State Senate Republicans are calling for the University of Minnesota to consider reinstating three men's sports programs it eliminated during the pandemic and establish a commission to examine its athletic department's strategic direction.
Students, coaches and alumni who were involved with the U's move to eliminate gymnastics, tennis and indoor track and field programs voiced their frustrations to lawmakers during a hearing at the State Capitol on Tuesday. Leaders of the Senate higher education committee vowed to continue looking into the matter.
"I for one am going to be asking the university to take a long, hard look at what they're doing," said Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, vice chair of the higher education committee. "It unfortunately seems to be a recurring theme that they make their decisions in a vacuum. They're not getting input from the students, from employees at the university."
The U eliminated the three men's sports programs in fall 2020 amid pushback from those affected. President Joan Gabel and Mark Coyle, director of athletics, said the cuts were necessary to address a projected $75 million budget deficit in the athletics department and to comply with federal Title IX regulations by better balancing the university's share of male and female athletes.
The program cuts were estimated to save the athletics department just under $2 million annually out of a budget of more than $120 million. Revenue losses from the pandemic wound up being less severe than expected and the department ended the year with a shortfall of just over $20 million, which it covered with a loan.
U leaders declined to participate in the hearing Tuesday, citing a pending lawsuit on the issue; former gymnast Evan Ng sued the U over the sports cuts in October, alleging sex-based discrimination and seeking to have the men's gymnastics team reinstated.
"The decision of the Board of Regents more than 17 months ago came after much study and as the Chair and Vice Chair of the Board of Regents expressed, it was a decision they wished they did not have to make," U Chief Government Relations Officer J.D. Burton wrote in a letter to the Senate higher education committee Tuesday.
Supporters of the eliminated sports teams have repeatedly asked Gabel, Coyle and the Board of Regents to reconsider. But their requests to speak during regent meetings have been denied, as have proposals they brought forward to keep the three programs alive through existing endowments and pledged donations.
"We have been pounding on a door that will not open," former Gophers gymnastics standout and three-time Olympian John Roethlisberger told lawmakers. "We can't get anywhere without you. … Your influence is undeniable."
Those who testified were skeptical of the U's Title IX concerns, noting the university removed a few dozen women's athletic roster spots after cutting the men's programs. And they were quick to point out that Gabel, Coyle and other administrators have been given pay raises in the past year.
"That is money that could have kept our sports," said Anne Marie McNamara Rogers, president of the Baseline Club, a nonprofit booster club that has supported the men's tennis program. She also questioned why the athletics department did not use a small portion of its loan to keep the teams.
Roethlisberger and others called for the Senate committee to create a commission that would evaluate the U's athletics department, which they said puts too much emphasis on the revenue-generating sports of football and men's basketball. College athletics departments nationwide have built their budgets to be too dependent on the two sports, leaving other programs at risk when revenue decreases, they said.
"The model as we know it in college athletics is broken," Roethlisberger said.
Rarick said he will write a letter to U leaders and regents asking them to establish such a commission. Because the U is constitutionally autonomous from the state, lawmakers can only ask, not require, the university to take actions.
However, lawmakers can raise their concerns in conversations about the U's legislative funding requests, Rarick said.
Yahya Madar, a member of the men's outdoor track and field team, said he and his teammates no longer feel supported by the athletics department. With no indoor track season, the team likely will become less competitive and appealing to recruits.
"Cutting these teams don't come without a consequence," Madar said. "Please fight for us."