A row of Olympians walked onto the Stanford football field in September 2016 to enthusiastic applause. All were Stanford students at the time, and the University had decided to honor their achievements during halftime at the first football game of the year.
Four years later, in July 2020, Stanford decided to eliminate some of the athletic programs that helped train those very athletes. Football, which brings in more money than all other Stanford sports, would stay. But 11 sports — ten of which have corresponding Olympic events — would have to be cut, Stanford Athletics said, primarily due to financial struggles exacerbated by the pandemic. Stanford’s endowment increased in value during the last fiscal year, but the University said sports, specifically these 11, weren’t profitable enough. Schools across the country likewise decided to eliminate around 80 Division I sports teams last year, with many citing pandemic-related financial stress as their main reason.
Ten months of fundraising, protesting and discussion later, Stanford officials reversed its decision in May 2021. Men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling will remain varsity sports after all. Other universities including William & Mary, Dartmouth, Brown and Clemson also more recently reinstated teams they’d planned to cut after facing intense pushback from athletes and alumni.
The reversal comes shortly before the Tokyo Olympics and with it, a chance for Stanford to uphold its record as the school that produces the most Olympic medal winners. Athletes from Stanford won 27 medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, for example, more than any other university that year. Yet despite Stanford’s pride in its students’ Olympic success, the past year has shown that such victories don’t guarantee a sport’s place as a varsity athletic program.
All of this begs the question: What is the purpose of college athletics in the United States? Is it to bring in revenue, to train elite athletes or — as many universities’ athletic programs officially state — to encourage personal growth and both athletic and academic excellence?
“We currently have a split system,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic swimmer and now a lawyer who advocates for gender equity in sports. “Athletic directors, university presidents and football interests are paid based on commercial win-loss records. And then the rest of it is Olympic sports and whatnot.”
“A different system”
A collegiate sports model, the predominant system in the United States, differs from the systems that prepare champions in other Olympic powerhouse nations like Russia and China. In many countries, elite teenage and young adult athletes attend specialized sports academies that help them focus primarily on their athletic careers.
In the U.S., high-level collegiate athletic training means that the path to the Olympics often runs straight through universities.
“Countries like Russia, China, even Spain in our sport, they have sports schools,” said Heather Olson ’99, a former member of Stanford’s synchronized swimming team, a two-time Olympian and gold medalist and Stanford’s synchronized swimming head coach from 2001-2012. “Their athletes are training year-round alongside their schooling. It’s very difficult to compete against that.”
Difficult, but possible, with the help of intensive college training.
One reason so many Stanford athletes pushed for retaining NCAA status this year is that they wouldn’t be able to practice as many hours or access as many resources if forced to re-establish as club sports, explained Emmanuella Tchakmakjian, a Stanford freshman and member of this year’s national championship-winning synchronized swimming team.
“We’re not going to be as competitive [as a club team],” Tchakmakjian said in April, prior to the sport’s reinstatement. “It’s going to be harder to keep up with the athletes who train full-time.”
Although Tchakmakjian herself is not aiming for the Olympics right now, she noted that swimming as a member of a club team would make it extraordinarily difficult to transition from college back to the U.S. national and Olympic teams. Already, some synchronized swimmers take pre-college gap years in order to focus on training for the Olympics with a similar intensity to that of their international counterparts. Varsity training serves as much better preparation for international competitions than club practices.
Club sport athletes must self-fund, while varsity athletes don’t have to pay for their college training. A lot comes down to money.
Stanford cited fundraising by alumni and others outside the school as one of the main reasons for reversing its 2020 decision to drop some of its varsity sports. According to a Stanford Athletics press release, “While the structural financial challenges facing Stanford Athletics remain very real, changed circumstances including newly galvanized philanthropic interest have provided a new path to support the 11 sports.”
Varsity collegiate sports, including those at Stanford, fund themselves through ticket sales, broadcast rights and donations, as well with money from the NCAA and university athletic departments. Football is much more likely to be profitable than any other sport due to the large in-person and TV audiences it draws. Most sports don’t attract the same level of attention, and as a result, many universities’ athletic programs lose money overall.
Outside of universities, U.S. sports organizations each find their own ways to make money. As is the case with so many parts of American life, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee funds itself primarily through corporate sponsorships. Individual sports’ governing bodies like USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics generally do the same, bringing in most of their own revenue.
The U.S. has no government-funded sports ministry. By contrast, China’s five-year plans allocate funds from the central government for sports, the Russian government helps pay coaches as well as athletes, and even our neighbor, Canada, had a Minister of Sport from 1961 until 2019. The United States is somewhat unusual in so distinctly separating sports from government.
While the United States has been operating this way for years and it might be difficult to convince Americans to put tax money toward athletics, some say the current model is unsustainable.
Dave Ridpath, a professor of sports management at Ohio University who studies the NCAA, cited college sports’ financial issues and unequal access to sports participation as signs that the United States’ current athletic system needs to change. Ridpath also said that per capita, he does not consider the United States’ rate of Olympic victories to be very high. Although the U.S. leads the total Summer Olympic medal count, it ranks 35th in terms of medals per one million people. Smaller European countries such as Finland and Hungary sit at the top of the per capita rankings.
Ridpath said he hopes this year’s cuts to college sports and the issues that surround them might prompt discussion of turning to a different athletic training system. He pointed to Europe as a place where separating universities from sports seems to work.
“Maybe we can have a serious conversation because we have templates out there that we can follow,” Ridpath said. “We need to have a local sports club model and national sports policy.”
Within these models, colleges would likely include only club sports, while more intensive elite, professional or Olympic training would occur elsewhere.
Could the existing system be modified?
Others, including Hogshead-Makar, say the U.S. college sports model could work well, with some adjustments.
“If athletic directors were rewarded for Olympic sports every bit as much as for football and men’s basketball, you would see different behavior,” Hogshead-Makar said.
The current U.S. model has worked well for a number of athletes, especially those who love their sports but also want to seriously pursue other academic and professional interests.
Fencer Alex Massialas ’16, who competed at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and has qualified for Tokyo this summer, said he valued the multifaceted experience of being a student-athlete.
“A lot of fencers have a goal of going to a top-level institution and then from there, they can decide whether they want to keep fencing or quit and enter the workforce,” Massialas said.
“Stanford offers an immeasurable amount of opportunity, so I think that’s why it draws a lot of top talent,” he added.
Massialas served as a vocal advocate throughout the past year for Stanford to keep the 11 sports largely as a result of this opportunity and other positive experiences as a Cardinal.
Kyle Dake, a member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team that will compete in Tokyo this summer and a four-time NCAA champion, graduated from Cornell University in 2013. Dake said he was glad his college experience gave him both strong academic and athletic training.
“Education was really important to me,” Dake said. “I wanted to make sure that if something were to happen with my sporting career, I would still be able to thrive.”
Yet while some student-athletes undoubtedly take the “student” part of their lives as seriously as the “athlete” part, Ridpath expressed doubts that college sports are set up overall to encourage that mindset.
“We try to say that it’s a model about education, and it’s not,” he said. “It’s a model about winning and revenue generation. And if that revenue generation model is threatened, the two cash cows, football and men’s basketball, tend to be saved.” Non-revenue-generating sports might then be cut.
Many past, present and future college athletes breathed a sigh of relief in May when Stanford decided not to eliminate any varsity sports after all.
“You worry that when one large, strong program folds, others are going to follow suit,” Olson said before Stanford changed course.
She said she felt “complete relief and excitement” when Stanford changed its mind.
“I just felt so relieved for all the young kids coming up in our sport and in those other 10 sports,” Olson said. The parents of children she coaches seemed happy too, she reported.
In addition to scholarships, for some, college sports represent an opportunity to pursue professional athletic careers or Olympics aspirations, in part because many of the country’s top coaches and athletic trainers reside within NCAA programs.
Massialas, for example, improved significantly as an athlete while in college, going from a thirteenth-place finish at the 2012 Olympics to a silver medal in 2016. He’s still working with the strength and conditioning coach he met at Stanford as he prepares for Tokyo.
Dake said Cornell wrestling helped him progress as an athlete because of the program’s skilled coaches as well as the chance to practice with other top wrestlers at the national level —which his small-town high school hadn’t been able to provide.
As a result of this sort of opportunity, almost all U.S. Olympic wrestlers pass through the NCAA even though Olympic wrestling is done in a different style from college wrestling — collegiate, or “folkstyle” wrestling, emphasizes controlling one’s opponent, while Olympic freestyle wrestling tends to be more explosive. The NCAA simply remains the best place with the most resources for 18-22-year-old wrestlers to train. And those who transition to the Olympics very often thrive; from the years 1896-2016, the U.S. won more wrestling Olympic medals than any other nation besides the Soviet Union.
Even those like Ridpath, who have reservations about America’s athletic training system, agree that the NCAA remains the best way to train for elite sports at the moment. Stanford’s decision seems to have indicated a degree of security for non-profitable NCAA sports — at least for now. Yet the fact remains that colleges have shown they value revenue over success when it comes to their athletic programs, and nearly all sports simply aren’t very profitable.
“If we continue going down the path we are, you’re going to see more and more schools at least try to do what Stanford and Clemson did,” Ridpath said.