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  • Writer's pictureJack Mullaney

The Real Impact of Cutting Men’s Track & Field at the University of Minnesota

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

To the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota,

I want to apologize.

For those of us who are entrenched in the collegiate track & field community, the impact of a successful program like the men's team at the U is understood. But for those who are not, there hasn't been a messenger to communicate just how vital this squad is to the campus, the state, and the sport as a whole. That shortcoming is on all of us who have been touched by the program in some way over the years. My hope is that this letter can help bridge the gap.

I never had the privilege of running for the Gophers. Instead, I spent my undergraduate years at the U working in the athletics department and playing trumpet in the marching band. But I owe my start as a track & field coach to this team. After graduation, I started as an operations intern for the men's and women's teams, an opportunity that in hindsight, I was unqualified for. I loved running, but it was quickly apparent that there was a lot I didn't know about collegiate track & field. To this day, I'm grateful that the coaching staff stayed patient with me, and supported me as I found my feet in the sport.

To the uninitiated, like I was, there is a lot about a track & field program that isn't seen or understood. That couldn't have been more apparent when I read the open letter published by the athletics department earlier this week. In the FAQ section, it was written that the decision to cut men's track & field, tennis, and gymnastics "impacts 58 student-athletes." This couldn't be further from the truth.

This decision will impact far more than 58 student-athletes. To begin, there are currently 8 members of the men's tennis team, 19 members of the men's gymnastics team, and 48 members of the men's track & field team. That adds up to 75. To assume that distance athletes, who are also part of cross country, will not be "impacted" is categorically false.

This decision will impact the men's cross country team. The absence of a track season will not only reduce competitive and developmental opportunities, but it will greatly challenge recruiting. When the lion's share of comparative schools are competing in all three sports (XC, ITF, OTF), it will be a tall order to ask a talented high school athlete to pick a school with only one. Going back at least ten years (and likely more), no men's cross country-only program has cracked the top ten at the NCAA Championships. A good cross country team is complimented by a good track & field team, and vice versa.

This decision will impact the women's track & field team. For one, this was a program that had recently combined with the men, and were beginning to realize the synergies of sharing resources. Further, the absence of a men's team will mean fewer spectators at home meets, fewer alumni to give to the program, and fewer performances that can give an entire program momentum. Let me be clear. That's not to say they can't be successful. The coaching staff in place are among the best in our profession. But sustaining national prominence has gotten tougher.

This decision will impact the development of our Olympic team in the United States. NCAA Track & Field is one of the best Olympic development systems in the world, and the men's team at the U plays an important part in that. At the most recent Summer Games in Rio, two members of the U.S. Men's Track & Field team, Hassan Mead and Ben Blankenship, were alums of this program. Only nine other schools in the country had at least two men on that team.

This decision will impact the development of high school track athletes in the state. For years, as the only Division I program here, the Gophers have undeniably been Minnesota's track & field team. By reading the accounts from alumni, it's evident that running for the U is a dream for many young track athletes in Minnesota. That inspiration will now be gone. Further, when the state championships are eventually held on campus, it will be something of a bait-and-switch for the male sprinters, jumpers, and throwers who aspire to perform at the next level. They'll be able compete in college, but that beautiful stadium won't be their home. Finally, could this decision affect the number of boys in our state who choose to do track & field, a sport with typically high participation numbers? I can't be sure, but in a country where physical literacy continues to decline, I'd hate to find out.

This decision will impact the local running community, something that was apparently considered, according to the department's open letter. I have a tough time with the accuracy of their statement. Minneapolis is consistently ranked as one of the top ten running cities in the country. CNN said so last year. Runner's World did the same in 2016. It is home to one of the top professional running groups in the nation, Minnesota Distance Elite. Mill City Running, a specialty store just minutes from campus, is a consistent finalist for best running store in the country. The Twin Cities Marathon is one of the ten largest in America, and has been an event for alums to compete in front of a home crowd. The bottom line is that there are few places in the nation better fit for a runner to go to college.

This decision will impact the public trust of the athletics department. In 2018, this department opened a $13 million track stadium, funded by private donations. Recently, the Field House, home to the indoor track, was renovated to the tune of $7.4 million. But today, this department is willing to cut the program for annual savings of around $1 million? How did facilities take priority over the programs who use them? Why should permanent damage be done to minimally impact a finite, albeit challenging, problem? I'd bet that if given the choice, every donor who gave to the stadium construction would've preferred preserving the program over any bricks and mortar.

This decision will impact the public perception of Title IX when it should not. Women's sports are not to blame for this decision, nor is it necessary to cut a men's program to achieve the gender balance that is sought. As Coach Wilson already stated, roster numbers can be adjusted to achieve compliance. Yes, this would cost some money, but it would prevent cutting the men's team. When the cut is being made as part of a $75 million deficit, it's clear that this decision was due to financial mismanagement, not Title IX.

This decision will impact the university's financial statements. Men's track & field teams are limited to the equivalent of 12.6 scholarships. As previously stated, there are 48 men on the team, which means an equivalent of around 35 team members are paying to come to school at the U. These are athletes who would not be University of Minnesota students if not for the opportunity to be part of the team. At a time when young people are increasingly finding alternative modes of education, universities need to be investing in programs that require an on-campus experience. Their enrollment depends on it.

This decision will impact diversity at the university. As the team captain already shared, the team has members from eight countries on the team. Due to its worldwide appeal and relatively low participation cost, track & field is perhaps the most accessible sport offered by the university. It offers avenues to a degree for those who wouldn't otherwise have one.

This decision will impact the ability of the athletics department to be financially "nimble" in the future, as they have intended to be. With a staff of six coaches, a men's and women's combined cross country and track & field program accounts for six sports. With financially challenging times still ahead, this is the greatest "bang for your buck" in terms of sport sponsorship, with six sports under six coaches.

This decision will not just impact 58 student-athletes. For men's track & field alone, this decision will impact far more than that.

 

As a student, my job in athletics was to scan and process all expense and purchasing card reports for the department. Even at that time, I saw plenty of room to reduce costs in every sport, across a variety of budget line items. Spending in college athletics, particularly at the upper echelon of the NCAA, has gotten out of control to the point that any kind of reduction in services or amenities seems unthinkable. We are all responsible for that. And we need to change.

In trying economic times, some decide to sacrifice people to save numbers. Others sacrifice numbers to save people.

The University of Minnesota can do the latter.

Sincerely,

Jack Mullaney, Class of 2014

Former Track & Field Operations Intern, University of Minnesota

Current Assistant XC/T&F Coach, University of Portland


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