Minnesota football fans will look with rapt attention today to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where the Gophers and Badgers will meet in their COVID-postponed struggle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Some who wear the University of Minnesota's maroon and gold won't share in the enthusiasm, however. Members of the men's gymnastics, tennis and indoor track and field teams can be forgiven if the spectacle leaves them feeling a bit bleak.
Those three teams were given their eviction notices from the U this fall. The stated reasons are unconvincing, despite the undeniable deficit that looms over the U's athletics department. In his comments explaining the decision to drop the three programs, Athletic Director Mark Coyle was clear on one thing: Such cuts are "heartbreaking."
"We fully recognize this decision caused a lot of pain," he said in October. "We are in uncharted waters with this pandemic. It's difficult. It's a hard day for a lot of our student-athletes, our staff, et cetera."
Coyle's effort to explain the cuts as collateral damage of the COVID-19 pandemic left, at best, a vague impression of cause and effect. The athletic department is facing a huge deficit, but not for having spent lavishly on those three sports. The excised programs will save a drop of about $1.6 million from a revenue bucket most recently estimated to be down at least $45 million — a better scenario than the U faced when it projected a $75 million shortfall when the cuts were announced.
The pandemic has cost the U boatloads of money in broadcast revenue and ticket sales. But that does not justify walking away from the school's commitment to a relative handful of student athletes (whose scholarships, thankfully, will continue). The affected athletes compete in sports that do not generate much revenue — but how much should money figure into a university's pursuit of excellence?
The Star Tribune Editorial Board first commented on the cuts in October. The board is weighing in again because Coyle missed an opportunity to provide a more convincing explanation this month when his department became the focus of a report on the CBS News program "60 Minutes." The program prominently featured the U as one of the schools where a pro-football mind-set was shortchanging sports that earn less revenue. Interviewed on the program, standout gymnast Shane Wiskus acknowledged that football pays the bills, but he followed up with a poignant criticism of the U.
"I respect the football team and what [coach] P.J. Fleck has done for them," he said. "But their hard work is not any more important than our hard work."
Rather than appear on camera, Coyle offered a statement that repeated his broken-heart theme: "The University of Minnesota believes that the changes it has made, however heartbreaking, will best position its department of athletics for sustainable, long-term success."
Coyle and his boss, U President Joan Gabel, have also cited the gender-equity requirements of Title IX as one of the factors that contributed to the cuts. It's true that a massive football program like Minnesota's makes gender equity complicated, especially now that women on campus outnumber men.
Even so, it is a perverse application of Title IX's principles to seek equity by reducing the number of opportunities available. There is no reason to treat campus athletics as a zero-sum game. The goal should be not fewer opportunities for men, but more for women.
Reached Friday, a university spokesman said the cuts were part of a larger cost-cutting effort across the department, including salary cuts and layoffs. He also said the financial impact of COVID-19 is not a short-term budget problem but will affect the department for decades. And he again mentioned Title IX concerns.
Nevertheless, the most persuasive voice in this story is that of the gymnast, Wiskus. With or without the U, he's going places — most likely to the 2021 Olympic Games in Japan. Let's hope that audiences who hear his story will think of Minnesota as a springboard instead of a stumbling block.