For the past three weeks, Tate Sweeney has been part of the effort to save three men’s sports at the University of Minnesota. Once she took a closer look at the plan to eliminate them, the Gophers women’s cross-country captain realized the downsizing wouldn’t end there.
A quick calculation showed Sweeney women’s rosters would have to be trimmed, too.
This week, a Gophers official confirmed to the Star Tribune that the U plans to have 98 fewer athletes on its nonrevenue teams next school year. That means 41 previously unreported women’s athlete cuts, in addition to 57 men cut by the elimination of men’s track and field, tennis and gymnastics.
“We’re not going to let it go down without a fight,” Sweeney said. “It feels like we’re objects rather than people.”
Beyond terminating those three men’s programs, pending Board of Regents approval, the Gophers project smaller rosters for eight women’s and two men’s teams, according to data obtained by the Star Tribune from the athletic department. Six men’s teams and one women’s team are predicted to add to their rosters.
Sweeney’s women’s cross-country team, for example, is projected to have 20 athletes next fall, down from 34. The Gophers women’s rowing team will lose 15 athletes, according to the projections.
The Star Tribune has been requesting an interview with athletic director Mark Coyle for this story since Monday, but he has not been available for comment. He announced the men’s sports cuts Sept. 10, citing financial and Title IX concerns.
The U is projecting major revenue losses because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is looking to save money in many ways. The school also needed to bring the gender balance of Gophers athletes into alignment with the student body. The current undergraduate enrollment is 54% women and 46% men.
But dropping the men’s programs put the ratio at 59% women and 41% men, forcing the U to shrink women’s rosters to get to the proper ratio.
The early September announcement of the sports cuts noted “roster adjustments in women’s programs” would be required, without specifying how many. Sweeney, a redshirt junior from Edina, said the athletic department has not informed her and her teammates about the reduction.
“No one has told that to us,” she said Wednesday. “We’ve been in meetings. We have said, ‘With Title IX, and you cutting these men, it makes it so women have to get cut.’ … They’ve told us it’s not going to happen and that we are OK.”
According to an athletic department spokesman, the athletic administration communicated with the head coaches of impacted women’s sports about the cuts. What that communication included, and whether that communication reached student-athletes, was unclear. Coyle was not made available to clarify.
Title IX compliance calculations use the number of roster spots as opposed to the actual number of student-athletes, so one athlete can account for three roster spots if, for example, they compete in cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track. The Gophers women’s indoor and outdoor track rosters are also slated to shrink next school year, by 18 spots apiece.
“I don’t think they’re willing to put in the effort to tell us the real facts,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think they want us to fight it. But the thing is, we’re Gopher athletes, and we’re passionate. And we fight for each other.”
The Regents are expected to discuss the men’s program cuts at their next meeting Oct. 8-9. While supporters and athletes work to save the sports, Regent Michael Hsu said the cuts are being made too hastily.
“I really don’t understand what they’re trying to do,” Hsu said. “I think it’s premature. I would like to see us preserve all of our sports until such time as we get back to a normal environment, and then decide what we’re going to do.”
Retired women’s cross-country coach Gary Wilson lamented the loss of opportunities for both men and women. The total number of roster spots for Gophers athletes has shrunk steadily over the past three years, falling from 948 in 2017-18 to a projected 638 in 2021-22.
“We don’t have budget problems, we have priority problems,” Wilson said. “The Olympic sports have deep roots in this community. If this isn’t reversed, there are going to be repercussions money-wise and PR-wise for years.
“A lot of people love the U and want it to succeed, but not on the backs of the Olympic sports. There’s a way to fix this. Cutting sports isn’t the way to do it.”
The U currently sponsors 25 sports, fourth most in the Big Ten, on a $123 million athletic budget that ranks eighth in the conference. In their announcement of the men’s sports cuts, Coyle and U President Joan Gabel said that number was not sustainable, despite record fundraising and reductions in operating expenses in recent years. Coyle warned in May of needing to consider many options, including cutting sports, regarding a potential $75 million pandemic-produced loss. “Everything is on the table,” the athletic director said.
In September, Coyle said cutting men’s gymnastics, tennis and track and field would save an estimated $2.7 million per year once all scholarship athletes have graduated. When Coyle was asked in a news conference about that relatively small savings, he pointed to Title IX concerns.
“Over the past few years, the female undergraduate population on our campus has increased 2 to 3 percent,” Coyle said. “So when we make these adjustments and announcements … we will now mirror campus with respect to having approximately 54 [percent] of our student-athletes being female, and 46 percent of our student-athletes being male.”
But as women’s enrollment has grown, the U has reduced women’s sports rosters. In 2018, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights found the U in compliance with Title IX’s proportionality requirements. At the time, female enrollment was 51.96%, while the proportion of women athletes was 50.49%.
Since then, the number of women’s roster spots has fallen from 466 to 415, reducing their proportion to 50% of athletes. Women’s enrollment has risen to 53.62%.
‘Whole different challenge’
Wilson recalled a time when the Gophers added roster spots rather than cutting them to comply with Title IX. In 2004, when then-AD Joel Maturi was considering eliminating sports, Wilson increased his cross-country roster by 30 to raise the proportion of women athletes to the proper level.
“It cost a few thousand dollars,” Wilson said. “Some of those women went on to become All-Americans, like Gabe [Anderson] Grunewald.”
Current women’s cross-country coach Sarah Hopkins — who was part of Wilson’s team at that time — has made a similar proposal. In a letter to the Regents, Hopkins said she could “easily add 10-15 women to my roster … There are certainly creative ways to do it that add a minuscule amount to my budget.”
Maturi said Coyle, though, is facing “a whole different challenge” than he did. Rising coaches’ salaries, increased staffing and debt service on new facilities have ballooned the budget. He pointed out Iowa and Stanford have eliminated sports since the pandemic began.
“I think it’s disappointing and sad in a lot of ways,” said Maturi, who retired in 2012. “I’m hoping [cutting sports] doesn’t have to be part of the continuing solution here. But Mark has expressed there is anywhere from a $40 million to $75 million immediate deficit in finances. That’s unprecedented.”
Sweeney, the cross-country captain, is part of a legion of supporters who have attended rallies, signed petitions and flooded the Regents with e-mails and letters. She said she is willing to sacrifice some things, such as training-table meals, to save opportunities for others. She also worries there could be more cuts ahead.
“We’re looking at it and saying, ‘What can we do?’ ” Sweeney said. “It’s hard to think the athletic department might not be doing the same, and looking through every single option.
“We’re here because we love this university, and we want to represent it to the best of our abilities. But is that university putting the same effort back into us?”