For updates on the efforts to save Eastern Michigan Wrestling, follow @SaveEMUWrest on Twitter.
Early Friday morning, the @emunews Twitter account, which is the news source representing Eastern Michigan’s Division of Communications, put out a Tweet highlighting what they no doubt considered a particularly poignant line from Dan Bauman’s article entitled “Here Are the Hottest College Sports – and the Ones in Decline”. The tweet read, “From @chronicle: ‘In choosing to eliminate teams like women’s tennis and men’s wrestling, Eastern Michigan is swimming with the tide. Over the course of the last decade, colleges’ athletics departments at all levels have dropped those and other sports in decline.’ #EMU”. Because the Division of Communications is a school-sponsored marketing organization, rather than a journalistic endeavor, the message is not surprising. Taking up whatever narrative supports the administration is what they are there to do. However, cherry picking this one line in an article that does a poor job of supporting its thesis exposes the lie that is being force fed to the community.
On the surface, the claim itself can survive on a technicality. Over the last decade, wrestling has been dropped at all levels as have most, if not all, non-revenue sports. Tellingly, though, the statement is nearly true for football, often held up by athletic departments as the way into the big time for schools that are outside the college sports elite. There have been football programs cut in Division I within the last 10 years, though not in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the top-level where the most money flows. There have been plenty of teams outside of Division I who have ended their efforts and more who have dropped down a division to save money. This is the reality of college sports in the 21st century. Different schools have different needs. What makes sense at one, cutting non-revenue sports to pursue the cash cows of football and basketball (though as of 2016 only 24 power five athletic departments generated more revenue than they spent), makes no sense at others. That allows sweeping generalizations such as the one used by EMU’s propaganda arm in this instance but, as usual, that doesn’t make it true.
Bauman’s article shows that what most people would take from his declaration that wrestling has been dropped at all levels and calling it a sport in decline, that there are fewer college programs now than there were a decade ago, is disproven by the data presented on that page. Though wrestling is unquestionably down in Division I, the table labeled “Who’s Up and Down: All Colleges” shows men’s wrestling as gaining 46 programs in that time period putting the sport comfortably in the top half of those tracked in regards to growth. In fact, of the 33 men’s sports tracked in the table, wrestling is doing better than all but seven, three of which are closely related (indoor track, outdoor track, and cross country). There is an obvious reason why wrestling and other sports like it are growing outside of Division I, but struggling to tread water at the highest level and it goes back to what I said earlier about different schools having different needs.
The athletic departments that are profiting off of college sports are almost exclusively large, land-grant institutions. Not all schools in this category are in the black, but those that are share that common bond. These universities get so many applications that they could not possibly admit all qualified students who wish to attend. For them, non-revenue sports are nothing but a cost. The NCAA requires Division I schools to maintain a minimum number of programs so not all non-revenue sports can be cut. However, adding sports at this level is incredibly difficult. However, Eastern Michigan is not at this level. The Eagles compete in the purgatory that is FBS football outside of the power five. Certainly, the MAC generates revenue for the school. However, it is not nearly enough to offset the cost of the program, which to maintain its status in the FBS must grant at least 90% of the maximum 85 scholarships in an average year.
Though the biggest schools have not been affected much by declining college enrollment, Eastern Michigan and those like them have been hit hard. The explanation for cutting sports is to help patch a budget shortfall which has been caused by credit hours being taken at the institution declining 11.6 percent over the past four years. With state appropriations also less than a decade ago, there are simply fewer resources to go around. While this may seem like an argument for cutting programs, offering fewer options is a sure way to see the slide in credit hours continue. The number of schools where at least 33 percent of students played at least one sport increased from 96 to 124 between 2006 and 2011 and that trend is likely to continue. Schools that add sports usually see their enrollment numbers rise which is why Division II, Division III, and NAIA schools are adding sports like wrestling consistently in recent years. The latest Division I schools to add the sport, Presbyterian and Arkansas-Little Rock, are both interested in increasing their enrollment numbers. Even with 9.9 scholarships a roster of 30 or more athletes can greatly offset the cost of the program. If non-revenue sports are managed correctly, they can be money makers in this regard while attracting high-quality students to campuses they may otherwise not consider.
So why, then, if these facts are out there and schools are driving enrollment by adding sports, would Eastern Michigan make this decision? Beyond the dreams of someday cashing in on FBS football, there is short term thinking here that is encouraged by the contract of Scott Wetherbee who became the school’s athletic director last summer. Two aspects of his contract, posted by the Twitter account @wrestlingbypir8, stand out. First, in section 8.3.1, it states that if Wetherbee resigns, he will owe the university 50% of his base salary for the remainder of the contract. However, if varsity sports are eliminated during his tenure, “the University and Employee agree to reopen this provision of the Agreement and discuss a reduction or elimination of the liquidated damages amount”. In effect, dropping these sports or, at least, not doing everything he can to keep them is beneficial to Wetherbee.
There are also financial incentives for meeting yearly goals in regards to becoming less reliant on the general fund for support of the athletic department. This is where schools often fall victim to poor math. Athletes who are not on full scholarships, almost all wrestlers, contribute to the general fund by paying the school. However, this sort of incentive refuses to take that into account. By cutting sports, the athletic department will certainly be less reliant on the general fund as their expenses will drop. However, the contribution of athletes to that general fund will also drop. By separating the two, the athletic department can easily become myopic, as they have done here, while the administration can tell their academics what they’re doing to reduce the expenditures going to sports. Meanwhile, it saves little, if any, when you reach the actual bottom line as enrollment continues to shrink and the revenue going into the general fund drops. This is encouraged by Wetherbee’s contract.
The fact of the matter is that schools like Eastern Michigan are never going to take the field to play in the BCS national title game. That pipe dream leads many administrations to forget that the needs of their particular institution are much different than the needs of a land-grant school. Eastern Michigan is seeing declining enrollment and budget shortfalls which, to Division I administrations, means cutting sports. However, they need to realize before it is too late that they have more in common with Presbyterian and Arkansas-Little Rock than Alabama. The short-term savings of cutting these sports will only exacerbate the problem and they’ll be right back in the conference room a year or two down the road trying to figure out what else they can cut. As they continue down that road, football will inevitably have to bear the brunt either by being eliminated or dropping to a lower division. The dream of big-time FBS football gets even further away with every sport Eastern Michigan eliminates. The administration must act to reinstate these enrollment drivers before they further damage their university. There is a reason these “sports in decline” are not suffering outside of Division I and Eastern Michigan is not the type of DI school that benefits from cutting them.