by Kyle Cochrun
On May 14, University of Akron Athletic Director Larry Williams issued a press release detailing a proposed $4.4 million in budget cuts from the college’s athletic department. A separate press release from Akron Athletics stated that the cuts are “being taken as part of the University’s overall redesign to emerge from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that financially stabilizes the institution.”
Editor’s note: The date in the above paragraph was incorrect when this story was published. It was corrected on July 5.
As a former member of Akron’s cross-country team, I was saddened and more than a little surprised to read that one of three sports the university planned to eliminate altogether is men’s cross-country. (The other two are men’s golf and women’s tennis.)
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In the subsequent months, athletes, alumni, coaching staff, donors and other community members have fought to reinstate the program, recently culminating in the website SaveAkronXC.com and the announcement from my former teammate, 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy, that he will “no longer allow the university to use [his] image and likeness for marketing or as a promotional asset.” In the same post, Murphy claimed that his conversations about the decision with Williams and UA president Gary Miller were, “to be blunt, pointless,” and that “neither would discuss one detail about the analysis they say led to the cut of men’s cross country and the drastic cuts to track and field.”
Murphy’s disappointment in the university’s reluctance to offer details about the decision is merited. Since the cuts were announced, alumni and other supporters have pledged more than $80,000. This is enough to fund the program for a decade — last year, the team’s expenses totaled $7,900.
On June 19, several members of the UA track and field program emailed Williams, asking for “sound reasoning and justification for [his] decision to cut the team” and “strong justification for why the team can not be reinstated, especially as we have enough pledged donations to continue the program for 10 years.”
Williams responded on June 23, stressing that cuts were made across the entirety of the athletics department. He asked the athletes to “take some time to reflect on the situation and be able to come to terms with it.” He did not acknowledge the $80,000 in pledges raised by alumni, skirting this detail while insisting that the decision to cut the cross-country team was part of “the incredibly daunting task of reducing [the university’s] annual expenditures by at least $65 million.”
Recently, within weeks of Bowling Green State University announcing their decision to cut their baseball program, alumni and donors raised S1.5 million, meeting the program’s requisite funding of $500,000 per year through 2023. The reinstatement has been celebrated by the press, and BGSU is relieved of the team’s financial burden.
The same could happen with UA’s cross-country program. The decision would be a victory for the athletic department, proof that the alumni care enough to keep the program alive. This would also save the department from community backlash. Reinstatement changes this from a story about jaded athletes and alumni to a story about bringing together a community to save an institution everyone has invested in and cares for. The press would be uniformly positive, even redemptive. The expenses would be accounted for. It’s a win-win.
Economic analysis suggests the team is a net financial benefit to UA
To combat the claim that cutting the team will ultimately save money, UA cross-country alumnus JT Olson linked up with economist Andy Schwarz to put together a preliminary economic analysis of the financial benefit the cross-country team provides the university.
The analysis estimates that the cross-country program generates $198,121 per year for the University of Akron. To reach this number, they considered the team’s sources of revenue, including tuition, room and board and books for 15 students, as well as state credits granted to the college for courses and degrees and estimated NCAA distribution profits. They also reviewed the team’s costs, which include operating expenses and the cost of educating, housing and feeding those 15 students.
The cost of uniforms, equipment and training facilities were not factored into this calculation, since these expenses come from the track and field budget. The team wears their track uniforms and apparel to cross-country meets and uses the track team facilities and equipment. Head cross-country coach Lee Labadie’s salary is also part of the track and field budget, as are scholarships.
(For further details, you can download the preliminary economic analysis here.)
Cutting the cross-country program will not save the university money awarded through scholarships. Currently, the UA track and field program allocates the equivalent of 1.2 full scholarships between four cross-country runners. The scholarships provided to these runners come out of the track and field budget and are largely based on each athlete’s performance during the indoor and outdoor track seasons or, for incoming freshmen, their projected success on the track. If the four cross-country runners receiving scholarship money were to quit the track team, this money would be distributed to other track and field athletes. No matter what, it gets spent on someone.
Despite the pledges and the math refuting the cost-cutting argument, Williams stood by his decision, claiming that reinstating the cross-country team would keep the university from complying with Title IX. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
UA has made impressive progress toward meeting Title IX goals
Title IX requires universities to give men and women “equitable opportunities to participate in sports.” This does not mean that universities have to offer identical sports — football, for example, is only available to men — but that each university in the NCAA must “provide participation opportunities for women and men that are substantially proportionate to their respective rates of enrollment of full-time undergraduate students.” Basically, if 56% of a university’s full-time undergraduate students are women, then 56% of the university’s intercollegiate athletes should be women.
It’s a little more complicated than this. Men’s and women’s cross-country runners count as having three participation opportunities, since they compete during the cross-country season as well as the indoor and outdoor track seasons. This means that, in my simplified version above, each runner would count as three athletes. Similarly, if a football player runs track in the spring, he’s counted twice.
Universities implement “roster management” in order to work toward the NCAA’s substantial proportionality. For many Division I schools, roster management involves limiting the number of roster spots on men’s teams while encouraging women’s teams to increase their roster sizes. In some cases, this may entail a men’s team turning down walk-on athletes or eliminating roster spots.
Perfect proportionality is nearly impossible to reach. And it’s worth noting that there is no required ratio that keeps teams in or out of compliance — the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reviews the percentages and makes a judgement only when considering a case. However, the University of Akron has done well over the past five years, keeping the difference between the percentage of men’s and women’s competitive opportunities at an average of 1.6%. The average difference for the past decade was 3.95%.
For an athletic program of Akron’s size, the university has done an impressive job working towards substantial proportionality over the last half of the 2010s. The difference is still trending downwards, and Olson and Schwarz projected that this will continue whether or not the university slashes men’s cross-country. After eliminating the rosters of men’s golf and women’s tennis, and factoring in the men’s cross-country roster, they found that if the university reinstates cross-country, the difference would still continue to shrink, to 1.52%.
If the University of Akron reinstates cross-country, they will regain a sport that will be self-funded for the next decade while also maintaining progress toward substantial proportionality between men’s and women’s competitive opportunities. This can only be a positive for the university.
Cutting cross-country will impact the track and field program, too
Another major issue with cutting the cross-country team is that this will negatively impact the men’s track team, since the two sports are entwined. All cross-country runners compete in indoor track during the winter and outdoor track during the spring. Without a cross-country team, runners will transfer schools, and the number and quality of recruits will surely drop, diminishing the track team’s group of long- and middle-distance runners.
It takes a deep roster to win a men’s track and field championship in the relatively small Mid-American Conference (five teams for indoor track, six for outdoor). Eliminating cross-country will inevitably lead to transfers, as well as a drop-off in the quality and number of recruits.
The men’s track and field team is arguably the university’s most successful athletic program besides men’s soccer. The team has won six outdoor track conference titles since 2010, with the distance team providing an average of 29.5 points. If you eliminate these points, the team wins only one of these championships. Eastern Michigan’s distance team is consistently strong, and my prediction is that if UA can’t mitigate their scoring in distance events, EMU will dominate the conference in indoor and outdoor track for years to come. The University of Akron’s track and field program of top-tier Division I talent will be handicapped by a distance group saddled with the equivalent of a Division II or III talent pool.
At the risk of hampering this piece with pathos, it’s worth mentioning that the data can’t account for the memories and friendships and professional connections and life lessons that come with running cross-country or competing in any Division I college sport. This feels trite to even mention here, though these are sentiments universities use to sell sports teams to prospective recruits and, on a larger scale, to sell the experience of attending college to all prospective students. These benefits are considered intangible and priceless until, in a situation like this, they’re deemed worthless.
I understand that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have parched the already strapped university to the point where budget cuts must be made. I do not want to condemn my alma mater for making tough decisions that are necessary.
But I do question the necessity of the college’s decision to cut its cross-country team. Williams has neglected to offer evidence for the necessity of this cut to athletes who have asked him to show his work. He has done this despite more than $80,000 in donation pledges, a preliminary economic analysis of the team’s financial benefit to the university and data refuting the claim that this is a Title IX issue. I reached out to Williams to request an interview while writing this piece, and his office has not returned my phone call as of press time.
For those who care as much as I do, this lack of transparency is both disappointing and insulting — not to mention unflattering for the public image of a university in need of alumni donations. Williams’ statement that these cuts were “important and necessary” and will help “realign University resources to ensure that we continue to invest in high-demand, high-quality academic programs and world-class facilities” will ultimately ring hollow unless he is willing to explain how.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio. He is a former member of the University of Akron Men’s Cross-Country program. Contact him at email@example.com.
Photos: Used with permission from Kyle Cochrun.