Could Boston University Nix Storied Wrestling Program for New Balance Payday?
In February 2012, Boston-based athletic outfitter New Balance pledged $3 million to the Boston University Athletic Department to “greatly improve academic and athletic life at the university on many levels.” With this pledge, New Balance became the first major corporate sponsor in the history of Boston University Athletics.
The following is a quote from New Balance CEO Rob Martini at the time the sponsorship agreement with BU was announced:
“As a Boston-based company with a long standing commitment to promoting health and fitness and giving back to the local community, we are excited to help provide this valuable athletic resource to the Boston University community. We share Boston University’s passion and dedication to continued innovation, excellence in sport, and enhancing the lives of their student-athletes and the greater Boston University community.”
As one would expect, however, the arrangement between New Balance and BU didn’t come without caveats.
The New Balance Sponsorship Deal
New Balance is one of the largest suppliers of men’s lacrosse equipment in the United States, and a stated desire for BU to add a men’s lacrosse program as part of the new arrangement was at the core of the sponsorship negotiations. On the surface, this seems a reasonable request given the amount of the sponsorship, a large portion of which would be directed toward New Balance field, a standalone facility for the lacrosse and field hockey teams.
However, in order to add men’s lacrosse, it would be necessary for BU to disband one of its current men’s programs to comply with National Collegiate Athletic Association Title IX legislation. There was little hesitation from Boston University, that this program would be men's wrestling.
Title IX Equality Issues and the Money Grab
Men’s lacrosse has access to 12.6 full scholarships, while men’s wrestling accounts for 9.9 total scholarships. Title IX legislation requires an equivalent number of total scholarships be made available to both male and female student-athletes. The availability of varsity sports must reflect the overall interests of the student population. Subsequently, BU has added a women’s lightweight crew program to maintain Title IX compliance. With this addition, the men’s lacrosse program was elevated from a club program to varsity and interim Title IX equivalence was achieved.
David Leonardo is a former Boston University Wrestler and head of the “Save BU Campaign”. The campaign is a group comprised of BU wrestling alumni, students and others within and outside the University community who are working together to save the men’s wrestling program.
As we spoke, Leonardo noted how New Balance became involved, and what has added fuel to the controversy:
“What’s unfortunate about it, is this was a Board of Trustees decision passed down to the athletic department, and the athletic department had a situation on their hands where they were out of compliance with Title IX and they were told to fix it. We’ve got $3 million in our hands, so you need to get (men’s) lacrosse and get rid of something. As this fight continues, their story continues to change. When we first had a discussion with them it was, 'well, you know wrestling has been dropped as an Olympic sport, and it’s a dying sport.' Well, guess what, that’s a lie. It actually has been reinstated at the Olympics and has grown at the collegiate level over the last four or five years.”
Right now, BU Wrestling is competing in what could be the final season for the storied 50-year program. It’s in the process of being sold out for a slicker, posher sport which, unlike its predecessor, serves the financial needs of few with seemingly no regard for the university’s own stated “diversity” mission.
The hypocrisy of the situation simply cannot be overlooked.
The Truth of Wrestling's Wide Scale Popularity
There are currently 77 active NCAA Division I Wrestling Programs across the United States, with over 10,000 high school programs full of collegiate hopefuls. About 2,700 wrestlers compete annually across the country in Division I, with the average roster including roughly 35 wrestlers from diverse backgrounds. Due to the sport’s overall affordability and the large number of developmental programs country-wide, wrestling offers a unique opportunity for underprivileged individuals to continue their athletic careers beyond high school. For some, it might be their only shot out of the inner city.
In comparison, there are approximately 2,000 high school-based lacrosse programs across the country. Lacrosse operates on a “traveling team” model similar to many other team sports like basketball, baseball and soccer, but has been slow to extend sanctioned high school competition beyond the Northeast part of the country. Given this fact, lacrosse seems to have nowhere near the reach, and has not garnered the long-term popularity which wrestling has enjoyed -- and continues to enjoy -- nationally at the high school level.
Despite these numbers, the BU Wrestling Team has been told their sport is in decline and the University is simply reacting to a changing climate. Is this really the truth? Since when is lacrosse a generationally popular sport that has earned mass, countrywide appeal? And to satisfy Title IX, since when is lightweight women’s crew the wave of the future?
It’s time to call a spade a spade. It’s important to recognize the athletic standard and the context of the wrestling program in the Boston University community. The young people who once called the program home are now the core of a vocal and aggravated alumni base who wants to secure its future. If BU wants to stay on mission, they’re going down entirely the wrong road, but that can be affected.
Boston University Strategic Vision As Related to Athletics
The following is the Boston University Strategic Vision as the vision relates to its athletic programs (verbatim from Boston University athletics webpage):
*Pride in Athletic Excellence Boston University Athletics will seek the highest levels of success for each of our varsity sports teams at the conference, regional and national levels.
*Pride in Academic Excellence Boston University Athletics will maintain high expectations of academic achievement for individual student-athletes and every team, encouraging and supporting this endeavor through the Department.
*Pride in Student-Athlete growth and Development Boston University Athletics will strive to enhance each student-athlete’s mental, physical and social well-being beyond the benefits of sport itself.
*Pride in Community Relations Boston University Athletics will develop strong and mutually beneficial relationships that involve and engage the various constituencies and communities whose support directly impacts the quality of our Department.
*Pride in Fiscal Management and Resource Development Boston University Athletics will administer a budgetary process and actively manage our resources, attracting a wider array of alumni and friends to support our teams and to supplement University-provided resources as a means to strengthen our department.
*Pride in an Equitable and Diverse Environment Boston University Athletics will foster and encourage an inclusive environment built upon the principles of equity and diversity, committing to the recruitment of qualified student-athletes and staff from all backgrounds and seeking to increase participation opportunities for minorities.
For the sake of argument, let’s approach each of these items individually as they relate to the current, past and -- given all available signs -- the future of BU wrestling.
How Boston Wrestling Upholds the Strategic Vision
Pride in Athletic Excellence
BU Head Wrestling Coach Carl Adams is an institution within an institution. Prior to the 2013 season, which kicked off in November, Adams had totaled 301 victories at BU (323 overall during his coaching tenure), third-most among active NCAA Division I wrestling coaches.
During Adams‘ tenure, BU has celebrated four All-Americans on the mats (three of whom happened to be African-American, like Adams himself), won 10 team conference championships, and enjoyed a massive, program-defining victory in 2012 over perennial wrestling power Iowa State. A legacy of success has precluded the 2013 squad, which is one of the most promising in the program’s recent history. In fact, a December 6 match against No. 1 Penn State hangs in the balance and is one of the most widely-anticipated events on the BU athletic calendar in 2013.
It should be noted that BU’s top male athlete on campus and Mickey Cochrane Award Winner is wrestler Nestor Taffur. He is the the team’s co-captain, and returns for this 2013 season along with two other conference champions from 2012 and six conference place winners. Should the program remain intact in 2014, BU will join the prestigious Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA), widely-recognized as one of the most storied and well-respected wrestling conferences in the country. This allegiance will provide BU the opportunity to rub elbows with the sport’s elite on the collegiate level. Recruiting will see a jolt by default, and the level of wrestling excellence at BU should be greater than ever.
Pride in Athletic Excellence?
Pride in Academic Excellence
BU wrestling is one of the most well-rounded programs on campus, and is one of only eight Division I Wrestling Programs in the country with a 100 percent graduation rate over the past five years, according to NCAA Average Progress Reporting (APR). In fact, BU wrestling recently received the NCAA Academic Recognition Award in respect to their overall level of achievement.
In an age where academics are so often an afterthought in collegiate athletics, BU wrestling is continuously setting a positive example.
Pride in Academic Excellence?
Pride in Student-Athlete Growth and Development
Part of any student’s growth, much less the growth of a student-athlete, has to do with their access to unique educational, social and, in this case, athletic opportunities that provide them with a memorable and life-changing collegiate experience. Boston University evaluates the mental, social and physical benefits of a sport by asking it reach beyond the limits of the sport itself.
More than any other sport on campus, BU Wrestling has crafted an environment where people from varied backgrounds come together to work toward a common goal. The minority participation in wrestling is greater than any other sport on campus, and presumably, much greater than men’s lacrosse, typically not a sport seen as ethnically diverse. After basketball, wrestling offers the greatest number of first-in-family opportunities for student-athletes to attend college.
With 10 different weight classes, wrestling truly is one of the last collegiate sports left that caters to folks with differing shapes and sizes as well.
BU claims a strong commitment to a diverse, unique, socioeconomically wide-ranging student community. If such is the case, what happens if you willingly eliminate a diverse program in favor of one likely to be less diverse by nature alone? Are growth and development of the student-athletes in this environment -- much less the average student on campus who doesn’t participate in athletics-- actually fostered in this scenario?
Pride in Community Relations
In testimonials from faculty and other coaches on the BU campus, wrestling team members have been described as “the hardest workers at the school”, “a team that does the most with minimal resources” and the “heart of the Athletic Department”.
The Boston wrestling team touts one of the highest attendance rates at community service and fundraising events of any program on campus, and is well known as a staunch supporter of the other athletic programs on campus. A master petition, fostered by the aforementioned “Save BU Wrestling”, has already earned over 4,200 signatures, including signatures from almost every student-athlete on campus. That in itself might be unprecedented.
Pride in Community Relations?
Pride in Fiscal Management and Resource Development
Summer wrestling camps held on the Boston University campus have exposed over 200,000 campers to Boston University, who paid a total of $2.5 million for use of BU facilities over the course of the past 20 years. Arguably, that makes BU Wrestling one of the top (if not the top) revenue generator in the department. However, the other primary sports at Boston have not been placed under the same level of scrutiny, nor had to work with the same limited resources to which BU Wrestling has been constricted.
Head Coach Carl Adams, one of the first Division I African-American wrestling coaches, is one of the longest-tenured coaches at BU. In spite of his accomplishments, Adams has surprisingly been working without a multi-year contract for his entire 30-year career. What Coach Adams has produced given the limited resources with which to work is the textbook definition of doing your best with what you’ve got.
Given this, how can BU justify promising multi-year contracts to the lacrosse and crew coaches from the outset when they have not proven that their resources will be used with the same efficacy? Why was Adams never given a multi-year contract in spite of receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews in his annual assessments?
Doing plenty with not nearly enough?
Pride In an Equitable and Diverse Environment
Seems simple enough. In eliminating wrestling, BU will effectively be dampening the equity and diversity which the program injects into student life. No further explanation necessary.
The Orin Smiley Endowments
Former BU Wresting Coach Orin Smiley’s final wish was to secure the future of Boston wrestling. The Orin Smiley Endowment was created by the BU legend and his wife Marylyn for the continued support and growth of BU Wrestling, and includes scholarships for two student-athletes in need.
As the bequest is arranged, $800,000 in funding earmarked directly to BU Wrestling becomes available with the passing of Mrs. Smiley. In general, once activated, the Orin Smiley Endowment would provide like-minded alumni with a foundation to raise even greater capital, which could be directed toward much-needed improvements to facilities,and establish a base from which the University could work to help wrestling enjoy long-term success.
Disregard For Input from Boston Wrestling Alumni
However, according to David Leonardo, the problem is the university has largely ignored the effect that the Smiley Endowment -- and possible other funding like it -- could have on the future of the program, and has failed to engage the involved alumni community in their decision-making process:
“Never once did they (BU) reach out to the alumni. Never once did they reach out to the parents (of the wrestlers). Never once did they reach out to Coach Adams to tell him it’s a performance thing, that it’s a graduation thing, they didn’t say anything. At no point were the alumni ever told the team was in jeopardy; if anything, we were continuously being told we were the one team at the university who does the most with the least.
I can’t fathom the strategic decision behind not contacting the alumni, especially when Boston University just initiated a billion-dollar fundraising program. The biggest pain I have is, you know, give us an opportunity to deliver on something and then tell us 'we gave you guys an opportunity to raise money and you didn’t.' To not include us as part of the strategy discussion was a slap in the face.”
The University's No Comment Stance
David Leonardo went on to speak about the surprising way the alumni base was treated when they requested a formal reason for the BU administration’s decision:
“Whenever we’ve confronted them with facts they’ve changed their story, now to ‘well it doesn’t align with the strategic vision of the administration’. This is a money grab. An attack on one wrestling program is an attack on all of us. Boston University has refused to take any interview. You call up the University today, and they’ll refuse to take a single interview on this matter. One day to the next, it’s radio silence.”
Going with a no comment stance always suggests there's something to hide, and we can see now what Boston University is hiding.
What Boston Wrestling Could Be, If Allowed to Be
Many supporters believed the Orin Smiley Endowments would be the program’s saving grace, especially given that BU wrestling was one of only a handful of programs on campus with several endowments of at least $100,000. As already mentioned, the program is fiscally responsible, and Leonardo believed they’d be given an opportunity to be around for a long time:
“None of the programs raise money. Hockey is No. 1 and at a distant, distant second is crew, and then comes every other sport. We thought we were secure. Once we got the Orin Smiley Endowment we thought, 'you know what, the program is going to be safe.' We’re one of three programs at the university that has more than one endowment (endowments require a minimum of $100,000 in funding). None of the other programs raise money. … The fact that we’re starting off with a foundation of $800,000 allows us to market to the alumni, to build on that.”
The reality, however, is starkly different. In spite of the $800,000 already raised and the potential of millions more to make the BU Wrestling program a crown jewel of BU Athletics, the administration chose to take $3 million up front from New Balance instead. This not only contradicts their own values system, but is a blatant money grab that will affect the futures of many quality young men and the legacy of a program that has earned the right for a greater level of respect.
If You Believe In Boston University Wrestling, Save It
In simplest terms, Boston University is sailing the wrestling program down the river in favor of short-term financial gain. Legacy displaced for capital. Diversity dampened for more aesthetically-pleasing endeavors. The school is going against their own mission to execute a cash grab which was rooted in a sweetheart relationship between a member of the Board of Regents and a major shoe company executive. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The real victims, however, are those who may never get to wrestle at BU, who may never get to be a part of the program’s legacy promised by the pending gift from Orin Smiley.
As Leonardo states, “You’re replacing what historically has been a middle-class, demographically-diverse sport which brings a lot of first-generation kids to college, and you’re replacing it with what has traditionally been a country club sport. It’s a money grab.”
This is the future worth fighting for. If you believe, like we do, that Boston University wrestling deserves a long-term future, follow Save BU Wrestling on Twitter @SaveBUWrestling, find them on Facebook, ask what you can do to spread the word. They deserve every chance to a future which their own university doesn’t seem to be too interested in preserving; but with mass complaint, the school could be forced to listen.