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Over the past decade and across the country, men’s collegiate running programs have begun to disappear. In that span, more than 40 colleges and universities have killed off either part or all of their men’s cross-country and indoor and outdoor track outfits. With rare exception, they have done so quietly, utilizing last-minute, just-before-the-weekend announcements, often made when school is out of session.
“The administration told me three days before,” says John Moon, the legendary Seton Hall running coach whose men’s track and field team was terminated in 2010. “Three stinkin’ days. It was classless.”
“Our athletic director called the decision ‘restructuring,’” says Roger Erricker, coach at Towson University, which lost all three men’s programs in 2004. “Restructuring is when you shuffle things around. The proper term here was ‘killing.’”
In November, Temple University axed seven athletic programs, including men’s indoor and outdoor track and field. In a press release, the school noted “the rising costs of doing business in intercollegiate athletics” — while leaving its football program untouched. Inthe summer of 2012, the University of Maryland killed off most of its men’s running programs, and shortly thereafter the University of Richmond ended programs in both men’s indoor and outdoor track and field. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Coastal Carolina University also recently ceased to exist in both men’s cross-country and track and field.
Some schools, like Seton Hall and James Madison, have cited fiscal concerns. And, indeed, many colleges and universities are struggling through a rough economic period that produces fewer donations and declining enrollments. Moody’s recently downgraded the ratings of 22 American colleges and universities and put a “negative outlook” on the entire higher education system. Athletic directors (like all administrators) are faced with demands to reduce costs by any means necessary — “without touching football or men’s basketball,” says Towson’s Erricker. “Those can never be touched.”
Schools, therefore, have taken to using Title IX, the federal statute banning sex discrimination in education programs, as a rationale for cutting running and other low-profile men’s sports. The schools say that while they’d love to maintain men’s running, the NCAA and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which monitors Title IX, insist that universities offer athletic opportunities proportionate to the male-female breakdown of the student body. But that explanation, according to coaches and students, is often an excuse.
When Title IX first became law on June 23, 1972, its wording suggested a basic — and seemingly obvious — ideal: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Under the current law, schools can demonstrate athletic compliance with Title IX by meeting any one of three prongs: providing participation opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the student enrollment; demonstrating a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex; and accommodating the interest and ability of the underrepresented sex.
A university, then, can comply by continuing to expand women’s sports opportunities over the years (which of course schools are reluctant to do because it costs more money). More important, the school can make its case to the NCAA that it is meeting the athletic needs of female students.
“Title IX isn’t the issue,” says Jim Fischer, longtime men’s running coach at the University of Delaware, who lost his job in 2011 when the school cut its men’s outdoor track and field and cross-country after 100 years of hosting the sport. “I think the real issues are money and, sometimes, greed.”
That is, more or less, the way things went at James Madison University and Towson University and Ohio University, at Bowling Green and Drexel. With minimal mess, fuss or fanfare, men’s running — a sport that draws few spectators and earns nary a dime for most schools — disappeared. “The administrations bank on time moving on quickly after these decisions are made,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Ithaca College and co-author of “College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA’s Amateur Myth.” “They have a migratory student body, so if they ride out the issue a bit, things will almost certainly dissipate. In other words, they count on students’ being distracted by other things and eventually losing interest.” Schools that have ended men’s running have — without fail — left their football and men’s basketball programs untouched. That’s somewhat ironic, in that football programs don’t seem to be as profitable as many believe. According to a recent Runner’s World report: “Only 23 Division I athletic departments out of 340 ended in the black in 2012. Nearly all of the ones that do make money compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but the FBS, in fact, has the biggest losers of them all: Last year, it had 53 unprofitable football teams, and the median one flushed away $3.4 million.”
“Football and basketball, though, are the glory sports,” says Moon. “They’re the attention getters, the spotlight sports. How can running compete with that? We don’t bring in revenue. We just bring in great student athletes to the college setting.”
Football and men’s basketball draw television coverage and large crowds; they result in T-shirt and jersey sales and licensing deals. Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s longtime basketball coach, has a $400,000-per-year endorsement deal with Nike. UCLA's million-dollar contract with Adidas includes a stipulation that the shoe company be given advertising space on the auxiliary scoreboard inside the university’s famed basketball arena, Pauley Pavilion. The University of Oklahoma is paid millions by Nike — there’s even the company’s swoosh logo on the football team's equipment truck. Running, meanwhile, exists on the periphery of college athletics.
Back in 2008, three years before Delaware cut outdoor track and field and cross-country, it ended its men’s indoor track and field program. Edgar Johnson, at the time the school’s athletic director (and its former cross-country coach), glumly told coach Fischer that, because of the Title IX stipulation that athletic opportunities provided to men and women must equal the percentage of the university’s total enrollment (Delaware’s student body is 57 percent female), the sport had to go. With rumors swirling that the demise of indoor track would lead to greater cuts, Johnson, who would retire at year’s end, promoted Fischer from coach to head of the university’s entire running program. “Edgar told me it was to protect me,” says Fischer. “So if they ever drop the entire men’s program, I’d be able to slide over to the women.” Johnson’s compassion served to ease the anger.
Runners were justifiably upset by the loss of a season, yet also seemed to appreciate the olive branch toward their coach.
That didn’t last.
One January afternoon three years later, Fischer was called into a meeting with then–athletic director Bernard Muir and told that the University of Delaware would no longer host varsity track and field or cross-country. Before he left, one final request was made of the coach, he says: Please don’t tell anyone about the decision. “They wanted to do it on their terms,” Fischer says. “I went along with that. Maybe, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have.”
On the morning of Jan. 19, 2011, members of Delaware’s men’s cross-country and track and field teams woke up to an email in their inboxes. It was written by Muir, and explained — in no uncertain terms — that men’s running was being eliminated.
“I was sleeping, because the day before was my birthday, so I’d gone out pretty late,” says Corey Wall, a Delaware runner at the time. “Well, my roommates are all runners, and they started screaming, ‘Corey, wake up! Corey, wake the hell up!’”
As Wall and his teammates read Muir’s letter, three primary questions emerged. First, why, in the midst of a $22 million addition to its student-athlete center (as well as a $2.8 million fundraising effort in 2010), was the athletic department picking on a program that cost less than $200,000? Second, why had Muir instructed soon-to-be-ex-athletes not to talk to the press? Third, why was this done via email? “I’ve had a lot of mad moments in my life,” says Nick Pyle, then a distance runner for the Blue Hens. “But I’ve probably never been more furious than while reading that email. I was livid.”
Later that day, dozens of runners — men and women — packed the conference room in the Bob Carpenter Center. Muir stood in front, trying to convey sympathy but appearing, many runners recall, nervous and uncomfortable. In the course of the one-hour session, he apologized for any hurt feelings, offered support to any athletes who wanted to transfer and promised, to audible moans, that running would continue to exist as a club sport — meaning it would no longer participate in NCAA Division I.
One month later, Muir agreed to hold another meeting. This time, attendees included runners, parents, various high school coaches and alumni. Muir tried again to explain the decision. He cited financial considerations. He cited other schools in the Colonial Athletic Conference that had also ended their men’s running programs. Then he cited Title IX — the university’s primary rationale for making the move.
But within the previous decade, the Office for Civil Rights had never investigated, cited or punished the University of Delaware for violating Title IX. Furthermore, in 1998–99 Delaware added women’s crew, and at the end of 2010 it added women’s golf — both clear nods toward meeting prong two of the statute, expanding athletic opportunities for women. What seems to have complicated Muir’s assertion of Title IX as a reason for ending men’s running was the presence of a university lawyer at the meeting, who said — seemingly by accident — that Delaware was in complete compliance with Title IX.
“Bernard didn’t know what to do with himself when that was said,” says Pyle, an attendee. “He’d been telling us he needed to do this for Title IX’s sake, and all of a sudden — after the lawyer contradicted what he said — Bernard changed the subject to financial concerns. Meanwhile, they’re spending millions on improving the facilities. It would have been funny if we weren’t all so livid.”
The meeting had been scheduled for an hour. According to Fischer, after 45 minutes Muir insisted there was nothing left to discuss and excused himself — to watch the men’s basketball team.
In 2011, members of the men’s running team filed their own complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging that Delaware was discriminating against its male athletes. The office said initially that it would look into the case but did not hear it.
Muir has since left Delaware and is now the athletic director at Stanford. He did not return requests for comment.
In 2011, David Brond, vice president for communications and marketing, defended the decision (the university says it has no further comment):
“The UD Athletics program is broad in scope compared to our league peers,” Brond said. “With so many teams and the rising costs necessary to operate an intercollegiate athletics program of this magnitude, we were simply faced with a challenge to uphold our commitment to gender equity. While this was a difficult decision, this action demonstrates the University’s commitment to the equity principles embodied in Title IX.”
For Delaware students, a question lingered: What about Jim Fischer?
Fischer had joined the University of Delaware in 1982. Over the ensuing 29 years, he became a beloved figure at the school. (Writer’s note: I spent the 1990–91 season as a member of the Blue Hens cross-country and indoor track and field team. Fischer was my coach.) Although the Blue Hens enjoyed solid success under his watch, winning five conference titles, for Fischer it was never really about that. He was the rare coach who cared far more about personal improvement than wins and losses. Until the early 1990s, the track and cross-country rosters could hold as many participants as Fischer felt fit. He refused to cut anyone.
Were he coaching football or basketball — the revenue-earning programs at Delaware — this philosophy likely wouldn’t have flown. “But I never felt pressure to increase productivity,” he says. “The thing we always stressed was being competitive and representing the university righteously. That’s what it was all about.”
Muir eventually tried appeasing angry students and parents by saying that Fischer wasn’t being fired — merely “reassigned.” But once the programs came to an end, so did Fischer’s tenure as a Blue Hen. He has struggled since to find work, and recently landed a job starting a running program at Delaware Technical College. He makes less than one-fourth of his old salary.
“It’s been hard,” he says. “Not just for me. For college running.”