Stanford, Facing Pressure, Reverses Plan to Cut 11 Sports

Ten months after revealing plans to cut nearly one-third of its varsity athletic programs, Stanford announced on Tuesday that those 11 sports would not be discontinued after all, ending a battle between the university and the supporters of those sports.

University leaders, in announcing the reversal, cited improvements in the school’s investments, and said supporters of the programs had helped reveal a new path toward funding the sports — 10 of which are featured at the Olympics.

Celebrations rippled through campus when teams heard their programs would be saved just weeks before they were set to lose their varsity status. Players on the men’s volleyball team shouted and hugged and shoved one another in a giant celebratory mosh pit in their dormitory. Some rowers on the men’s crew high-fived and whooped outside their boathouse post-practice, while others fell to the ground in tears of relief.

Women on the fencing team came together in a group chat to share their joy, thrilled that their beloved program would survive, yet still disappointed that the university had initially not seen enough value in their sport to keep it.

“It’s hard to say exactly why Stanford changed their mind, but cutting the sports was a huge PR problem and huge bad look for them,” Kyler Presho, a senior on the men’s volleyball team, said. “We were relentless in giving them every reason to reconsider and we just didn’t go away. In the end, hey, it worked.”

Jeremy Jacobs, a former Stanford volleyball player who helped lead the 36 Sports Strong advocacy group that worked to keep the 11 sports, broke the news to the volleyball team Tuesday in a videoconference. As he told the team, “We’re back,” players began to cheer and he began to cry.

“This past year was a nightmare and we’re going to make sure this never happens again,” he told them before regrouping.

He added, “I know that there have been a lot of hard feelings and anger toward Stanford because of this, but we’re pretty lucky in some respects because they did listen and we did feel heard.”

In July, Stanford said the cuts were a last resort and blamed “the harsh new financial realities imposed by COVID-19,” blindsiding both the coaches and the athletes who were affected. This season would be the last for those sports, the university said.

In subsequent months, supporters of those sports, including current students, alumni and students’ parents, had mounted a vocal, organized and growing 36 Sports Strong push — Stanford has 36 varsity sports — formed to raise millions of dollars to save their programs and pressure the university to let the sports stay. Among those alumni supporters were baseball Hall of Famer Mike Mussina; Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who played football; golfer Michelle Wie West; and Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug.

In an effort to self-fund its program before the planned cuts were ditched, the men’s volleyball program alone had garnered more than $7.7 million in pledges, Jacobs said. Raising that much money in such a short time showed Stanford that there is a lot more potential for alumni support than the university thought there was, he said, especially among those not considered to be major donor material.

“We flipped their fundraising model and were getting tons of donations of pledges under $25,000,” Jacobs said, adding that the university will now work with each team to help organize and focus its fundraising initiatives.

Even more pressure for Stanford to reverse its decision arose last week when a pair of lawsuits were filed in federal court, alleging that the university defrauded recruits by not telling them their sports might be dropped and also saying that Stanford would be violating Title IX edicts if the sports were not reinstated.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the lawsuit from recruits said they planned to drop the case because of Stanford’s latest decision. Rebecca Peterson-Fisher, an attorney in the Title IX case, said she wanted to see more specifics about the university’s plans. “We don’t have detailed information yet about the terms of the reinstatement, and we do want to ensure that Stanford complies with Title IX going forward,” Peterson-Fisher of The Liu Law Firm said.

Last summer, this abrupt change by Stanford seemed implausible, particularly when the university repeatedly told the cut teams that the decision was final and that there would be no way the programs could fight for their own existence. Many athletes said they doubted the university’s reasoning for the cuts being a financial one. Stanford had a $28.9 billion endowment as of August, but officials said that money was earmarked for other things. It projected a $70 million deficit over the next three years if the 11 teams were not dumped.

Eliminating men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s fencing, women’s lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, field hockey, squash, synchronized swimming, wrestling, and coed and women’s sailing would save the athletic department $8 million, the college had said. Those sports have won a combined 20 national championships and produced 27 Olympic medalists.

“It feels very clear to me it’s not about the money, at least in the case of rowing,” said Silas Stafford, a rower who competed in the 2012 Olympics. “There are plenty of alumni who would gladly pony up to fund the program. I think rowing doesn’t fit into their agenda. It’s a headache to them more than it’s a boon.”

Trey Holterman, a senior captain of the men’s rowing team, said he immediately was skeptical of the university’s excuse to cut the sports. “Hundreds of people immediately called them out on that lie and continued to probe into how a university with one of the largest endowments isn’t able to be fiscally responsible,” he said.

Just as the athletes were being informed that their sports were being cut July 8, an open letter was published by Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Athletic Director Bernard Muir that asserted that the athletic department — despite Stanford’s enormous endowment and vast property holdings in Silicon Valley — needed to be self-sufficient.

The letter said the school had examined covering budget shortfalls through ticket sales, broadcasting revenue, university funding, philanthropy and budget cuts, but found those measures would not be enough.

The university said in its announcement Tuesday that the financial challenges still existed, but that its athletics endowment became more flush over the last 10 months and efforts to raise money had created a new path for the sports.

“We have new optimism based on new circumstances, including vigorous and broad-based philanthropic interest in Stanford Athletics on the part of our alumni, which have convinced us that raising the increased funds necessary to support all 36 of our varsity teams is an approach that can succeed,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Though the sports teams on the chopping block usually generate scant attention beyond campus, they have — along with the challenges posed by the pandemic — often served as the backdrop for the school’s athletic programs this year.

When wrestler Shane Griffith won the 165-pound national championship, he did so in a black singlet without the school’s logo and afterward donned a sweatshirt that read: Keep Stanford Wrestling.

The cuts outraged athletes who bought into the promise that Stanford had sold for years as a place where students in a broad swath of sports could get an elite academic and athletic college experience.

That disappointment continued even as Muir addressed students via videoconference on Tuesday to notify them of the reversed decision.

“Our team’s general response was that it was sort of pathetic,” Annika Nordquist, a senior on the fencing team, said. “It was, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake,' and a lot of platitudes. It’s surprising to me that he still has his job.”

Coaches, like the players, were miffed that they had been given no voice in the initial decision about the sports.

The coaching fraternity at Stanford is particularly tight, which some attribute to a common ground of striving to compete for national titles at a school where recruiting is more stringent than at other athletic programs. Also, many coaches at Stanford — which provides on-campus housing to dozens of its coaches — are neighbors.

“Everyone understands that a challenge of winning at Stanford is the ultimate challenge in terms of who you recruit, the students you need and the high caliber athlete you need, and the character is special,” said Tara VanDerveer, the women’s basketball coach whose team won its third national championship in April. “We all know it’s not easy.”

That’s why, she said, there was so much emotion last month when Stanford’s synchronized swimming team won the national championship at its home pool at the Avery Aquatics Center, cheered on by several hundred fans who chanted “Save Stanford Synchro.”

“Everyone was crying,” VanDerveer said.

Some athletes, including Presho, the men's volleyball player, have already pivoted to a more hopeful outlook. His team was scheduled to have its final dinner next week as a way to send off the storied program. Now, though, the dinner will be decidedly upbeat.

“Instead of saying goodbye to everyone and to everything we built, we will be talking about what’s next,” he said. “I’m so glad the young guys will get the opportunity they expected and deserved.”

Gillian R. Brassil contributed reporting.

Copyright 2021 The New York Times Company

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