Sports Controversy Series: Stanford’s cut sports programs spark protests, fundraising and questions

Caitlyn Dieckmann 

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     In July 2020, Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Director of Athletics Bernard Muir penned a letter to the Stanford community and the rest of the nation’s collegiate sports’ interested parties about intentions to cut several varsity sports, including their wrestling program.   

     This news came as a shock to many, including numerous athletes across the nation and within the Stanford wrestling team, who were not even notified of this decision before news broke to the wider community, according to ESPN.  

     This decision continues to raise questions, especially after an incredibly successful wrestling season this past year and extreme efforts to raise money for the program. It brings to light the reality that all collegiate athletes must face: Students are completely at the mercy of the decisions that university administrators make, including not just Division I schools, but also Division II schools like UCCS and Division III schools. 

     In the open letter, Stanford said the decision came down to “finances and competitive excellence.”  

     “After careful analysis, we concluded there was no realistic path to ensuring that they have all of the resources needed to compete at the highest level without hindering our ability to support our other 25 varsity sports,” the administration said in the letter.  

     In an attempt to save wrestling and the other sports set to be cut at Stanford, several alumni, including former NFL Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck, came together. They called themselves 36 Sports Strong and raised more than $50 million to help sustain the sports.  

     The alumni group’s investigation into the Stanford Athletic Program’s financial issues showed, according to the Department of Education, that cutting the 11 sports only saved the program 3% of their annual budget.  

     Jeremy Jacobs, a former Stanford volleyball player, said the decision to cut these programs had no real financial justification, something proven true after alumni raised the $50 million.  

     As for the school’s claim in the lack of competitive excellence, the school said the 11 programs brought “20 national championships, 27 Olympic medals, and an untold number of academic and professional achievements,” which was acknowledged in the open letter.  

     In March, Stanford’s 165-pounder Shane Griffith won the NCAA wrestling championships, sparking a roar in the crowd chanting, “Keep Stanford Wrestling.” The wrestler also dressed in all black in protest of the school’s decision.  

     Griffith, in an interview with ESPN captured by NCAA championships network, said he did not plan to wrestle for Stanford this season given the school’s recent decisions but stayed motivated with the help of his coaches and family. “I want to make this nationally known. We have young guys staying and fighting the battle,” Griffith said.  

     Seven of the 10 starters on the team also qualified for the NCAA tournament. Stanford finished with two All-American selections, as well as a team win in the PAC-12 championship, proving an extremely successful and competitively excellent season.  

     The “Keep Stanford Wrestling” movement also raised an additional $12.5 million to support the program.  

     Despite numerous pleas and national attention, the school still refuses to discuss the decision. Several student athletes who committed themselves to excellent programs in hopes of obtaining a highly regarded education now must face the reality of transferring to continue the sport they have dedicated their lives to or stay for the education they deserve but give up their sport.  

     The investigation conducted by alumni uncovered that the university would save a small percentage of funds in exchange for putting out nearly one third of their student athletes. This raises stark questions about Stanford and other universities’ athletic programs.  

     What will universities do to save a quick buck? This is especially harmful if it means ruining young athletes’ chances at joining U.S. Olympic teams, which Stanford is notable for sending their athletes to. 

     On April 26, a 36 Sports Strong rally at Stanford took place, ending in graffiti and other protests along Building 10, home of the office of Tessier-Lavigne.  

     The rally was planned after the Stanford Board of Trustees’ announcement to hold a meeting to discuss the 11 cut programs, in response to a 36 Sports Strong petition sent in April, demanding “a runway for the 11 sports to self-endow their programs in perpetuity and build a model for other sports and other schools to fix the broken NCAA financial model.” 

     The meeting and its outcome have yet to be made public.  

Photo courtesy of 36 Sports Strong.