Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a native of Iowa and a former collegiate wrestler, is known as being a “straight shooter,” and he didn’t disappoint earlier this week at the conference media days in Dallas when he delivered a healthy dose of “straight talk.” He sounded the alarm about the future viability of many Olympic sports on college campuses around the country. Due in large part to the increased costs emanating from the legal challenges that the NCAA and its member schools are facing, Bowlsby worries that many of the less popular Olympic sports may face the chopping block.
Bowlsby has a unique viewpoint when it comes to Olympic sports on campus since he also serves on the United States Olympic Committee Board of Directors. He is well aware that college athletic programs are an integral part of the mosaic that puts the United States team at or near the top at almost every Summer Olympics. Eight-five percent of United States Olympians are trained in collegiate programs. It would not be a stretch to say that if the collegiate rug got pulled out from under the feet of our aspiring Olympic athletes, we would not have the same level of success that we have come to expect. According to Bowlsby, “if track programs and wrestling programs and swimming programs begin to go away, there will be significant damage to our international efforts. In the end, it’s a somewhat zero-sum game. There’s only so much money out there . . . I think over a period of time what we’ll find is that instead of keeping a tennis program, they are going to do the things it takes to keep the football and men’s and women’s basketball programs strong.”
Indeed, this is a bleak scenario. But is this just “crying wolf” or is there a legitimate reason for supporters of the Olympic sports to have some angst about the future? Well, let’s start to answer that query by taking a look at our own history at West Virginia University. When the fall semester starts in just a few short weeks, WVU will be sponsoring 18 sports, which is above the threshold of 16 set by the NCAA in order to qualify as a Division I institution. Over the years, Mountaineer fans will remember that we did in fact cut a number of sports while also adding a few. In 1983 we dropped men’s gymnastics, men’s golf and softball. Later, in 2004, we dropped five sports: men’s cross country, men’s outdoor track, men’s indoor track, men’s tennis and rifle. Of course, due to an outpouring of public support as well as some real pressure from the State legislature, rifle was soon restored as a varsity sport (and thank goodness for that, as coach Jon Hammond’s team has won the last two NCAA Championships!). In addition to that, we added women’s soccer in 1996 and rowing in 2001. Finally, men’s golf was reinstated in 2014.
The athletic department went through a rigorous financial and gender equity analysis when the decision was made to drop five sports. Many of you will remember it as a trying time for our department and for the thousands of student-athletes who had competed in those particular sports over a period of decades. The goal at the time was to invest in the programs that were in a strategic position to be competitive and successful, which ultimately led to additional funding for football and both men’s and women’s basketball. That sounds much like the rationale that Bob Bowlsby spelled out on Monday in Dallas in terms of the potential danger to the Olympic sports.
WVU was not an isolated case. Many schools have dropped sports over the past few decades. Wrestling may have been hit the hardest with the result that there are only some 72 schools in the country that sponsor college wrestling, down from well over 150 just a short time ago. In addition, men’s cross country/indoor/outdoor track teams have been hurt. And what may come as a surprise to some, baseball has suffered on a number of campuses, particularly in those parts of the country with wet, cold and rainy weather. A good example here is Iowa State, which dropped baseball in 2001. Other schools that have said goodbye to the national pastime include UMass, Wisconsin, California-Berkeley and Vermont.
Thankfully, because of the move to the Big 12, we are in a better financial position in terms of our ability to compete with the top schools in the nation. And we do not have any intention to drop Olympic sports. We are very proud of what all our Olympic sport coaches have accomplished and will continue to accomplish. And as Mountaineers, we take great pride in seeing our student-athletes represent the United States or their home nations in the Olympics. But no university is completely out of the woods on this issue. Rest assured that college sports fans will continue to hear for years to come about the potential of Olympic sports being dropped.