What’s Next: ‘It’s all a chess game’ as small colleges weigh cuts to sports

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Budget cuts brought on by the pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown are expected to touch every corner of campus. Athletics — an arm of the institution that carries special weight even at the smallest four-year schools — is unlikely to escape them.

Already, colleges of all sizes are cutting programs, and higher ed experts say even those that survive the austerity could be left with fewer funds. But lobbing off entire teams has different implications for small schools that rely on varsity athletics for a sizable chunk of enrollment and to round out the campus experience.

“As we trace the impact of the decisions through the system, there needs to be a consciousness around whether or not cuts will help balance athletic department budgets and whether or not cuts are going to negatively impact the core of the institution,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University. “This is a very complicated terrain,” she added.

One in six students at Division III schools are student-athletes, according to NCAA data. That’s compared to one in 10 students at Division II schools at one in 23 at Division I institutions.

Susan Bassett, director of intercollegiate athletics and recreational sports at Ithaca College, said the institution is “miles and miles away” from cutting any sports programs. That’s in part because of ongoing cost-containment and restructuring efforts across the institution, such as retirement incentives, that are helping manage expenses. 

She’s also the president of the Liberty League, a Division III athletics conference whose members are located in New York state. The league is considering measures to help its schools reduce expenses in light of the pandemic, including travel restrictions and a lower membership fee, Bassett said.

Smaller colleges may be more inclined to save sports because they are part of the university’s enrollment strategy. Ithaca fields between 750 and 800 student-athletes each year and enrolls 6,200 undergraduates in all.

“We feel like … our programs meet the needs and interests of our community and contribute very favorably to our enrollment, to our engagement, campus spirit and student activities,” Bassett said.

Nearly 100 teams cut

But small colleges aren’t immune to athletics cuts. St. Edward’s University, a Division II school in Texas that enrolls around 3,680 undergraduates, is eliminating six programs. Notre Dame de Namur University, in California, announced it will no longer offer sports. The cuts come as the university announced it would not enroll new undergraduate students for the summer or fall terms and is helping those among its 1,360 students continue their studies elsewhere if they won’t graduate by spring 2021. Just over half of those students are undergraduates.

In all, nearly 100 teams have been eliminated during the pandemic as of late May, though nearly half were from three schools that closed partly because of financial pressures from the crisis, according to a count by The Associated Press. Eighty-percent of all cuts happened in Division II and III and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which focuses on small colleges.

Smaller schools that need to reduce athletics expenses but don’t want to cut entire programs recently got some help from the NCAA. The association’s presidents councils for Divisions II and III each voted to lower the minimum number of competitions for the academic year by 33%. For example, that would take football from seven games to five and men’s and women’s cross country from five races to three, according to the NCAA. The minimums are for sports sponsorship and championship selection.

The NCAA cited its members’ financial woes and the need for flexibility around reopening timelines among its reasons for the changes. The Division II council also voted to lower the maximum number of competitions depending on the sport.

In addition to having fewer competitions, teams could reduce expenses by canceling or scaling back how often they compete out of town, experts say. Increasing the travel radius for which overnight stays are not permitted may also help.

‘It’s all a chess game’

Some departments are still waiting on their institutions to set a budget for the upcoming year. That process may be delayed, as many schools extended the deadline for students to accept admissions offers past the traditional cutoff date of May 1.

If sports pick back up in the fall, teams will likely be subject to coronavirus testing and contact-tracing measures. NCAA guidance for resuming athletics says “universal access to testing is strongly preferred,” and it prompts departments to work with their schools and local health departments to trace who infected students may have come into contact with. But testing is expected to be costly and access to those supplies is not widespread.

Still, programs can be hard to bring back once they are eliminated, said David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president of an advocacy group for academic integrity in college athletics. Division I conferences pressed the NCAA in April to let them temporarily offer fewer sports than they are required. The NCAA declined but said schools could ask for waivers on an individual basis. 

“What I’ve told people over the past couple weeks was if these sports go, they are never coming back,” Ridpath said. “Temporary was just a nice way to couch it.”

John Thelin, a professor of the history of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky, agrees. Reviving sports programs would be a challenge, he said, though the decision of what to cut and how depends on the institution’s priorities.

“It’s all a chess game,” he said.

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