Varsity cuts, 18 months afterwards

Reflections on the decision to cut eight sports

“It was the hardest decision I ever had to make in a leadership role.”

Julie Soriero sits in her office on a bright Tuesday morning. As head of the MIT Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER) for the past four years, she was heavily involved in the decision to cut eight varsity sports — Women’s and Men’s Gymnastics, Women’s and Men’s Hockey, Golf, Alpine Skiing, Wrestling, and Pistol — announced Thursday, April 23, 2009. The decision would help save DAPER nearly $1.5 million, as part of an Institute-wide effort to cut budgets in the face of a deep recession. Now, eighteen months later, she muses over how upsetting the decision was at the time.

“It’s the last thing any athletic director wants to do. You take a position as an athletic director to build programs, and help programs be successful. Your intent is to not cut them,” she said.

Soriero speaks from experience. Coming to MIT in 2007 after nine years in Colorado College’s athletic department, Soriero had fulfilled roles in all aspects of athletics, from Women’s Basketball Coach to Athletic Director. She played field hockey, basketball, and lacrosse as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University. She’s seen the highs and lows of being an athlete, and she knows how important sports are to students. Soriero knew what pain her decision would cause — she expected there to be a lot of emotions, and she was right.

Students reflect on disappointment, shock

Jillian R. Reddy ’11 was a sophomore on the Alpine Skiing Team when the cuts were made. She recalls the emotional morning of the announcement.

“Half of the team was crying. The other half had this sad look on their faces,” she said. Reddy had considered the varsity skiing team a second family whose bond was strengthened by living in a New Hampshire cabin together every IAP. When it came time for cuts to be made, she had a feeling her team was going to lose its varsity status.

“We kind of knew it was coming. Skiing is a very expensive sport and the size of the team versus cost per person was much higher than a lot of the other varsity sports,” she said.

Stephanie C. Leger ’11 and Elaine Y. Chin ’94, now both players on the Women’s Club Ice Hockey team, remember the surprise of the announcement. Chin, an alumni player on the club team at the time, found out about the cuts at the same time as most of the MIT community — when DAPER released its letter explaining the cuts to the public. Leger, who was on the varsity team, claimed that no one had any idea of the impending cuts during the season. “It was a bit of a shock,” she said.

Many athletes on the cut teams had planned to play varsity sports for the entirety of their MIT undergraduate career, including Riley E. Brandt ’11, current captain of the Men’s Club Hockey Team and a varsity member at the time of the cuts. “A big reason why a lot of students picked MIT was the opportunity to play their sport while they studied here,” he said.

Nicholas C. Swenson ’12, currently the Golf Club team president, had come to MIT expecting to play varsity golf. The initial frustration stemming from the cuts almost caused him to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to transfer out of MIT. After the cuts, Harvard’s golf coach said that although Harvard was not accepting transfer students at the time, there was a possibility that an exception for Swenson could be made if he joined Harvard’s golf team.

“I don’t know how serious I was about transferring at the time. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t,” he said.

Kristen D. Watkins ’11, now co-captain of the Women’s Club Gymnastics team, claimed that many members of the team were aware of the possibility of losing varsity status. Still, she felt that the cut upset many of the gymnasts who came to MIT to compete on a varsity level. She herself originally applied to MIT only after hearing of the varsity gymnastics program.

“I think for a lot of people it was kind of upsetting to come and choose this school and for [DAPER] to cut the reason they came here,” she explained.

Prospective students, too, were frustrated. As an incoming freshman at the time, Ryan J. Madson ’13 was not at MIT when the cuts were made, but he was still frustrated at not being able to compete on a varsity level for MIT’s Wrestling team as he had intended. “I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t get the opportunity [to compete in varsity],” he said.

Men’s Club Gymnastics President and former varsity team member Jacob T. Shapiro ’11, who described the cuts as “disappointing and frustrating,” said the team was confused about what to do next. “It wasn’t really clear what was going to happen with the team,” he said.

Although the initial announcement struck the Varsity Pistol team pretty hard, they were ready to move on about a week later, according to Pistol Club Team Captain Andrew K. Sugaya ’11. Sugaya had suspected the pistol team was going to be cut when DAPER sent out an e-mail to members of the cut teams, requesting their presence at the April 23 meeting.

Emotions ran high even for MIT students not on varsity teams. After the announcement was made that cuts were imminent, but three weeks before the affected teams were announced, student-athletes from across MIT’s athletics programs staged a protest in Lobby 7. Over 100 students attended a DAPER question-and-answer session two days after the announcement was made, and outraged letters flooded the Tech Opinion inboxes. On April 13, students “kidnapped” Tim the Beaver at the inaugural Beaver Bowl event during DAPER’s annual spring Athletics Weekend, demanding that student opinion be heard and that the cuts be delayed at least one year. On April 24, the day after the sports to be cut were announced, the New York Times ran an article on the cuts, quoting a column from then-Tech opinion writer Ethan A. Solomon ’12 (now the Tech Editor in Chief) and then-varsity pistol coach Will Hart.

“MIT has a certain culture,” said Hart to the Times.

“The students need release. I hope they find something else that was as close to enjoyable as their sport was.”

“Put an emotion there, and it was there”

Soriero, too, recalls how difficult it was for her to make the announcement.

“There was a lot of disappointment, hurt, frustration, and anger. Put an emotion there, and it was there,” she said.

She reasoned that supporting 41 varsity teams had always been an issue for DAPER. However, when the economic recession hit the Institute, it was time for a budget cut. More than 50 percent of the DAPER budget at the time went to varsity programs, she said, so there was no way to avoid looking at varsity programs when making cuts.

She states that the department was still picking which teams to cut when they announced that such a decision was impending. She and the rest of her team wanted to make sure that the right amount of cuts were made so they would never have to make a similar decision again.

When considering cuts, the DAPER administration looked at every team, and not just from a cost perspective — although Soriero does admit that in many cases, cuts were made from the most expensive sports per participant. Soriero cites the DAPER Health and Vitality Report, an ongoing study that started collecting data in 2003, as one source of information. The report broke down topics including roster size, competition, and other trends for each team. DAPER also considered the league each team was in.

“We had a number of [varsity] sports that are now club that were competing in a club league, or they were only competing against club sports,” she explained, like pistol.

“But we were trying to sustain them at a varsity level in terms of all the support services, coaching, compliance, etc. So if they were a club and if they continued to compete in the exact same conference they were in, they would have the same competitive opportunities as their counterparts.”

At the time of the cuts, there was a moratorium on the number of club sports. Ultimately, this moratorium was lifted to allow the cut varsity sports without club equivalents the opportunity to continue on as club sports.

Still, in the hours and days after the cuts were announced, few players on any team knew what to expect in the upcoming year.

“It was kind of just like [DAPER] left us to figure it out,” said Leger.

This is the first in a three-part series on the current status of MIT’s cut varsity sports.