Obsa Ali describes himself as a walking example of the tremendous good University of Minnesota athletics programs do for so many students. Raised in Minneapolis by his Ethiopian immigrant family, Ali says his track and field scholarship to the U "was everything'' to him. The collegiate steeplechase champion and 2019 U graduate told an editorial writer the sports program provided the support he needed to get a degree and become a role model for other students of color.
Student athletes like Ali are among the reasons the University Board of Regents should delay and reconsider the administration's proposal to eliminate three men's sports programs. Regents are meeting Thursday and Friday and are expected to vote on the plan to do away with men's gymnastics, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field and tennis. They should put off the decision to allow more time for the financial prospects of the athletics programs over the next year to become clearer.
In September, U President Joan Gabel and athletic director Mark Coyle said that due to COVID-related reductions in sports revenue, the athletic department is $75 million in debt. The losses come from declines in major revenue streams — from television deals to concessions to cancellation of NCAA tournaments.
The administrators said that less money coming into the revenue sports of football and basketball, combined with Title IX requirements for equity in men's and women's sports, means that the three men's programs were no longer sustainable — even though ending the sports would bring only minimal savings. A recent news report revealed that in addition to cutting the men's programs, the women's athlete rosters would be reduced by 41 spots.
But a group of former students and program supporters rightly question whether ending programs altogether is the right decision. In just over a week, Save Gopher Track and Field has raised about $1.5 million over five years to help save that program. They believe more contributions could be secured to save nonrevenue sports.
The supporters also point out that track and field offers opportunities for significant numbers of Black student athletes and others of color to attend the U and that their ranks would shrink if the program were eliminated. Dropping the sports thus would have a negative impact on the U's stated mission to promote diversity and inclusion, and could set an example for other large colleges that might also withdraw opportunities for students.
The U's $123 million athletics budget is eighth largest in the Big Ten, and it supports the fourth largest number of sponsored sports, 25.
Bill Smith, a retired 3M employee, U alum and track and field donor, said the U programs have produced more than their share of Olympic athletes and that opportunities to train even more shouldn't be taken away.
"Do we really have to make this decision right now?" he asked. "Or can it be pushed forward until we can tell what happens now that there will be at least partial seasons for some sports?''
U Regents should take additional time to evaluate the good reasons to retain the athletics programs — even if it means some programs will have smaller rosters. Going forward, athletes like Ali should continue to have opportunities to get a good education and pursue athletic goals.