Commitment Issues

Towson University cut some less-profitable sports for some craven, familiar reasons. But this story is bigger than Towson.
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Josh Toribio started his freshman year at Towson University as a soccer player, but eight months later, he’s just a student. This is not by choice. A March decision to cut the men’s soccer program has left Toribio and his returning Towson teammates without a place to play next season. Some may transfer in the coming months, but Toribio plans to stay at Towson, at least for another year, where he will get to keep his partial athletic scholarship.

If you don’t know Josh Toribio, your response may be somewhere on the spectrum of "So what?" and “Who cares?” Depending on your economic perspective, athletic cuts in college sports are a logical manifestation of the system. Kids are tossed off as collateral damage, potentially losing their shots at college educations and the other benefits of intercollegiate athletics, but if there isn’t enough money to go around then there isn't enough money to go around. But the Towson case is not one of these situations.

The initial recommendation to cut men’s soccer at Towson surfaced in October, a few weeks after Toribio moved to campus from New Jersey. “We were told we were going to get a decision mid-November,” Toribio said. “Then November comes and there’s no decision. After that, we’re told we’re going to be given a decision right after winter break.” But when the students returned in January, there was still no word from President Maravene Loeschke or former Athletic Director Mike Waddell, who left Towson on May 20 to become the senior associate athletic director at Arkansas. In fact, it took more than five weeks of the spring semester for those in charge to make the news official: Towson University would cut the men’s soccer and baseball programs and add men’s tennis.

The administration finally contacted coaches and players on March 8 after that prolonged silence. How they communicated the news did not inspire confidence in the athletes. “We get a text at 9am,” Toribio recalled. “The text says, “Mandatory meeting at ten. You must skip class for this.’” Most of the 62 athletes on the soccer and baseball teams arrived at Towson’s field house to find out their fates. There were cops scattered around the building. President Loeschke didn’t waste time announcing the decision.

Toribio describes her speech as perfunctory. “She spoke for maybe three to four minutes, and four is pushing it. She told us we were being discontinued immediately. Everyone’s blown, heads down, we’re done.” As Waddell stepped up to give another speech, all the players walked out of the conference. “We already got the decision. There’s nothing else he could say.”

***

In a press release from the president, the school pointed to “long-term financial stability and affordability; compliance with Federal Title IX requirements; and the ability to be competitive in NCAA Division I athletics,” as an explanation for the decision. All three reasons turned out to be misleading or false.

Not only did Towson add another men’s sport—which would counteract the Title IX defense of equal athletic opportunities for both genders—but in meetings with alumni, athletes, and parents leading up to the decision, Waddell incorrectly counted the number of women’s teams—for example, combining the women’s indoor and outdoor track teams instead of treating them as separate squads—to support the excuse.

If money was an issue, eliminating men’s soccer and baseball saves nearly $900,000 annually in the athletic budget, according to the independent task force assigned by Towson to review the case. After factoring in the cost of men’s tennis, that figure drops to about $800,000. The athletics budget totals $18.27 million, meaning the cuts represent about 4.4% of the overall funding. Claiming austerity is even stranger when you learn that Towson increased its athletic budget by more than $10 million between 2002 and 2010. So why not decrease funding equally from each sport instead of eliminating two programs entirely?

Towson seems to be justifying its decision based on the desire for athletic competitiveness, a confusing excuse considering that Towson’s basketball team is less than 18 months removed from a D-I record 41-game losing streak. Towson is not alone in this approach, though, and is in fact part of an emerging new class of would-be big-time college athletic programs that have opted to pour money into football and basketball even though their moneymaking sports haven’t succeeded historically.

“From October 'til now,” Toribio said, “it was just one huge mystery. Whenever we tried to ask Waddell a question, it wouldn’t really be answered.”

Eventually, the lack of administrative accountability reached Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who assigned $300,000 into the state’s 2014 budget to support the baseball team for another season. The governor plans to match the funding in 2015 if the baseball budget isn’t self-sufficient by then. Previously, the baseball players had covered the Towson logo on their uniforms with black tape after learning of the athletic cuts.

“I don’t think the current regime can repair the damage,” said Andrew Constant, former sports editor of the Towson Towerlight from 2010-2012. “The governor’s decision makes the president, the athletic director, and the university all look ridiculous.”

As ridiculous as it all may seem, the baseball team gets to play next year. The soccer team does not.

***

Months before there would be an official decision for Toribio and the soccer program, Sean Cunningham received a thank-you letter in the mail from Towson for contributing to the “Football Enhancement Fund.” Cunningham, who played midfield for the men’s soccer team from 2003 to 2006, never raised a dime for the football program. He and other soccer alumni had fundraised exclusively to keep their old team afloat. When the school initiated an alumni challenge for sports fundraising, former soccer players grossed more money than all other athletic alumni groups.

“I gave my money and it took away from the hard work that I did,” Cunningham said. “It felt like I was doing it for a good cause, and they just gave it to football.”

The next time Cunningham met with members of the athletic department, he brought up the problem, and Towson sent him a corrected thank-you letter. It’s conceivable that the mistake was an isolated clerical error. It's also unlikely: Cunningham served on the T Club Board of Directors, which is a social club for alumni athletes sanctioned by Towson. He was working directly on Towson’s behalf, making it doubtful that the athletic department would send him, of all donors, an accidental letter. Also worth noting: if budgetary issues were serious enough to result in major athletic cuts, how did there come to be a Football Enhancement Fund in the first place?

Cunningham remembers optimistic meetings with the administration last spring, where Waddell discussed plans for a new soccer and field hockey stadium. There would be lights, more seats, night games, and a healthier revenue stream. “Very politician-like,” Cunningham said. “[Waddell] came in and told us, ‘if you guys do well, it’s going to be hard to cut a program this active donating back.’”

Waddell’s hollow promises didn’t fool many people close to Towson athletics, but they did serve as evidence of the athletic department’s deceit. Constant, who took over the campus newspaper’s sports section a month before Waddell was hired, added, “We quickly found out what he was doing was a big front. He wanted to come off well to the public. He’d basically say anything that would make him look good.”

After the excuses piled up, Cunningham decided to write an op-ed in the Baltimore Sunoutlining the “shady” process that had unfolded. Towson has stuck to bureaucratic defenses rather than address any specific criticisms, even as Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot called for President Loeschke’s resignation at a show trial last month. Loeschke chose not to attend.

The administration’s defiant response hasn’t changed, and regardless of how many critical articles pop up in the pages of the Sun, it appears that Loeschke and Waddell won’t have to answer for much. The Towson Athletic Department has chewed up and spit out people like Toribio and Cunningham. But the news cycle is waiting for the next story, and soon, nobody will talk about the neglected players and the forgotten money except for those who were personally affected.

“People need to know the types of things going on over there, “ Cunningham said. “I’ll never go to another sporting event. I’ll never donate to that school. I won’t let my kids attend there. I’ll have no affiliation with the school whatsoever.”

***

With these types of stories come questions about institutional oversight. Where did the money go? Who will be fired? How will the athletic cuts impact future recruiting? But really, whether Towson administrators want to acknowledge it or not, their decisions play into a larger economic narrative relating to college sports. It's a two-parter: what are student-athletes worth, and should they be paid for the value they create?

For all the NCAA's intransigence, the answer to the question of paying athletes seems to be moving more toward "when" than "if." So, when ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas appeared on The Charlie Rose show and said, “I think the free-market—which works pretty well for the rest of us, and very orderly—would work just fine for [college] athletes,” we nodded in agreement. One month later, Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock echoed the idea, writing: “The excuse-makers will throw up a thousand reasons why you can’t pay the kids…How do you pay the wrestlers and volleyball players?...It’s all bull(spit). This is America. We pay people who generate revenue. That’s capitalism. Wrestlers and volleyball players don’t generate revenue.” Both opinions are rational and justified. They’re also unrealistic.

It's easy to make the counter-argument that, no, the free-market does not necessarily work well for the rest of us. And capitalism is most orderly—and perhaps only orderly—for those with the power to make decisions. To the athletes, those decisions naturally seem less rational and more exploitive. The NCAA is in power. Mike Waddell is in power. Maravene Loeschke is in power. The athletes, who are both the labor and the product in this strange economy, are not.

In theory, if schools could pay certain players a fair wage—and fair, meaning what exactly?—there would be a more balanced power dynamic in college sports. But, judging by recent evidence at Rutgers, Penn State, Auburn, Oregon, Iowa State, USC, Memphis, et al., fairness butts heads with the NCAA’s moneymaking mission and the sort of perverse and widespread institutional tendency towards gold-plating that Patrick Hruby has written about extensively at Sports On Earth. The question of whether athletes should or shouldn't be paid is a complicated one—those salaries must come from somewhere, and be calculated somehow. The question of paying athletes in revenue-generating sports does little to address the future of overlooked sports. And if or when the time comes to pay football and basketball players, axing athletic teams that don’t earn revenue will be an easy way to balance the budget.

So, what happens to the wrestlers and volleyball players? What happens to the soccer players? Forget about paying them to play. Will they even get to play at all?

***

Yes, this is America, land of the free market, but that's not the end of the story. That market needs managing—regulations and regulators, rules and laws— and who says we have to treat college athletics as a private business anyway?

If privatization is the approach explicitly or implicitly agreed upon, if college athletics must mirror the harshness of the free market, then we ought to be ready for what's coming. Whitlock, one week before arguing for players to be paid, wrote a column about the Mike Rice firing at Rutgers: “There should be no surprise that all-powerful institutions in pursuit of dollars would tolerate the abuse of young people.” Unleashing the free-market on college sports might give some student-athletes fatter wallets, but it would also centralize NCAA power in an even more exclusive club of rich football and basketball programs. What’s stopping that abuse from increasing?

We should prepare for all schools to trim smaller, lower-profile programs if that system ever takes hold. After all, if the only goal is revenue, what need would colleges ever have for wrestling or volleyball or soccer or tennis or even baseball? If the bottom line must be the ultimate bottom line, then the costs attached to those programs become an insurmountable argument against them.

I should admit that if it weren’t for personal connections to Towson University, I wouldn’t be this invested. Toribio and my brother are best friends from high school, and every few weeks, my brother would text me the latest updates about the soccer team’s issues. Constant and I are friends from high school and our school newspaper, and because of that, my social media feeds contained links to articles about the misdeeds of the athletic department. This was not abstract to me.

But it's not really abstract to any of us, or to the future of college sports. Many of us probably knew or know a college athlete who doesn’t play football in the SEC or basketball in the ACC. The precedent Towson sets with these cuts could impact many college athletes moving forward. I didn’t go to Towson, but I care about the implications these decisions can have on the future of college sports. If you like college sports other than football and basketball, you probably should, too.


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