean, you can try to say, ‘Okay, we’ll tackle this $10 million a year for the next six years,’ but universities are smart places and they figure if you only solve $10 million of a $60 million problem, there are five more shoes to drop. You can have an adverse impact on morale for a six-year period, or whatever period you try to solve it. On the other hand, if you can conceive of a way to solve that problem quickly, then you get all your bad news out at once. You take whatever hit you’re going to take but then after it’s all over you look people in the eye and you say, ‘Okay, we had a challenge, we overcame it, there’s not another shoe to drop now let’s refocus on the great things we’re working on and move forward.’ So much of what we’re experiencing in the months of July and August is by design. The goal is that by the time we get to the beginning of the academic year, it’s behind us and we’re refocused on the great vision we have for the university going forward.”

As it was presented, cutting the baseball program was one of many “necessary” and “difficult decisions” being made by the Board of Trustees to answer the $40 million (sometimes reported as $60 million) “financial challenge” ahead of the university. However, the program’s financial impact is minimal considering the money paid in by players on the team. Even without that, the $650,000 budgeted for the entire baseball program costs less than what the Board of Trustees agreed to pay Dr. Todd Rickel and Dr. Lakeesha Ransom in salary, benefits and car allowance.

In his WAKR interview, Scarborough listed his criteria for “belt-tightening”—marketing value to the university, Title IX restrictions, low attendance, the presence of the Akron RubberDucks and the cost of baseball “relative to other sports”—and said this intangible factor had an impact on their decision:

“It’s also important to keep in mind the symbolism of all of this, too, because if we were to make very difficult cuts in the academic side of the institution and would have held harmless the intercollegiate athletic program, what does that say about our priorities in terms of an institution? So there wasn’t just a substantive, real reason for needing to eliminate baseball but there was also a kind of a symbolic reason for needing to do that the same. And, in the end, I think, eh, that we made a good decision. That issue has already died down considerably. I think the institution will move forward and we’ll look forward to the first home football game against Pitt.”

Speaking of football, the university’s plan to add up to $700,000 in athletic scholarships follows new rules passed by the NCAA in January. Though a financial burden for smaller schools like UA, most programs oblige in order to remain competitive. (Kent State is a notable exception.) Much of that investment is expected to go to football. Scarborough said as much in his interview with 92.3 The Fan—”frankly we needed to make additional investments in football.”

That, it seems, is the actual reason UA’s baseball players were sent packing and their families saddled with unexpected debt.

In May, talking to The Plain Dealer, former athletic director Tom Wistrcill discussed the burden of the new Cost of Attendance scholarships being allowed by the NCAA to cover expenses beyond room, board and tuition. The money for it would have to come from somewhere, as Wistrcill explained, seemingly foreshadowing the baseball program’s demise, when he said, “Our rough estimate is $600,000. We’re still going through the budget process here. We’re going to have to make tough choices.”


Jim Meeker is still waiting to hear back from the athletic department about the money players and their families are spending because of the abrupt end of the baseball team. Last he heard from them, they were “looking into it” but he hasn’t had time to fight with the university because he and his wife want to get their son settled at a new school.

He reiterates that he understands needing to make tough choices but says his family deals with “a lot of stress every single day” all the same. Still, they’re trying to make the best of the situation.

“My son learned a very hard life lesson. You move on to the next pitch, the next out, next inning. It’s history. You move on from here.”

President Scarborough and Board of Trustees Chairman Jonathon Pavloff talk prior to the August 12 meeting. (PHOTO: Shane Wynn)
President Scarborough and Board of Trustees Chairman Jonathon Pavloff chuckle prior to the August 12 meeting. (PHOTO: Shane Wynn)

As he and his family are moving on, there is one thing that continues to bother him, the bigger picture into which the baseball program was swallowed up. If he’s hoping for a silver lining out of this situation, it might be to having some questions answered.

“To me personally,” Jim says, “what I don’t understand how you can be $60 million in the hole that he says and nobody is investigating it. The state isn’t investigating it? So is it a real number? I don’t know. If it is a real number, there should be someone asking, ‘How in the heck did you guys get $60 million in the hole?’ You have a public trust. How is the Board of Trustees allowed to keep on keeping on? How is nobody having a fit over this? That’s what I don’t get.”

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