Sports: ‘Irreplaceable’ not ‘Unsustainable’

Do Not Cut What Is Unique about MIT Varsity Athletics

As MIT’s Head Men’s Gymnastics Coach (ninth year), I am not interested in varsity athletics. I am interested in varsity athletics at MIT, specifically because the combination is such a rare one. The number and variety of our varsity programs, the values I have always felt to be surrounding athletics at the Institute, richly complement academic pursuits, and for the greatest number of students possible. At least this is how it’s been. I understand that DAPER must make deep budget cuts — an unfortunate result of the current economic crisis and climate. But, I am concerned that the slated cutting of varsity programs, and a leaner, meaner DAPER, means that less-skilled student-athletes and so-called non-athletes will be shut out of MIT varsity athletics, along with the rare educational experience it affords. And, as this pushes forward with speed, I am concerned that not enough people know about this, especially our alumni/ae. We should be careful; forty-one varsity programs is an Institute gem. Varsity athletics at MIT should serve the best and the brightest students and not just the best and brightest athletes. And, I would feel exactly the same way, be writing exactly the same words, if MIT Men’s Gymnastics was not likely to be cut…

Due to current economic conditions and unavoidable budget cuts (close to 500,000 dollars, each of the next three years) the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation has had no choice but to review all of its offerings and operations. Deep cuts will be made, and DAPER has decided to start this spring with the elimination of an unannounced number of varsity programs.

MIT is a unique Institution with a vibrant culture. Forty-one varsity athletic programs (more than any other school, save for Harvard) are a prominent part of that culture, and have long been lauded and used as a selling point for this very reason. Regardless of the severity of the budget cuts that must be made, we should not lose what makes varsity athletics at MIT so special. In other words, there is a reason why varsity athletics, as an educational vehicle, looks different at MIT, and from this, the entire MIT community benefits.

Ultimately, we are not doing sports at MIT, we are doing education. Varsity opportunities at MIT are educational opportunities. The sacrifice of weaker sports (however this may be determined) to retain and grow the quality of those that remain, cuts into those educational opportunities. For the many students who will no longer have the chance to participate in a varsity sport at MIT, what is lost is what is learned on the field or in the gym at the varsity level: dimensions of personal growth that can not be garnered elsewhere. And, this is the case regardless of their level of athletic skill or the number of matches or championships they win. With so much emphasis on the value of hands-on and experiential learning; so much talk about health and well-being, leadership skills and character, as well as the overall quality of student life, cutting varsity programs impacts MIT’s educational mission.

More specifically, we must consider that many of the varsity programs likely to be cut are not mainstream sports, which is precisely why they are a key part of what makes varsity athletics at MIT so special. Non-mainstream programs serve a greater number of less-skilled student-athletes and non-athletes. Fewer non-mainstream programs means that a less-skilled student-athlete will have fewer, if any, varsity opportunities; he or she will not be able to walk onto a soccer, basketball or volleyball team and play, as he or she may have been able to play a role on a rifle, pistol or gymnastics team. More, if specialized facilities such as the shooting range and gymnastics area also go away, the option for participation in these sports will disappear entirely. Because varsity athletics at MIT represents such a rich educational experience, it should not be honed to a collection of high-level programs serving only elite-level athletes. To serve such a diverse and energetic undergraduate population we need the greatest range of varsity programs possible. There is a reason we have gradually expanded to forty-one programs, and it is not simply poor management.

In the face of such deep budget cuts, the elimination of varsity programs has become standard. But, a standard response is not always the right thing to do. A bit more vision might retain, at all costs, what is special about MIT varsity athletics. We should protect what has been a great and longstanding asset so that when better economic conditions return we haven’t forever lost the variety and vibrance of MIT varsity athletics. Under such serious economic conditions, deep cuts must be made; ultimately, there is no villain here. However, there may be a lack of vision for the future, a lack of understanding as to the role varsity athletics plays at the Institute. Particularly on the Division III level — and especially at MIT — excellence and success in college athletics should be measured less in terms of win-loss records and/or championships, and more by maximizing the number and variety of varsity athletic opportunities for all.

Cutting varsity programs is contrary to the diversity and uniqueness of MIT culture. It is unavoidable only if having so many varsity programs is undervalued. If having forty-one varsity programs were valued as highly as star athletes and championships, this process would look very different. There simply has to be another way. If DAPER can not sustain forty-one programs, then perhaps it is time for MIT or a group of its alumni/ae to step in and say: the variety of our varsity programs is of immense educational value. Economic crisis or not, we have to find another way.

Noah Riskin is MIT’s Head Men’s Gymnastics Coach