Pistol & Gymnastics Among Eight Varsity Sports To Be Slashed

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MIT varsity pistol coach Will Hart Jr. meets with his team after the 8 a.m. meeting where it was announced that pistol would no longer be a varsity sport at MIT, despite the team’s reputation as one of MIT’s most successful.
Eric D. Schmiedl—The Tech

Eight of MIT’s 41 varsity sports will be cut at the end of the academic year — alpine skiing, golf, men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s ice hockey, pistol, and wrestling.

Student athletes on the teams being cut were notified in an 8 a.m. closed meeting on Thursday. Later that morning, the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) released a public letter to the community announcing the cuts.

The cuts to the varsity programs constitute over $300,000 of the $485,000 DAPER is cutting for FY2010. “Unless the economy spirals downwards rapidly, we don’t expect to make any more cuts,” said Julie Soriero, MIT’s athletic director. This number represents a five percent cut in DAPER’s total expenditures of $9.7 million, which is calculated by subtracting salaries of faculty members of DAPER, including some coaches, from its overall budget.

The cuts will be effective at the end of the current academic year, allowing golf, the only cut team still competing, to finish its season.

Catherine Melnikow ’10, chair of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Athletics, characterized student reactions as both angry and saddened. “Some students are planning on transferring” to continue competing, she said.

Coaches of the teams are also feeling hurt from the cuts: “Some [coaches] have given a decade or more to their program as part-timers, and they’re feeling ‘freight-trained’,” said men’s gymnastics coach Noah Riskin, who also expressed his dismay that the cuts were not delayed at least a year, giving the teams an opportunity to raise funds to save the sports.

While the varsity pistol team will lose support, the physical education class will remain in place, and may even expand, said Soriero. Pistol coach Will Hart Jr. has said that he will continue as a full-time employee of MIT, teaching the pistol PE class.

With the cuts, DAPER has kept its word in not taking performance into consideration. For example, the pistol team has won two national championships over the last five years, consistently competing on a high level against the country’s military academies.

Some of the teams that were cut included individuals who performed well on a national stage, winning All-Conference and even All-American honors. “If [performance] were a primary consideration, that would make the decision even more difficult,” said Soriero.

“It’s a huge disappointment, because from our perspective, we’ve put together a winning program,” said men’s ice hockey captain William G. Near ’10. “We’ve also had a consistent roster for the past twelve years.”

According to Soriero, the criteria used to determine which sports were cut were driven mainly by recommendations from the Health and Vitality study conducted between 2003 and 2006. These criteria include student interest in the sport, management resources, expenses, Title IX compliance, and level of coaching.

The loss of these varsity sports is also costing some coaches their jobs, since many were part-time employees of MIT. While Soriero expects some of these coaches to sever their ties with MIT, she expects some to still have a role in other areas of DAPER.

According to Soriero, DAPER has yet to decide what will be done with some of the facilities of cut teams because they want to get a better sense of which ones might still be used. Other facilities will remain unchanged, including the ice rink which the ice hockey team used for practice. The rink will continue to be rented to other groups for a fee.

According to Riskin, these venues are important for students looking to continue the sport: “You can’t just find a venue to wrestle or do gymnastics in this area. If they can’t at MIT, students are only left with the options of transferring or dropping the sport.”

Possible shift to club sports

Some of the cut varsity teams may remain together as club sports. The “leadership of that transition needs to come from the teams themselves,” said Soriero, who said she didn’t think it was fair to the team or to the Club Sports Council (CSC) to automatically move a team to club status.

For some sports, the transition to club sport status would be a primarily financial one. For example, men’s ice hockey already competes in a league with other club sports, so should they become a club team, they would compete against the same teams. “To be competitive, we still need to have funding for a coach, transportation, and equipment,” said Near. Women’s ice hockey, however, would not be allowed to compete in the same Division III Eastern College Athletic Conference if they were a club sport.

Pistol, with the support and interest from both coach Hart and the current team, will look to become a club sport and continue competing against the country’s best in national competitions. Currently all but one of the teams pistol competes against, including all of the military academies, are club sports.

Brian T. Neltner G, an officer of the Club Sports Council for the past three years, has said that the CSC will consider applications for varsity teams to become a club sport on a case-by-case basis. One important consideration, he says, is the potential for long-term sustainability as a club. It would be more difficult to support teams with frequent long distance travel or a high coaching salary.

Club sports at MIT are different than standard junior varsity sports at other universities in that they are administered directly by students. Over 800 students are involved in MIT’s 30 current club teams. Becoming a club sport would allow teams to receive funding from the CSC, reserve space in the athletic center, and use MIT’s name in their team’s name.

The CSC has a total yearly budget of $110k, including a maximum of $5k per team for national competitions, according to Neltner. Of its total budget, $15k comes from DAPER, plus some additional support at the end of the year for national competitions. The rest comes from the student life fee, which the officers do not expect to decrease over the next year.

Currently there is a moratorium on adding new club sports, so as not to decrease funding to existing clubs. However, according to Neltner, the moratorium would be lifted for varsity sports wishing to become clubs sports provided that there were additional permanent resources that come with the group. For example, Soriero has told the CSC that DAPER may transfer some of the funding the varsity sport had received to the CSC so that other club sports do not see a hit in funding, ex-varsity sports would not be funded at a higher level than current club sports, said Neltner.

One difficulty current club sports face is affording to pay for instructors. Coaches can only be paid a limited amount from the money a team receives from the CSC, and sometimes the remainder has to come from dues that the athletes pay out of pocket. Often, students who are alumni of the club come back to coach as volunteers, and there are currently 55 student instructors among the teams, said Neltner.

Spreading the news

Word of the cuts spread quickly from the morning meeting. An e-mail to team members sent on Wednesday evening gave a clue to many athletes on which sports may be the ones affected, and confirmation came the next morning at the meeting with Soriero, Dean for Student Life Chris Colombo, and other administrators.

The Admissions office has also been working with DAPER in notifying prospective students of the decisions. Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill ’86 is currently in the process of personally contacting those admitted students who had expressed interest in playing one of the sports that were cut.

The number of such students is not very large — about 10 to 20, said Schmill. The Admissions Office does not have current plans to reach out the to the rest of the prospective students, but Schmill noted that information about the cuts have already been spread widely and publicly, such as through MIT’s home page.

The impending sports cuts were also mentioned during scholar-athlete panels during Campus Preview Weekend.

While MIT will lose its claim to being tied for the most varsity sports programs, Schmill did say that in general the cuts don’t change MIT’s message very much: “We still have a broad based program… it wasn’t just that we had a lot of sports, it’s that we had excellence in our sports.”

While Schmill does expect the cuts to factor heavily in the decision for the few prospective students involved with these sports, generally speaking he doesn’t believe it will have much of an effect on students who weren’t planning on playing a sport.

For students who have already declined offers from other schools and committed to MIT, Schmill said he will try to help them should they now want to change their mind based on the sport cuts. He said, “I will certainly try to help them, but there is no guarantee.”

Schmill, who himself is a former crew coach, said the cuts were certainly sad, but “sometimes the sad thing is the right thing.”