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Stanford Explains Decision to Cut 11 Varsity Sports

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Stanford University, home to the most successful athletic department in the nation for more than a quarter-century, announced Wednesday that it will discontinue 11 varsity sports following the 2020-21 academic year.

The affected sports include men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling.

In a nearly 2,000-word open letter to the Stanford community and "athletics family," university's president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, provost Persis Drell and director of athletics Bernard Muir wrote that over time providing 36 varsity teams with the level of support that they deserve has become a serious and growing financial challenge. We now face the reality that significant change is needed to create fiscal stability for Stanford Athletics, and to provide the support we believe is essential for our student-athletes to excel."

Only Ohio State University budgets for more varsity sports —37 — but Stanford's broad success on fields and courts is unmatched. It has captured the Directors' Cup, a point system based on the collective competitive success of a school's individual sports teams, every year but the program's inaugural one (when the Cardinal placed second) — a string of 25 straight Cups that likely would have hit 26 this year, had the spring sports schedule not been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

From AB: Directors' Cup Leaders Are Colleges That Commit Resources Broadly

"All of these teams will have the opportunity to compete in their upcoming 2020-21 seasons, should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 allow it, before they are discontinued at the varsity level," the letter states. "Regretfully, 20 of our support staff positions are being eliminated as part of this realignment.

"This is heartbreaking news to share. These 11 programs consist of more than 240 incredible student-athletes and 22 dedicated coaches. They were built by more than 4,000 alumni whose contributions led to 20 national championships, 27 Olympic medals, and an untold number of academic and professional achievements. Each of the individuals associated with these programs will forever have a place in Stanford’s history."

The news was shared with student-athletes and coaches earlier in the day via Zoom.

As schools nationwide grapple with the prospect of cutting sports amid new financial realities, it might be instructive to look at how Stanford chose the sports it did for elimination.

From the letter:

These 11 sports were decided upon after a comprehensive evaluation of all of our sports across a broad set of criteria and considerations, including, but not limited to:

  • Sponsorship of the sport at the NCAA Division I level
  • National youth and postgraduate participation in the sport
  • Local and national fan interest in the sport
  • Potential expense savings from the elimination of the sport
  • Incremental investments required to keep or put the sport in a position to achieve competitive excellence on the national level
  • History of the sport at Stanford
  • Prospects for future success of the sport at Stanford
  • Impact on gender equity and Title IX compliance
  • Impact on the diversity of our student-athlete population
  • Impact on the student-athlete experience across all sports, now and in the future

For example, simply looking at sponsorship of the sports at a national level as one consideration:

  • Of the 11 sports being discontinued, six (lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming) are not NCAA-sponsored championship sports.
  • All 11 sports being discontinued are sponsored by less than 22 percent of the more than 350 Division I institutions, and nine (men’s and women’s fencing, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball) are sponsored by less than 9 percent.
  • There are only two other Division I field hockey programs on the West Coast, and there are no other fencing, lightweight rowing, sailing, squash or synchronized swimming programs on the West Coast.

"All of the impacted sports will have the opportunity to compete at the club level after their upcoming varsity seasons are complete, assuming sufficient student interest, but will need to do so in a financially self-sustaining manner that ensures the safety and well-being of the participants," the letter states. "We will immediately begin working with the student-athletes, parents, alumni and supporters of these sports to work toward providing robust opportunities for participation at the club level."

The letter concludes by looking toward the future.

"Today’s announcement brings the three of us great sadness, though we realize ours is nowhere near the level of pain and disappointment that our student-athletes, parents, alumni and supporters of the impacted sports are experiencing," wrote Tessier-Lavigne, Drell and Muir.

"We remain committed to a strong and vibrant varsity athletics program at Stanford, and we are confident that these changes will position Stanford Athletics, and our remaining 25 varsity programs, for sustained excellence and leadership in athletics, academics and education through sport. Our commitment to diversity and gender equity in athletics also remains firmly in place and is supported by this decision."

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