It wasn’t just the affected athletes who were stunned by last week’s news that the Gophers were dropping three sports. Women’s cross-country runner Tate Sweeney was in class when text messages began flooding her phone, saying the men’s track and field (indoor and outdoor), tennis and gymnastics teams were being eliminated because of financial and gender-equity issues.
“I got a break and saw my roommates, and we all started to cry,” she said. “It really hit us hard. This is our family.”
That shock and sorrow quickly turned to righteous indignation, then to action. Wednesday, the three teams and their supporters took to the campus streets. About 400 people participated in a march organized by the women’s track team, walking from the Athletes Village to Morrill Hall to protest athletic director Mark Coyle’s decision to get rid of the three sports after the 2020-21 season.
Athletes, coaches, fans, donors, kids and dogs all took part, chanting and holding signs with slogans such as “Coyle Ain’t Loyal” and “People over Money.” The march was part of a wide-ranging and swiftly mobilized effort to save the sports, including social-media accounts, petitions, fundraisers and committees.
Coyle announced the decision last Thursday, citing revenue losses caused by the pandemic and the need to meet Title IX rules on gender balance. The Board of Regents still must vote to approve the cuts before they become final.
Much of the revenue decline comes from postponing the Big Ten football season, a decision that was reversed Wednesday. Though football will start on Oct. 23, the U still plans to drop the three sports.
In a statement, the school said, “Gopher Athletics is still facing a significant loss in revenue, tens of millions of dollars this year alone, and still needs to take steps to ensure compliance with its commitment to provide gender-equitable participation opportunities for students consistent with federal law requirements.”
That did not sit well with Wednesday’s marchers. In impassioned speeches, athletes questioned the U’s commitment to diversity, its loyalty to its student-athletes and its understanding of what their sports have contributed to the school and community.
“This is a statement from the flagship university of this state that our sports, our teams, our families are not worth the money,” said Eric Rousemiller, a junior thrower on the track and field team, in a speech on the steps of Morrill Hall. “I pray that Mark Coyle and the Board of Regents can see the damage they have caused in the communities of these sports, and that they give these teams a second chance.”
In the six days since Coyle’s announcement, multiple accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been created to support the teams. A petition on change.org to reinstate track had 20,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
Coyle and U President Joan Gabel said last week they “do not believe there is a realistic fundraising goal we could set” to keep the sports. That eliminates the potential for a fund drive like the one the Gophers held in 2002 to save men’s and women’s golf and men’s gymnastics.
Those sports were going to be cut until a campaign raised $2.8 million in nine months. The effort included a three-hour telethon on KARE-11 that pulled in $673,000. More than 1,700 people donated, giving amounts from $5 to $300,000.
Last week’s announcement left athletes, alumni and supporters feeling blindsided, angry that Coyle and Gabel did not give them a chance to discuss solutions before taking such drastic action. Coyle did address the potential of cutting some sports in May, saying then “everything is on the table.”
Olympian Ben Blankenship, a former Gophers runner, said on Twitter he would “never again” represent the U as an institution. That ire continued to spill out during Wednesday’s rally.
Athletes from other sports, including football player Seth Green, came to support their Gophers counterparts. Men’s gymnastics coach Mike Burns walked the entire route with a cane after having a knee replacement three weeks ago. The group marched politely, wearing masks and observing traffic lights but with purpose.
“We want to make our voices heard,” decathlete Teddy Frid said. “We hope Mark Coyle and the Board of Regents and everyone behind this decision sees the amount of people out here, and knows how [furious] we are.”
Sweeney noted that Brown University cut men’s track in May and reversed the decision after an outcry. She is optimistic the same could happen at the U, with an effort she said is just getting started.
“We’re not going to just let this stand,” she said. “We’re going to fight.”