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Keep Stanford Wrestling raises $10 million in attempt to preserve varsity status

Despite funding, future of wrestling program remains unclear

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Keep Stanford Wrestling, an alumni-run group dedicated to convincing the University to maintain the wrestling program’s varsity status, announced that it had raised over $10 million from alumni and supporters as of Oct. 29. The efforts come following the July 8 announcement that the University intended to eliminate the wrestling program along with 10 other varsity sports after the 2020-21 season.

It is unclear whether the subsequent fundraising efforts will have any impact on the University’s decision to cut the program, however. 

In a statement to The Daily, Stanford Athletics spokesperson Brian Risso wrote that “the decisions to reduce our sports offerings are final, and any future philanthropic interest in these sports may be directed towards supporting them at the club level.”

Over five months ago, the University cited a growing deficit, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as one of the primary reasons behind its decision to cut the 11 programs, including wrestling. Since the announcement, Keep Stanford Wrestling has worked with alumni, current program members and supporters to raise funds to finance the program and offer solutions to the University’s concerns. 

According to Robert Hatta ’97, a former four-year Stanford wrestler and a Keep Stanford Wrestling co-chair, the $10 million, which consists of over 200 individual contributions, would be donated to the University only on the condition that it goes toward reinstating and supporting the wrestling program. Though Keep Stanford Wrestling will not disclose the names of the donors, the group told The Daily that large donations have been pledged by Stanford wrestling alumni and close friends of the program.

Other canceled sports’ alumni and supporters are also leading similar fundraising initiatives, but the wrestling coalition has raised the most funds of the affected teams.

“We believe that by solving wrestling’s part of the financial burden, we can work together with the University to revisit the decision,” Hatta said.

In July, the University projected that its athletic department deficit for the 2021 fiscal year would be $12 million, and that the pandemic would likely exacerbate the deficit. Of the $12 million, the University predicts that $8 million can be attributed to the sports it plans to cut. According to Hatta, the group believes the discontinued programs account for only about half of that figure.

All programs within the athletic department are funded largely by the revenue generated from its teams with television deals. According to financial data reported in the Equity in Athletics data base for the 2018-19 academic year, the football and basketball programs brought in over $53 million for the University, while the rest of the sports combined generated around $8 million in revenue. The less lucrative sports also cost less to run, however, with wrestling accounting for 1.2% of the department’s operating (game-day) expenses compared to football’s 32%. In its July announcement, the University stated that it had “concluded there was no realistic path” to ensuring the discontinued sports had enough resources to compete at the highest level.

Asked whether Keep Stanford Wrestling disagreed with the University’s statement, Hatta said, “Absolutely. All possible paths would have involved engaging those for whom the sport is most important. We represent over 400 alumni, plus parents of former and current wrestlers, and friends of Stanford wrestling. And that group is delivering alternative paths we’d love to be considered.”

In addition to offering to independently finance the wrestling program, the group is also proposing establishing a women’s wrestling team as a solution to Title IX regulations put in place by the federal government to promote gender equality in collegiate athletics. 

In recent months, Keep Stanford Wrestling leaders have met with Stanford Athletics administration and are working to gain an audience with upper-level administrators. According to Hatta, the discussions have provided insight into the initial decision, but department representatives have “held the party line,” maintaining that the University would need $200 million to reinstate all the discontinued programs.

Some Stanford students have expressed discontent in response to the announcement that $10 million has been raised to save the wrestling program, questioning why donors are willing to put up millions to support the wrestling program while many non-athlete students are struggling financially. Destiny Kelly ’24 wrote to The Daily that she thought more students would sympathize with the efforts if the wrestling program pledged to address issues that first generation and low income (FLI) and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Stanford students also face.

“I understand what it feels like to work so hard and lose it all, but they should also be mindful of current circumstances,” Kelly wrote, proposing that the donors could state that “10% of the money would go to FLI and BIPOC students at Stanford by supporting the Opportunity Fund.”

Keep Stanford Wrestling noted that by reinstating the wrestling team, the University would be supporting one of the most socio-economically diverse programs on campus. According to a survey of rostered student-athletes since 2006, 44% of Cardinal wrestling student-athletes belong to the FLI category, compared to 17% of all undergraduates currently at the University.

In addition to Keep Stanford Wrestling’s efforts, current wrestlers within the program have started initiatives to raise awareness and funds for the over 100 recently discontinued collegiate teams around the country. On Oct. 30, sophomore wrestler Jaden Abas launched the Save Collegiate Sports DRIP Challenge, a movement in which athletes post a video wringing out their sweat-drenched shirts on Instagram. Abas said that he hopes the challenge will “push athletic departments to give dropped programs an opportunity to discuss a superior solution rather than taking the easy way out.” So far, 22 collegiate athletes have participated in the challenge, garnering over 30,000 views on their videos.

“Cut programs aren’t going down without a fight and we won’t be swept under the rug,” Abas said. “We deserve dialogue. We deserve transparency. And we deserve better …Without wrestling, attending a university of this caliber wouldn’t be an option for many of us.”

Now, Stanford wrestlers are gearing up for their final guaranteed season. The wrestling team returned to campus on Nov. 13 to resume training for the upcoming season for the first time since March. The defending Pac-12 championship team returns more All-Americans (three), NCAA Qualifiers (seven), conference champions (four) and conference finalists (nine) than any team in the program’s history. Assuming COVID-19 regulations allow, the NCAA wrestling season normally begins in January.

“Our team has demonstrated amazing resolve and resilience over the past four months,” head coach Jason Borrelli wrote to The Daily. “These guys are dealing with a pandemic, a lost season, feelings of isolation, uncertainties related to school, social justice issues, a heated political climate, and then to top it off, were told that they’re worth less than other student-athletes at Stanford and now have to deal with the questions and uncertainties associated with that. I couldn’t imagine living through that when I was their age, but the way they’ve responded has been inspiring.”

Though recruitment for the 2022 season has been halted, no Stanford wrestlers have yet transferred or opted out, and Borrelli said that he remains confident in the young team’s strength if the University were to reinstate the program. He added that NCAA eligibility relief would allow the team the potential to return its entire 2020-21 roster for the 2021-22 academic year.

Sally Egan contributed reporting.

Contact Tammer Bagdasarian at tbag ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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