An open letter from a Stanford wrestling parent to the University president

By

Dear Marc Tessier-Lavigne,

On Sept. 20, 2016, we stood just a few feet from each other on the Stanford University Quad. Even with physical distance separating us, we were in much the same place — we were both first-time participants in the Opening Convocation of Stanford University. As a parent, it was my first formal introduction to Stanford University. As the new president, it was your first opportunity to welcome an incoming Stanford class. The entire ceremony filled me with hope and excitement for the journey upon which our son was embarking. Your pledge to the parents that you would do your best by our sons and daughters gave me comfort. I imagine you felt the same excitement in your new role at the head of one of the most prestigious universities in the world and confidence that you would fulfill your pledge.

Four years later, none of us could imagine we’d be in the place we currently find ourselves, struggling to address the public health, economic and personal tolls of a global pandemic. If that weren’t enough, we were also thrust into reexamining the importance of diversity and the need for social justice. These times truly call for a deep and broad examination of alternatives before making decisions that affect the lives and futures of those involved.

I am the parent of a wrestler. On July 8, we received notice from Athletic Director Bernard Muir that Stanford University would be discontinuing wrestling, along with 10 other sports. The primary reason, according to the letter, was a financial deficit exacerbated by the impacts of the pandemic. In the letter, Mr. Muir expressed his heartbreak and said, “Please know that we exhausted all viable alternatives before arriving at this extremely painful decision.” 

With all due respect, I disagree that Mr. Muir had exhausted all viable alternatives before making his recommendation to you, the Provost and the Board of Trustees. How could he have explored all possible alternatives if he had not even reached out to the coaches to understand whether they could find a way to fund the program?

It’s quite possible that you did not realize that the Athletic Department had not pursued this important avenue of resolution. So, I implore you to take a moment to consider your own advice from the 2016 Convocation — that the wrestling community “has done something incredible, brings interesting life experiences and perspectives, and has fascinating ideas. You can learn so much just by talking with them and engaging with them.” In just a few short weeks, our coaches, athletes, parents, alumni and supporters have uncovered significant facts and opportunities to retain the sport of wrestling.

When addressing the reasons that the 11 sports in particular are being discontinued, wrestling was cited only in the category of competing “without a full complement of scholarships.” One over-looked reason for this is that wrestlers often come from lower income groups. As such, wrestling student-athletes often qualify for need-based financial aid, reducing the demand for the full complement of athletic-based scholarships.

Which brings me to another important fact about wrestling — the diversity in its community. Wrestling is one of the most welcoming sports of all when it comes to racial, ethnic, socio-economic, body type/size and gender aspects of its participants. Through wrestling, our son has grown in his understanding of the world from the Black, Brown, low-income and first-generation student-athletes he has come to know. He has seen firsthand that it’s not white privilege that gets a starting spot on the team, a hand raised on the mat or a scholarship earned. It’s the determination, hard work and grit that make the difference.

Our son looks forward to the day when, as a graduate of Stanford University, he is giving back to the young, often disadvantaged wrestlers through Beat the Streets and other youth programs. He looks to demonstrate the opportunity wrestling afforded him to attend Stanford University, and to mentor other wrestlers toward that same amazing University experience he earned.

As you said in the Convocation, “One of the greatest gifts of your time here will be exposure to people with diverse backgrounds, and people with diverse points of view. As a result, you will be challenged by new ways of looking at the world, that may be different from your own, often very different.” A recent survey of all rostered student athletes since 2006 found that 44% of Stanford wrestlers were first-generation college bound and/or low-income students compared to the current overall University rate of 17%. Wrestling brings diversity to Stanford University.

As an accomplished athlete and outstanding student, our son had many options when making his college choice.  He chose Stanford over Princeton, Northwestern, Michigan and more for Stanford’s outstanding academics, yes, but also for its strong commitment to athletics and the diversity it brings to the student body. We hope that Stanford’s commitment to this value has not diminished.

In closing your first Convocation speech, you left us with six additional thoughts. I ask you to consider this advice in the context of making the decision to discontinue Stanford Wrestling.

Make time for people. Yes, time is precious right now, but so are relationships. Please sit down with the Stanford wrestling coaches and members of the Keep Stanford Wrestling Advisory Board and take the time to hear their points of view.

Make a commitment to service. Beat the Streets is just one non-profit wrestling organization supported by the Stanford Wrestling community. It was founded on the premise that everyone should have access to wrestling and the life lessons the sport provides. With a focus on underserved communities, its programming offers experiences that foster skill and character development, team-building, commitment and ownership. Wrestling gives back in significant ways.

Be kind. Ask yourself whether the decision-making process and communication of the decision to discontinue wrestling were made in the spirit of kindness. There’s always time to correct a mistake.

Be optimistic and confident about your abilities. Yes, wrestling and its student athletes belong at Stanford. The current crises may seem overwhelming, but the wrestling community has what it takes to be a meaningful and additive part of our University.

Remember that you’re not alone. It’s hard not to feel alone at this time, but this too can be corrected through open, welcome communication and support.

Be adventurous. We have a passion and yes, we will go for it. We appreciate your support in this endeavor.

The decision to discontinue 11 sports may, on the surface, appear to be an athletics decision. But of course, it’s not. Any decision that impacts students, coaches, staff, parents, alumni, the administration, the community and the Stanford reputation is a University decision. As you wisely said, “Freedom of expression is one of the values we hold highest here, along with the importance of a community where everyone feels included and respected. The fact that we don’t shirk from addressing difficult issues, but that we do so in mutual understanding and respect provides a powerful opportunity for you to examine humanity from all sides.”

Let’s come together with your pledge in mind, and open to all perspectives. And, when we’ve truly exhausted all options, we may find ourselves in a new place, with a better decision in hand.

Respectfully,

Sarah Traxler

Parent of Nathan Traxler ’20, M.A. ’21, wrestler, 2019 Pac-12 Champion, three-time NCAA Tournament Qualifier, 2020 All-American

https://www.keepstanfordwrestling.com/

#KeepStanfordWrestling    

“Pain is nothing compared to what it feels like to quit. Give everything you got today because tomorrow may never come.” — Dan Gable, wrestling great

“There is only one failure for you and that is not to be true to the best you know.” — Jane Stanford, 1891 Address to first Stanford students

“I pledge, we will do our best by them.” — Marc Tessier-Lavigne to Parents on Sept. 20, 2016

Contact Sarah Traxler at sarah.traxler ‘at’ comcast.net.

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