I almost didn’t write it. I’ve been around this sport long enough that I knew what might be coming, but it was true. After Cleveland, with another new DI program being announced, attendance records being set, and an incredible tournament in the books, I wrote that DI college wrestling suddenly had momentum. Now, we’re again faced with trying to rally to save a program. If you haven’t heard, Eastern Michigan announced Tuesday they would be reducing the number of sports they support from 21 to 17, meaning softball, women’s tennis, men’s swimming and diving, as well as wrestling, would no longer be offered. The stated impetus behind the move is an expense reduction of $2.4 million. Just as our sport did last year with Boise State and countless other times in recent years, wrestling has mobilized to save the Eagles who were thrust into many people’s consciousness when Sa’Derian Perry made his run from entering the 2018 NCAA tournament with sub-.500 record to becoming the program’s first All-American since 1999. In the end, this isn’t about success, on or off the mat, but money, perception, and politics. We must fight this battle while also casting an eye towards the rest of our programs. The call to action to save Eastern Michigan should also serve as a call to action to support every school competing in our favorite sport.
Before we get to that, let’s focus on Eastern Michigan. Coach David Bolyard’s team has a full complement of scholarships, 9.9, to offer, had managed to piece together a $500,000 endowment fund, and was successful academically, holding the top Academic Progress Rate of any men’s program at the school in addition to seeing four Academic All-Americans crowned this season according to Bolyard. That was not enough to keep them off the chopping block. Unfortunately, the endowment fund was not nearly large enough to offset the cost of the program allowing the administration to see a cost savings in this move. However, it does prove that Eastern Michigan was moving in the right direction to ensure their survival. Now, the fight is on to save a fully-funded program, something all too rare in DI wrestling. If you want to help, the NWCA put out a call to action including contact information for key personnel and talking points to hit. In addition, a GoFundMe has been established for the crucial fundraising effort. Clear, consistent messaging is key to changing this decision so please participate, be respectful, and stay on message. Make no mistake, vitriol and flawed arguments will be used by the administration as a reason to dismiss the efforts as a whole. Don’t give them that option.
Coach Bolyard was clear that the program has powerful people ready to help and that they will continue to fight. Fundraising will be a key to that as a fully endowed program would not make sense to cut in an effort to save money. While it is easy to point out the football program that is hemorrhaging cash, we must focus on making wrestling a net positive rather than pointing out other areas where the school is in the red. This is the political aspect of this fight. No administration wants to admit their school isn’t capable of competing in the big time which means football is seen as sacrosanct by many, sadly. This isn’t fair, but we must always focus on what we can control to increase our chances of success. Having a current roster of 24 athletes means that, in effect, the equivalent of 14.1 wrestlers are paying their way to attend the school. This helps from a revenue standpoint and with declining enrollment being a problem in Ypsilanti, that can be held up as a strength of the program. Our sport has been used in many places to drive enrollment which is a large factor behind the growth in DII, DIII, and NAIA. However, that amount of revenue is not purely profit and likely does not offset the expense of the program entirely. That means we must raise enough money to ensure the program operates in the black and is a contributor to the athletic department overall for the enrollment gains to be a more salient factor. This is the battle that is facing the wrestling community at Eastern Michigan and this won’t be the last field we fight on.
When I read the call to action from the NWCA, it struck me that many of the aspects involved, focusing on the accomplishments of the program as they relate to the school’s stated mission, both on and off the mat, apply to every program. Unfortunately, we often don’t send messages of support to the administration until something like this happens. Eastern Michigan deserved to hear from the wrestling community long before they were at risk. They were supporting our sport with 9.9 scholarship opportunities, the academic success is not new, and the fact that all three members of their coaching staff recently wrapped up at least their fourth year involved speaks well of the environment that has been created there. I can only wonder if this decision might have been different had the administration been consistently hearing from wrestling fans over the past several years and receiving some additional donations.
While we should not turn our attention away from the Eagles, what most of us can do to support them won’t take much time. Once that is done, I beg of you to pick a few more programs in DI that you might not usually support and send notes of thanks to the school president, athletic director, and board of regents or similar organization. Email addresses for these staff members are almost always available on school websites. If you are able, even a small contribution, which you can reference in your thank you notes, can help. While our sport has become all too familiar with reacting to the news that another program has been cut, we aren’t as good at supporting those who are outside the traditional powers. That needs to change in order to sustain the momentum so many have fought so hard to generate. This off-season, when you have a minute to pause and catch your breath, please take the time to do what you can for our sport. It may just prevent an announcement such as this one in the future.