Sports Cuts | Featured

Community not accepting soccer and track cuts without a fight

Published: September 27, 2012, 2:20 am ET
Andrew Prezioso /The Collegian
Senior captain Houston Oldham and his team were blindsided by the university's decision to cut the men's soccer program, especially after they were told last spring that they had more time, he said.
Online Editor (with help from Erin Moyer, Chrissy Wengloski and Amanda Minnitte)

The announcement that the University of Richmond is cutting the men’s soccer and men’s track and field programs to add men’s lacrosse has sent shockwaves throughout the university community, including alumni, athletes, students and faculty.

The Board of Trustees ultimately made the decision, said Jim Miller, Richmond athletic director. The recommendation, though, came from a committee, which Miller was a part of, formed in April 2011 to research the mix of sports on campus, he said.

“The thing that Jim Miller said was, ‘Every fact known to mankind: [that’s what] the committee looked at in the study,’” said Patrick Love, a junior track and field and cross country athlete, about the explanation he and his team received when told his sport had been cut. “But we’re trying to access this study, and we’re not finding any information about it.”

What bothered Love the most, he said, was the fact that there had been no student input in the process and that the team had been given no warning so that it could make its case. The members of the team have attempted to get into contact with members of the Board of Trustees for answers, but have not been successful, Love said.

“As a board member, I can’t talk about the decision,” Bobby Ukrop said, “but as a soccer enthusiast for the past 35 years, I’m disappointed to see the men’s soccer team go.”

Like Love, many faculty members were caught off-guard. The university makes many good decisions, and every once in a while it makes one that should be reconsidered, and this is one, chemistry professor William Myers said.

Political science professor Dan Palazzolo thought it was unfortunate that the university had to cut sports in order to add others, but that was just the reality of the situation, he said.

“I just had an email from one of my students who is going to transfer,” chemistry professor John Gupton said. “I would hate to see us as a university lose some of our very best students because we don’t have a program that is very attractive to them.”

The lack of student input on this decision has been a complaint by many in the Richmond community, including senior Colin Billings, a member of the university’s Athletics Council during his sophomore and junior years. He said the council was composed of one student representative each from Richmond College and Westhampton College, President Edward Ayers, Miller, athletic department staff, university administrators, trustee representatives and faculty. The council meets once a semester, he said.

“From what I recall, the council was divided into focus groups who were each looking into a different aspect of athletics at the university,” Billings said. “The interesting thing is that in the development of this task force that supposedly did all this research, students were not invited to be involved.

“I remember specifically at one point [in a meeting] looking at Dr. Ayers and saying, ‘Why am I not part of one of these committees? I’m part of the council and the council is being divided into committees. How come I’m not on one?’”

Ayers responded in a way that made it seem as though he thought it would be too much of a time burden for a student, Billings said. He said he had still wanted to be involved because he had felt it was his responsibility as student representative.

Alumni and parents have consistently sent Miller and Ayers, who is also a member of the Board of Trustees, harshly worded emails since the decision was announced, Love and Houston Oldham, senior captain of the soccer team, said.

One of those emails was from Oldham’s parents, Sharon and Mark Oldham. In the email, they wrote: “My family will be strongly influenced by how the men’s soccer program was treated by the administration before contemplating any future developmental gifts to the university. I will definitely link any potential gift to the university based upon how this administration has handled this decision.”

Houston’s grandfather, the late W. Dortch Oldham, began the Oldham Scholars program with his wife, Sis, in 1983. The scholarship is awarded to up to seven Richmond Scholars and equals the value of full tuition plus room and board, exceeding $200,000, according to Richmond’s website.

“The way that the board and administration went about this, I don’t think reflects the values and traditions that my grandfather would’ve liked in the school,” Houston said. “In no way am I saying that the Oldham Scholarship completely supports men’s soccer in the sense that if men’s soccer is not on campus next year, that the Oldham Scholarship will be cut, because that would be unfair to those people that are benefitting from it. But, in the future, as I hopefully become part of the organization that runs the Oldham Scholarship, it is something to be considered, how I was treated here.”

In response to the email, Miller said that he hoped no single decision made by the university would negatively influence people’s support for the university as a whole.

“It doesn’t change my opinion enough to not continue to support [the university], but it definitely leaves a sour taste in my mouth,” said Andrew Blanchard, a 1997 graduate who ran track and cross country. “And it definitely has me concerned about the future and where it’s headed.”

Blanchard also said that donations to the university had been different when he went to school compared to now, citing the Robins family as main supporters during his Richmond tenure.

“[Robins] was focused on the results of the giving, and the good it could do for the people and not the glory,” he said, “and I think what you’ve seen with this anonymous gift is turning that on its head, to ram this forward without buy-ins from the athletic department or faculty.”

The anonymous donation Blanchard refers to is the $3 million donation to the athletics department announced in association with the lacrosse team becoming a Division I sport.

The general public’s outlook on the donation has been one of the biggest misconceptions with this announcement, Miller said.

“It was not donors coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, here’s $3 million, start a lacrosse team,’” he said. “The decision was made that they wanted to start men’s lacrosse as a sport at the University of Richmond.

“It meets our long term needs to have this as a sport, but we’re not going to do it by taking more money away from the academics at the university and giving money to athletics, nor are we going to take money from the other sports and give it to lacrosse. We’re going to substitute it for other sports, and it’s going to cost additional money to run it, and we’re not going to do it unless that money is available.

“The money then became available through outside donors, and the decision moved forward.”

As for where the anonymous donation came from, there are loyal alumni and generous donors on both sides of the issue, Ayers wrote in an email, having denied request for an in-person or telephone interview. He requested questions be emailed to him because he was too busy.

Two prominent members of the Board of Trustees have been linked with the sports affected. Paul Queally has financially helped the school’s club lacrosse team, and the club’s coach, Glenn Carter, has often spoken at practices about how much Queally’s donations have helped the team, a junior on the lacrosse team said, requesting anonymity.

Queally has a senior son, Brian, and freshman daughter, Erin, currently enrolled at Richmond. His youngest son, Sean, is a sophomore in high school and is playing lacrosse in his Facebook profile picture.

Paul Queally did not respond to requests to comment.

On the other side, board member Ukrop has been associated with the men’s soccer program.

Queally, Ukrop and the rest of the board members were absent when Miller told the soccer and track teams about the decision. Oldham wondered why the school didn’t think a board member should have been present to answer questions, he said.

“The teams were told by the athletics director, with their coach present,” Ayers wrote. “That was the right approach, and we will continue to work with them to make sure all of their questions are answered.”

Oldham had other problems with the way the team was told four hours before its game because the news had leaked to the media somehow, he said.

“The school didn’t even think that maybe they should have some counseling people there to help out some younger players,” Oldham said. “[They just thought] that they were able to deal with life-altering news like that.”

Oldham also wondered what image the school was trying to create by adding lacrosse and removing soccer, he said, though he wanted to make it clear that he thought lacrosse also deserved to be a Division I sport. He wasn’t alone in wondering how this would change the school’s image.

Leadership studies professor Thad Williamson doesn’t think it fits the university’s reputation to not have soccer, the world’s most popular sport, he said.

“From an international perspective, they mentioned that they want to promote diversity with this decision,” Love said, “which is so not true because lacrosse kids are almost all from the Northeast.”

Love also said freshman track member Robert Agaba, who was born and raised in Rwanda, came to America, was married in Rwanda and then moved back to America to run for Richmond.

“People like that are just not going to get any opportunity to run anymore,” Love said.

Ayers wrote that the majority of track and field athletes also competed in men’s cross country.

“You don’t have a credible cross country team if you don’t also have indoor and outdoor track teams,” Love said, in response.

Love believes most freshmen and sophomores on the track team will transfer because of this decision, he said. Oldham said the same about the soccer team. All team members from both sports were granted the option to transfer and will be permitted to compete at another school immediately, Miller said.

For every 3.42 students that transfer, there will be a one percent drop in Richmond’s retention rate. With 13 underclassmen in each sport, the school’s retention rate would fall by about 7.5 percent if all freshmen and sophomores from each team left.

“That bodes really awfully for the university because that’s what all the reports take into account when they do rankings,” Love said.

Both teams are still working to reverse the decision. The track team has gone the social media route, creating an online petition and making a Facebook group, Love said. The alumni also paid for the ad on the back page of this week’s Collegian.

The soccer team has been using its active alumni base, which met on Monday, to create a strategic plan, Oldham said.

“The best thing we can do right now is keep winning and showing our worth through wins,” Oldham said.

Both teams will be at the Ukrop Auditorium in Queally Hall from 5 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. on Sunday for a forum called UR SOS (Save Our Sports), which Richmond faculty members organized, Love said. Ayers and Miller have been invited, and Ayers agreed to come, but Miller has not yet responded, Love said.

The forum will serve as a discussion for other courses of action that can be taken, and Love said he wanted as many people to show up as possible.

“Never did I think that my four years here would be the four years that immediately preceded something never existing again,” Oldham said. “We got a long shot, but hopefully we bet against the odds this time and win.”

Contact staff writer David Weissman at david.weissman@richmond.edu

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  • http://www.facebook.com/pete.norquist Peter Norquist

    Fantastic piece of reporting. Thank you for bringing a thorough outline of the facts and events to the attention of the UR student body. It will be very interesting to see if the Board / Athletic Department will offer up any concrete materials backing up the reasoning that went into this decision. The public perception is indeed that this $3 million donation (plus other funds) was the major factor in the decision-making process. The forum on Sunday at 5:15pm is a great place to start.

    Let’s hope that UR Leadership can provide factual evidence proving this truly is just a perception. If they cannot, then there are serious moral questions the University needs to address about whether or not a D1 athletic program should be for sale at an institution of higher learning.

    Peter Norquist
    Class of 2008

  • Kevin

    For every great student who chooses to leave, at least one or more great students will show up because we have D1 lacrosse. It is the fastest growing sport in America and most of the Ivy schools and other great colleges in the east have D1 lacrosse.

    • Mierka

      It looks like you like lacrosse and that’s great! But the issue here isn’t really whether lacrosse is a worthwhile sport. Of course it’s a valid sport, just like soccer, or track and field. The issue is that the university chose to cut two mens sports made up of quality student athletes with high GPAs and great performance instead of just adding another women’s sport. Lacrosse is a growing sport, but it is not immune to cuts and if we back up this suspicious behavior by saying “but lacrosse is great” we ignore what president this sets for the future. What if a donor comes along with 10 million dollars and happens to like men’s bowling over lacrosse? What do you think would be on the chopping block then? Should the university sell out to the whims of one donor’s favorites at the expense of other teams?

  • http://twitter.com/NFB87 Nathan Bullock

    not surprising at all b/c they just did this to the varsity-level debate team.

  • Ana Neferu

    Jim Miller is wrong hoping that “no single decision made by the university would negatively influence people’s support for the university as a whole.” I worked at the Phonathon last year and I called plenty of alumni who refused to give even $25 to the university as a whole as a result of one single decision. That included people who had consistently given substantial gifts in the past. Those alumni were not persuaded by arguments like that they should not forget the rest of their amazing experience and that they could designate their gifts to other areas of the University. One reason I encountered quite often back then was cutting the debate team’s varsity status.
    University officials probably know the benefits of many alumni making even small donations like $25. Even if $25 by itself does not change a student’s life, it increases the percentage alumni participation, and a greater percentage of alumni support attracts substantial gifts from big corporations. The money lost from those corporations as a result of soccer and track and field alumni backing out will probably outweigh the money saved by cutting those sports.
    I think that after a few years, having added a new female sport would have payed off financially. No athlete alumni would have backed off, and there would have been stronger support from fans and players of the new sport.

  • Jeff Crook

    Very good piece, David. I agree with commenter Andrew Prezioso that Jim Miller is a good man that has done a lot of good for UR Athletics. He doesn’t deserve this situation either.

    • http://www.facebook.com/luke.cassidy.93 Luke Cassidy

      Jeff Crook, are you sure you are not Jim Miller? ^^

      • Jeff Crook

        I am not Jim. I am Jeff. Are you sure who you are, Luke?

        • http://www.facebook.com/luke.cassidy.93 Luke Cassidy

          Are you that ignorant Jeff, that you didn’t know that Jim Miller headed the committee to bring in lacrosse? He very well “deserves” the attention. lol

  • GG

    I’m still in the denial phase of this nightmare.

  • Ann O’Toole

    Does Jim Miller honestly think that Richmond will be a national recognized lacrosse team when Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Loyola Maryland, University of Virginia, UNC, and Duke are all within a 3 hour radius? Good luck getting top recruits.

    • RichmondStudent

      if you think that richmond will be in the same league as these schools then i am ashamed to go to the same school as you

  • Buddy

    Nice. So it doesn’t matter if the Board of Trustees makes a really bad decision it doesn’t matter. Because after all, the incoming students will have no concept of how much better things once were. Don’t you think it’s problematic beginning “The school generally does not care about student input”? Does UR exist for the students or just to perpetuate itself (they’re not the same- endowment or students- what is it?). Also the current trutstees and donors aren’t going to live forever. One day UR is going to depend on the students affected by these ill-informed decisions. And not to go ad hominem, but what’s the point of arguing for a defeatist attitude?

  • Albemarle burrow man

    I am on a personal mission to destroy the University of Richmond. I was hoping my daughter would attend school there a month ago (to run track). I will make sure no kids involved in lacrosse in the Charlottesville area ever attend the school.