‘We’re still working hard at this’: Athletes, alums, University tackle reinstatement

Aug. 4, 2021, 9:10 p.m.

When Stanford announced the discontinuation of 11 varsity sports in July of 2020, many athletes felt as if their dreams of representing the Farm were abruptly taken away. 

“It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me,” said former men’s rowing captain Trey Holterman ’21.

But after a yearlong campaign from alums and athletes that included countless meetings, a controversial rally and two lawsuits, the University announced this May that it would reinstate all 11 sports. 

Now, the activists are still at work, focusing their efforts on finances, alumni engagement and other issues inherent in the reshuffling needed to ensure competitive excellence for the upcoming seasons. Individual team organizations such as Save Stanford Field Hockey are working with the University to resolve issues and prevent future cuts, said Nathalie Weiss ’16, a former men’s rowing coxswain and member of the 36 Sports Strong leadership team. Weiss and former volleyball player Jeremy Jacobs ’06 meet with University leaders biweekly to update them on individual teams’ efforts.

“We’re pleased that all 36 varsity sports at Stanford will continue and that we are on a path to achieve fiscal sustainability for Stanford Athletics while preserving opportunities for all of our student-athletes,” wrote Stanford spokesperson Karla Hudson. 

Finances are the major issue for the teams, according to people familiar with the subject. There are efforts to establish “full endowments” for each sport, said Kathy Levinson ’77, 36 Sports Strong leader and former Cardinal field hockey, basketball and tennis player. However, the process will likely be lengthy, as the endowments must be approved by Stanford’s legal department.

Individual sport organizations also need to fundraise, despite collectively accruing over $30 million in pledges for athletic programs this past year, Levinson said. These groups are working with the University to create a financial model under which each team will operate like a business, she added. In this model, the athletic department, business leaders, alumni and representatives from Stanford’s Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation will form advisory groups to manage teams’ budgets. 

The financial model’s objective will be to ensure each sport is self-sustained — which means budgets are covered and endowments achieve five percent payout without “relying on the University,” said former basketball and volleyball player and 36 Sports Strong leader Adam Keefe ’92.

The individual team organizations also want to increase Stanford’s financial transparency, Levinson said. Previously, only larger donations to the Cardinal Club — an organization that provides financial support for Stanford’s teams — could be directed at a specific sport. Now, the individual sports’ endowments would solve this problem since donors could direct smaller donations there, she added.

Levinson alleged that the University also demonstrated a lack of financial transparency with its initial statement about the cuts. In the statement, the University said it had “exhaust[ed] all alternatives” and that there was not enough money to support all 36 sports. However, athletes and alumni had not been contacted by Stanford to discuss alternative routes, and many others did not even know the costs of running each sport, said Levinson. She hopes to provide alumni and athletes with specific information on program expenses in the future to increase transparency.

Along with financial struggles, a lack of alumni engagement was a pressing issue, according to 36 Sports Strong members. Weiss believed that Stanford did “not see the community” of sports alumni in the decision to cut. The University also stated in its FAQ that the reinstatement was in part caused by “new, vigorous and broad-based philanthropic interest” from alumni.

36 Sports Strong and sport-specific groups need to accordingly further improve connection between alumni and the University to prevent future cuts, Weiss said.

“You can’t just be a fan,” added Robert Hatta ’97, a co-chair of Keep Stanford Wrestling and 36 Sports Strong leader. Being an alum “now means more than being fans of the sport at Stanford, but being financial stewards of the sports,” Hatta said. “It’s a new mindset.” 

Increasing alumni engagement now involves corporate management strategies, including identifying and connecting with alumni who had never been contacted to support Stanford’s sports, said Keefe. He added that over 99% of the volleyball alumni that Save Stanford Men’s Volleyball reached out to had committed to a formal pledge — a helpful figure for Stanford to understand there was “a lot more room” to bring alumni “into the fold” as supporters, according to Keefe. 

The sport organizations also hope to tackle problems that emerged within teams this past year, including the departure of coaches from sports such as wrestling and field hockey. However, the University provided new wrestling coach candidates, Hatta said, and Save Stanford Field Hockey interviewed potential field hockey coaches, added Levinson. 

The threatened sports still lost a year of recruits, which will be difficult for coaches to work around as they establish competitive excellence for the next season, Hatta said. While the vast majority of the more than 240 athletes on the 11 teams will return for the upcoming year, many of the teams will be without true incoming recruiting classes.

Stanford must also regain trust from the community. “[The cuts will] change my relationship with my alma mater,” Hatta said.

Alumni need to be reassured the programs they pledge money to will stay intact in order for the $30 million pledged from last year’s fundraising to materialize into donations, Levinson said. 

In addition to 36 Sports Strong, sport-specific groups continue to meet regularly. Keep Stanford Wrestling meets weekly, according to Hatta, and is seeking to turn pledges from nearly 600 donors into actual donations. Levinson hopes that greater alumni connection with the University, sport-specific endowments and improved financial transparency will help restore trust, but believes that it will take at least another year to adequately resolve underlying issues and repair the damage caused by the cuts. “These things do take time,” she said. “We want to avoid having this happen again.”

This article has been updated from an earlier version which stated that there have been no transfers from any of the 11 reinstated sports teams. The Daily regrets this error. 

Will Li is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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