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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Swim team's future is unsure

Program in new situation with loss of scholarships

Ethan Bassett looks to be one of the bright spots for the AU Men's Swimming and Diving team as the Patriot League Championships begin today in Annapolis, Md. The two-time All-PL swimmer has come a long way since he graduated from high school with hopes that a swimming scholarship could make paying for school a little bit easier. He wasn't recruited at first, but two years of training paid off and a scholarship offer from AU made college possible.

"That's the reason I'm here," he said.

Bassett will be one of the last students at AU for this reason when it ceases to offer Men's and Women's Swimming and Diving scholarships, beginning with the incoming recruiting class. The loss of scholarships has head coach Mark Davin looking in a new direction and some swimmers unsure about the program's future.

"The philosophy when I was first hired here was that we wanted to get students who were involved academically and in the city," Davin said. "We wanted to look for students who would have high goals. Now, recruiting has changed. I think it's possible to have a full team without scholarships. Will we be as competitive in the future? This is something new."

While Davin said the decision was unfortunate, he said he was glad he was now sure of his resources. In the past, people have committed when money proved unavailable, he said.

"It's good that it's out there," he said. "Now recruits can make decisions knowing that."

The athletics department made the cuts because of overspending in recent years, said Athletic Director Joni Comstock. A decision had to be made between cutting sports or cutting scholarships, which constitute the largest portion of the budget, she said.

"The University felt the program had the ability to sustain a quality program despite the lack of scholarships," Comstock said.

Comstock assumed duties Dec. 15, after the reduction was announced in November, but said she was hired with an understanding of it. She said the cuts were the largest in recent years, but AU wasn't alone in its need to re-examine athletic spending.

For example, Ball State eliminated school funding for Men's Swimming scholarships in a July budget restructuring that eliminated three sports.

"Somewhere we, athletic departments nationwide, have gotten messed up in how we spend our money," she said. "Many schools' athletic departments are in jeopardy. I applaud AU for doing a good job."

Members of the team have tried to push the issue aside and focus on the season. Senior Lian Tay, the walk-on women's captain, said her fellow swimmers don't talk about it with the coaching staff.

"Lately we've tried not to think about it that much," Tay said. "It's very important to be ready for the next meet."

The subject, however, is a dark one for some swimmers who are not convinced of the administration's sentiments that the team will still be competitive. The men's team has 12 members, four of whom are seniors, which is slightly more than the Div. I minimum of 11 participants. Bassett said the loss of scholarships takes away an incentive to swim at AU, which could further hurt participation and the program's existence.

Comstock said the program's existence is secure. Davin said he was sure he could field a team because scholarships are only part of recruits' interest in the school.

"Think about who will be attracted to AU," he said. "People come to D.C. for the city and internships. Some come for swimming scholarships. Those won't be here, but the other reasons people come here are still available."

The cuts have the teams joining Men's Golf as the only sports of AU's 19 programs to not offer scholarships. In the PL, only Colgate can offer swimming scholarships, as it created 31 rotating scholarships this year. However, Bucknell recruits are eligible for need-based preferential financial aid packages, and all Army and Navy students have their educations financed by the federal government. The service academies have won the majority of men's and women's PL titles in the sport since the league began swimming in 1991. AU men placed second and third while the women have finished third and sixth in the PL Championships in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

"We are the smallest team in the Patriot League," Bassett said. "We're not at the same competitive level. There aren't any divers on the men's side and we're up against teams with 30 or 40 guys. Instead of bringing us to the level of our competition, it really just brings us down in general."

In terms of financial incentive to swim for PL schools, it's difficult to say the league has much parity.

"I consider Army and Navy to have some solid financial enticement," Lehigh head coach John Morrison said in an e-mail. "So, I do not believe the scholarship or non-scholarship playing field has been level at anytime. Nor, will it be in the future."

Davin is now looking to alumni to endow scholarships, which is similar to how the Men's Wrestling team operates. Comstock said there would be a minimum fundraising requirement, although she could not say the amount.

Fundraising has saved swimming programs at other schools from disappearing. Dartmouth cut its teams in a 2002 budget reduction, but they were later reinstated after alumni and students rallied in a $2 million fundraising effort.

However, sometimes such work still won't cut it. Fresno State boosters raised $1.2 million to keep Women's Swimming and Men's Soccer, but it wasn't enough, and the programs were put on hiatus this year.

Former UCLA Men's Swimming coach Ron Ballatore told US News magazine on March 18, 2002 he was not even given the opportunity to save the program through fundraising in 1994.

There has been a significant loss of swimming programs nationwide in recent decades. Between 1988 and 2002, 48 Div. I schools dropped their men's programs while 29 dropped their women's programs, according to the 2003 NCAA Sponsorship and Participation Report. Schools added 25 women's teams in that span, but swimming was one of the few women's sports to lose teams in an era when women's sponsorship overall has grown tremendously.

Phillip Whitten, the editor of Swim magazine who has written on the decline of college programs, said the trend was "very alarming."

Almost 66 percent of Div. I schools had men's programs in 1981, but the percentage had decreased by more than 30 percent by 2002. With the exception of wrestling, this decline was the largest of all men's programs that most schools offered in 1981. The nation's premier programs haven't been spared in the decline. UCLA cut Ballatore's team 10 years ago, even though it produced nine Olympic gold-medal winners and a national championship.

"When [UCLA] cut men's swimming, I think athletics directors saw there was no price to pay," Whitten said. "I think that's what's started the trend."

Although women's programs have not been hurt as much, sponsorship for them has grown slowly compared with the expansion of women's sports in general. The percentage of Div. I schools with teams decreased by three percent between 1981 and 2002. This makes it the only women's sport offered by most schools in 1981 whose percentage of sponsorship decreased.

Support for women's sports has increased since the 1972 passage of Title IX, a federal law that mandates equal opportunity in federally funded educational programs. Whitten said women's swimming has not increased much despite the law because school officials seek compliance by adding other teams that maximize participation while minimizing cost per student.

Whitten also said rising costs of men's football and basketball programs were to blame. School administrators have disproportionately prioritized these sports, as seen by scholarships given to football players with little playing time and the seven-figure salaries of some Division IA football coaches, he said.

"The reality of the situation is that in the immediate future, university presidents don't have the intestinal fortitude to stop what is going on in football and basketball," Whitten said. "If we want to preserve Olympic sports, they need to take collective action"

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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