Sports on Campus

Posted April 17, 2009, at 6:50 p.m.

The University of Maine this week suspended its men’s soccer and women’s volleyball programs as part of an effort to cut the school’s budget by nearly $9 million. This should be the start, not the end, of a discussion about the role of sports at the state’s flagship campus.

The discussion gets complex very quickly. What is the goal of athletics at UMaine? Is it to bring in money? If so, only one team — men’s hockey — has a history of generating more money than it spends. Even this team, however, lost money this year, perhaps because of the lagging economy or maybe it was their losing record.

Sports supporters argue that winning athletic teams enhance a university’s reputation. But what happens when those teams lose? Should UMaine cut hockey since it hasn’t won a national championship in a decade? Should the university devote more resources to improve some teams so they can better compete at a national level?

Should it give up its Division I aspirations and be more competitive with similar-sized schools, especially if this meant more athletic opportunities for Maine students? The majority of the university’s students are from Maine; the majority of its athletes are not. The volleyball team did not have a single player from Maine. Out of the men’s soccer team’s 26 players, five were from Maine.

Is the goal of athletics to enhance campus life by offering students an opportunity to attend sporting events? If so, does this give the university license to cut the many sports, such as women’s ice hockey, softball and soccer, that students don’t routinely show up to watch?

Adding another level of complexity is Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 in part to increase women’s opportunities to play college sports. If a women’s team is cut without cuts to men’s athletics, the university could run afoul of Title IX, which includes a provision that female participation athletics be roughly equal to the percentage of women in the student body. An easy way to ease the pressure to maintain women’s sports would be to eliminate the football team, by far the campus’ largest male sport with 76 players. But, football generates a lot of revenue through the payments it receives to play major Division I teams — $450,000 to play the University of Iowa last fall — although not enough to cover its more than $2 million in annual expenses, including scholarships. It is also popular with alumni and donors, another reason universities have sports teams.

Other public universities in New England have been more aggressive in cutting sports. Boston University dropped its football team in 1997. The University of Vermont has announced plans to cut softball and baseball this year; BU and the University of New Hampshire have already dropped baseball. Leagues are looking at ways to cut costs for member schools such as changing schedules to reduce lodging and travel costs.

Faced with ongoing spending cuts, the University of Maine must continue to consider where its athletic program fits in its mission to provide educational opportunities, relevant research and valued public outreach.

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