Dropping Sports Affects More Than The Bottom Line

The announcement made by the Athletic Department at West Virginia University sent ripples across the country this week. WVU announced that they were dropping five sports, including rifle, men's tennis, men's indoor track, men's outdoor track & men's cross-country.

While budgetary constraints were the main reason cited by the university in its reasoning for eliminating the five sports, the gender makeup of the dropped sports points straight to Title IX as the real culprit in the deal. Title IX was enacted in 1972 to ensure that no individual was excluded from participation, on the basis of sex, in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

We can debate the results of Title IX until we are all blue in the face. But that isn't going to get us anywhere.

What I am here to talk about today isn't the effect that Title IX has had on men's non-revenue sports over the last 30 years, or what it caused to happen in Morgantown this past week. What I am here to write about is the effect that it has on the student-athletes who just had their athletic lives turned upside-down.

Five days later 47 West Virginia student-athletes are still sitting in shock, trying to figure out what they will do next. On paper, from the outside, some people might think it would be easy. If the person is a senior, it doesn't matter. He or she can just finish their degree, because their eligibility is gone anyway, and move on with their lives. Freshmen and sophomores will get plenty of help from the athletic department on finding a new home to continue their athletic careers, if that is what they want. Juniors will get the same assistance.

Simple, right?

Get real.

What isn't taken into consideration is the logistics that goes into moving anywhere, much less transferring schools, no matter what your class level is currently. Undoubtedly, some seniors had already made plans for grad school at WVU, with plans to continue training, and even work as assistant coaches, in the hopes of some day getting a coaching job in the high school or college ranks.

The rest of the team, underclassmen, haven't even begun to think about what they will do after they graduate.

OK, so now all they have to do is transfer, right? Sure. The only real problem with that is that the signing period ended over a month ago. Most colleges have already doled out their scholarship allotment for the coming school year. In fact, most colleges won't even try to call you at this late date, because they know they don't have a scholarship for you, and they know you are too good to come and walk-on.

How do I know all of this? I know because I lived it. And it changed my life forever.

Spring semester, 1989. As a sophomore swimmer at Marshall University, I didn't have a care in the world. I was preparing for surgery on a minor injury that had kept me out of action for most of the season, and I was ready to get started working out again. Coach Saunders was walking in to athletic director Lee Moon's office with six signed letters of intent that would take this program to the next step, and hopefully get us back to the level that men's varsity swimming had enjoyed when it won five straight Southern Conference titles in the early 80s.

The Southern Conference had a big hand in the fall of Marshall swimming, which Coach Saunders helped start in the fall of 1969. It wasn't because the SoCon started to dominate Marshall and take their recruits. It was because the SoCon eliminated swimming as a conference sport in 1982. It was the only way they could keep Marshall from winning another title.

So here was Marshall swimming, struggling to survive, when Coach Saunders pulled in two very solid recruits in 1986. The first was Tom Doyle, who was by far the best swimmer on the team, an all-around swimmer from Moscow, Indiana. The second was Collin Lo, another all around swimmer from Silver Springs, Md.

Then along comes Mr. Gleason, from South Charleston, a state that didn't even have high school swimming. I had begun my career on the local AAU team when I was seven years old. I didn't like it really. It was something for us to do, to keep my brother and I out of mom's hair for a couple of hours two or three days a week. I wasn't that good, and my brother was real good, so I really didn't like it. But I didn't have a choice.

Eventually, around my ninth grade year, I really got addicted to it. Practice every night, two 5:30 a.m. practices a week. There were more, but I was really having a hard time with the 4:45 a.m. wake-up.

I wanted to go to Kentucky. Go Big Blue. That is all I heard growing up. Both of my father's parents were from the Bluegrass State. Both went to UK. Dad went to UK, before transferring to Western Kentucky. Majored in fraternity at UK, before changing his major to accounting at Western. Both of his brothers went to UK. The list is endless.

So that is what I wanted. Only I wasn't good enough to swim for UK by the time I started looking into it. So I had to look elsewhere. So I started to think about WVU. I had a cousin who was in athletic training in Morgantown, and she loved it. I had a lot of friends up there, but I had only been up there for some football games, and had never really spent any time in the town, so I didn't know much about it. That didn't matter. I wasn't good enough to get a scholarship at WVU either.

What I did have was a connection with the Marshall coach. I was swimming for the YMCA team based out of Huntington during my senior year in high school. My coach, former WVU swimmer Bill Conrad, knew Coach Saunders, and got me in to see him a couple of times. We practiced in the Henderson Center Pool twice a week.

When I got back from YMCA nationals, I was offered a partial scholarship to swim for Marshall. I took it. Partial tuition. I thought I had hit a gold mine. I had never really considered swimming in college before my senior year. And other than looking at UK and WVU, I hadn't looked around at all. And by the end of my freshman year, I was on full tuition, and getting books to boot.

So here I sat, in the athletic director's office, three years later, with Tom and Collin, and Rick Reidel from Wheeling, who had transferred in from Pitt, with the four seniors, two freshmen, both from Florida, knowing that Coach had just signed six excellent swimmers from Ohio. We had heard the rumors. Marshall was facing a budget crunch. The athletic department was in the red, and they had to find a way to get things back in line. We knew, in the backs of our minds, that if a sport was getting cut, it was going to be swimming. A university had to sponsor six men's sports and six women's sports to remain in the Southern. Marshall sponsored 13 sports. And swimming was the only sport that wasn't a part of the SoCon.

That brings us to my one and only conversation with the fork-tongued Lee Moon. Anyone who doesn't think college athletics is a business, has never had a discussion with an ice veined athletic director, hell bent on fixing his budget.

"I know just how you feel fellas," he said, "I was a swimmer once."

"Really?" someone asked.

"Yes. I was a lifeguard at my local pool."

Needless to say, I wasn't real impressed with the effort that this man was going to try to extend to us. He described us as an uncompetitive team, while we swam the likes of Kentucky, WVU, Louisville & Pitt.

My life was changed forever. I could have kept my tuition and books and stayed at Marshall. But I had three years of eligibility left. And I wanted to swim. So did everyone else on the team. Tom transferred back home to Ball State University, a MAC school in Muncie, Indiana. Collin transferred to the University of Maryland at Baltimore County (UMBC) just outside of Baltimore.

The first thing I did was go down to the bookstore and pick up the latest copy of Swimming World magazine. The latest issue had the top twenty teams from the latest NCAA and NAIA swimming championships. And I sent out a letter to every division II and NAIA team in the top 20. What I found was 30 teams who were interested in me. And none who had a scholarship available. I also found that of those 30, 15 schools would not accept at least three classes I had taken if I were to transfer. And I found out that seven of those didn't even have an accounting major. Imagine that! But that is what happens when you start sending letters to schools based upon their national ranking, instead of their academic achievement.

I ended up transferring to Fairmont State College in Fairmont, WV. But I got no scholarship. They gave the last one to Rick. With me coming off an injury, I wasn't getting a lot of offers anyway.

My roommate was Rick Reidel, who would be attending his third school in as many years. It was a good time. We had a good team. We finished 10th at the NAIA championships, and extended FSC's streak of finishing in the top 10 to ten years. I got tuition and books for my next season.

So what does my story have to do with WVU? Nothing really. Except that there are 46 athletes right now who have had their lives turned upside-down, and the only people who aren't being talked to, or talked about, is those 46 athletes. For it is those athletes who will consider transferring to another school, or have to give up their sport. It is those athletes who have about four weeks to find another school, and maybe a 15% chance of finding a school on WVU's level who has a scholarship available. And it is those students who will have to continue to work on their classes at WVU while they are doing all this searching. It is a stress worse than any event in which they have participated. I know. I speak for experience.

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