Brown chooses pursuit of championships over opportunity in dropping 11 varsity programs

Bruno has fewer varsity sports teams to root for after the university decided to approve a net loss of nine varsity athletic programs in an effort to garner more wins and championships among the programs that remain. | Photo by Erica Denhoff

What is the purpose of collegiate athletics? Is it to win? Or is it to provide as much opportunity to compete as possible?

Brown endorsed the former interpretation with its announcement Thursday that it is dropping 11 varsity programs starting with the 2020-21 academic calendar.

Browns is eliminating varsity men’s and women’s fencing, men’s and women’s golf, women’s skiing, men’s and women’s squash, women’s equestrian as well as men’s track, field and cross country while bumping club coed and women’s sailing up to the varsity level.

The cuts were recommended by a committee appointed by university President Christina H. Paxson in January that included Brown men’s hoops legend and 2003 grad Earl Hunt, and the university said the moves are part of what it called the Excellence in Brown Athletics Initiative, whose three stated objectives are improving the competitiveness of the university’s varsity athletics teams, enhancing the strength of club sports and upholding Brown’s commitment to provide equal opportunities in athletics for women and men.

Really, though, Brown has decided that less is more because it wants to win more.

An external review of Brown Athletics conducted in the 2018-19 academic year found that the high number of varsity sports at Brown was a barrier to competitiveness, the university said Thursday. The university said it is currently home to the third-largest number of varsity teams in the nation, with almost 900 students competing across Brown’s 38 varsity teams last year, including non-recruited athletes invited to “walk on” to complete rosters.

But in the decade ending in 2018, Brown reported earning just 2.8% of Ivy League titles, the lowest among member schools.

“(The committee was) looking at facilities issues, natural advantages and history of success,” Paxson told the Providence Journal. “What are the teams — if we make the right investments — that can really be great?”

Brown men’s basketball might be getting an investment.

The Providence Journal reported Thursday that Brown will have roughly $500,000 to reallocate in its budget, and Brown Athletic Director Jack Hayes mentioned men’s basketball and women’s soccer as possible recipients.

Brown men’s basketball is a program whose stock has risen the past two seasons under coach and 2004 alum Mike Martin, having compiled the most wins (35) over two years in program history despite not yet qualifying for the Ivy League Tournament. Brown women’s soccer is coming off an Ivy title in 2019, and several of the programs being cut have struggled to compete in recent years.

But it shouldn’t matter whether certain varsity programs are more successful than others. The opportunity to compete and grow as student-athletes is more important than winning.

Having had 38 varsity teams up to this point has been a credit to Brown and suggests that the university’s athletic department has been more successful than most followers have realized. The university has provided students something more valuable than championship banners: the opportunity to compete across a broad spectrum of sports while getting a world-class education and maturing as young adults in what is hopefully an environment full of diversity and positivity.

Club organizing is still an option for the sports dropped from the varsity level, but that’s not remotely the same thing. The university could have been commended for bolstering support for its sailing program, but not when dropping so many other programs. Brown has nine fewer varsity sports – a significant narrowing of opportunity – because administrators consciously decided to consolidate resources in the hands of a smaller number of programs to win more.

Brown should have done what it did after commissioning a 2011 study under former President Ruth Simmons that recommended eliminating an undetermined number of varsity teams and reducing athletic budgets, per the Providence Journal: keep its existing varsity programs anyway.

Brown’s move comes at a perilous time when student-athletes nationwide need as much support as possible. According to a NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being Study, a majority of 37,000 participants reported experiencing high rates of mental distress since the outset of the pandemic. Now the roughly 150 Brown student-athletes who are members of these varsity programs have been told suddenly and bluntly that their athletic communities as they know them aren’t worth sustaining. That’s a terrible message to send, and it’s not what college athletics should be about.


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