Skip to main content

Niyo: NCAA ideals drowning as Michigan State alumni dive in to save swim program

John Niyo   | The Detroit News

They’re getting better at timing their splits now, but that's to be expected because that’s what competitive swimmers do. They get up before dawn and get their mileage in, ticking off laps in the pool like human metronomes. Day after day, week after week, month after month, even if no one else is paying attention.

And that’s what they’re doing now, the members of Michigan State’s swimming and diving teams, their parents, and many of the nearly 2,000 alumni of a program that’s been around for nearly a century but may not be much longer.

After being blindsided by a late-October announcement from Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman that men’s and women’s swimming and diving was being eliminated in 2021 — the final season gets underway with a meet at Purdue this weekend — the various stakeholders are refusing to get out of the pool without a fight.

Wednesday morning, they made that clear once more, speaking up in the public comments portion of the MSU Board of Trustees meeting. Four speakers, each using up every last second of their allotted 3-minute time, as others had done in November and December.

“Call this ongoing stream of objections here what you will — a monthly thorn in your side, perhaps — but the truth is how you decide to go about this matter will be a reflection of where you decide to go with MSU’s brand image,” Andrea Bird Mahoney, a former MSU swim team co-captain from the early 1990s, told the board.

Earlier, one of the most decorated athletes in school history, 1992 Olympic diver Julie Farrell-Ovenhouse, made her own impassioned plea, sharing a story of personal growth before finishing her comments just as the timer expired.

“Look, I recognize this is a dollars and cents issue, and difficult decisions have to be made,” the former six-time All-American told the trustees. “But, please, take a minute and look at all the energy, drive and passion that’s pouring in to save our sports. If we’re given the chance, I have no doubt we can and will find a solution.”

Whether they can, or will, remains to be seen. And it’ll be an Olympic-sized feat if they do. But it’s a solution that’s being sought all across the country at the moment, as the hypocrisy of the NCAA model is laid bare, with dozens of universities citing pandemic-related budget woes — fueled by the loss of March Madness TV money last spring and empty football stadiums in the fall — as a reason for eliminating so-called “nonrevenue” sports like swimming and track and tennis and gymnastics.

Central Michigan announced last May it was cutting its men’s track program. Among Big Ten schools, Iowa and Minnesota followed suit with plans to cut four sports apiece. And it was shortly after hearing the news out of Iowa, where the swimming teams were on the chopping block, that Tom Munley, who swam at Michigan State from 1992-96, sent an email to Beekman, whom he’d met the previous year at a team banquet.

Munley, now 46 and living in suburban Dallas, where he’s a partner at Spaulding Ridge, a management consulting firm, said he reached out to let the AD know that if similar cuts were being considered at Michigan State, he had a group of ready to help cover any temporary budget shortfalls.

Munley, who has endowed an annual scholarship in honor of his late brother, John, another former MSU swimmer, says all he got in return was an email thanking him for his support of the program. Then a couple of months later, he got a call from MSU’s head coach, Matt Gianiodis, telling him of an announcement coming later that day that the program was getting the axe.

It was a decision that a somber Beekman formally delivered to both teams gathered inside the Huntington Club at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 22, telling them, “Frankly, this is a really, really crappy way to meet, if we haven’t met. I have the really sad duty of announcing that this is going to be our last year of swimming and diving. I’m very sorry to have to tell you that.”

Beekman went on to explain that the reasons behind the decision — the last sport cut at MSU was men’s gymnastics in 2001 — went beyond a COVID-related budget crunch. Among other things, the AD highlighted longstanding facilities issues, as the recent closure of a 50-meter outdoor pool leaves the Spartans with a 25-yard indoor pool that, while it meets NCAA competition standards, is outdated and a hindrance in recruiting.

Those concerns were repeated by MSU president Samuel Stanley at the November board meeting, as he noted the “athletic department’s past and present financial circumstance” that “resulted in our inability to provide the facilities and additional resources to give our swimmers a chance to be truly competitive in their sport.”

“Ending programs … is one of the most difficult decisions we make, only done with a great deal of thought and concern,” Stanley added. “And I know that was the case here for swimming and diving, although that does nothing to soften the impact on MSU’s swimmers, as we’ve heard.”

Yet when David Berri, a sports economist and professor at Southern Utah, hears all that — and when Berri, a Detroit native, sees what’s happening at so many other universities — he can’t help but shake his head.

“When these athletic directors are cutting these tiny programs and saying, ‘I have to do this because of this pandemic,’ I think every economist looks at it and goes, ‘That seems disingenuous,’” Berri said. “It’s ridiculous. Why that program? And why do you have to cut an entire program when you have a football team over here where ... ‘Are you telling me that every single one of those coaches is absolutely necessary to your program? You couldn’t get by with one fewer coach or you couldn’t find somebody to manage your weight room that you don’t have to pay $600,000?'”

They could, of course. But in today’s college sports model, where football is the golden goose, generating the vast majority of the revenue for any given athletic department, this is how it goes.

And that’s how you end up with optics like this: A university that paid Mark Dantonio a $4.3 million retention bonus last January, three weeks before he retired, and then ponied up another $3 million buyout just to hire Colorado’s Mel Tucker to lead the football program a week after that, now is cutting a sport that was planning to celebrate its centennial next season. (And a program, by the way, that produced 43 of the MSU’s 97 Academic All-Big Ten honors last winter.)

As Mike Balow, whose daughter, Sophia, is a sophomore distance freestyler for the Spartans, told the trustees Wednesday, “If you want to run in the arms race of the revenue sports in Division 1, fine. But it is not OK to sacrifice nonrevenue sports in order to do so.”

Which is the message they’re all busy trying to deliver now. Because once the shock wore off for the swimmers and their allies, the work began. Phone calls, emails, Zoom meetings. There’s a Facebook group (“Battle for Spartan Swimming and Diving”) that now has more than 2,600 members. Munley helps coordinate a working group that meets every other week and includes current team members.

The alumni say they’ve hired a lobbyist, while securing more than $700,000 in pledges to help bridge a financial gap. Michigan State’s student government also has approved a proposal it'll bring to the administration that would add a recreation fee for students — similar to other Big Ten schools — and generate millions in revenue to help fund facility improvements. (Improvements aside from the ones already in the athletic department's long-range strategic plan, which include a new football facility.)

Beekman cited a figure of $2.073 million as an annual cost for the program, but that number — a drop in the bucket in an overall $130 million athletic budget — doesn’t take into consideration the tuition recapture many of these Olympic sports programs produce, Berri says. In the case of Michigan State’s swim and dive teams, the value of approximately 24 scholarships is divided among some 60 athletes, which is why Munley and others argue the program actually provides a net financial gain for the university, though not the athletic department itself.

Accounting debates won't bring the program back, though, which is why a Title IX lawsuit also looms as a possibility. Most Division I schools are teetering on the brink of noncompliance with federal laws regarding gender equity in educational and athletic opportunities. And just last month, a judge granted an injunction blocking Iowa from dropping women's swimming for 2021-2022, at least.

“That’s a very real threat,” Munley said, “and frankly that’s maybe the only thing that can compel them to act, right?”

Maybe so. But in the meantime, they’ll keep showing up to the board meetings — virtually, for now — and speaking up. Swimming, you see, is one of those sports where, once you’re in it, “you’re in it for life,” Munley said, “and that passion doesn’t go away.”

“We’re not people that are in this for the glory,” he added. “We’re in this for the opportunity.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo