In April 2009, faced with over $400,000 in budget cuts, MIT’s Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER) cut eight varsity teams — Women’s and Men’s Gymnastics, Women’s and Men’s Hockey, Golf, Alpine Skiing, Wrestling, and Pistol. The move saved DAPER nearly half a million dollars in expenditures annually, but caused outcry across campus and lost MIT its status as one of only two schools in the nation with 41 varsity sports — the other being Harvard. Within the course of a day, these teams went from established varsity programs to groups with indeterminate futures. And although the club sports moratorium was lifted to allow the seven cut teams without club analogues (a club Women’s Hockey team existed at the time of the cuts) to continue, the transition was not going to be easy — from losing athletes to competing in a new league, the new club teams had a lot of work ahead of them besides raising money and resolving management issues.
From NCAA varsity to club league
As club sports, almost all teams had to compete in new leagues and divisions.
Nicholas C. Swenson ’12, Golf Club president, believes club competition is “less intense” and that by “playing on a varsity team, people are more motivated to play very well.”
He still views his opponents as worthy competition, and he hasn’t lost his sense of team spirit. “At any given tournament all teams will be competing for first,” he said.
“We definitely had in general a higher level of competition on varsity,” added Stephanie C. Leger ’11, a Women’s Hockey Club member, who believes there were tougher games on the varsity team. But she adds that there have been games on the club team that “were equally on par” with games that she participated in as a varsity hockey player.
Due to the small amount of varsity Men’s Gymnastics teams, Jacob T. Shapiro ’11 and his teammates compete against mostly the same schools. The most noticeable difference is that the team qualifies for Club Nationals instead of NCAA nationals. While Shapiro described the difference as “disappointing” to not compete against NCAA competition, he also believes the new competition level is better for the team as a whole.
“NCAA’s is a lot harder than [Club Nationals],” he claimed. “We would finish in the bottom of the pack, guaranteed. We go to club nationals and contend for the top spots.”
The transition affected other teams even less, including pistol, which competes against exactly the same teams and at the same national competition.
Laundry service, PE credit among perks lost with varsity status
As a club sport, players don’t receive medical clinic treatment, lose their laundry service, and, in some cases, can lose their locker room. It is the loss of clinic access that upsets current Club Wrestling Coach (and former varsity coach) Thomas Layte the most, who did not take the trainer access for granted.
“Now if a kid gets hurt, he can’t go down [to the clinic],” he said.
“They have to go all the way across campus to go see somebody. Absolutely crazy.”
The lost laundry service also has taken a toll on wrestlers, who now, according to Layte, have to go home and wash their gear on an almost daily basis.
The much larger amount of club sport participants makes it difficult to grant these services to every team, according to Julie Soriero, DAPER’s head. She said the amount of administrative work required to acquire, store, and reference medical documentation for each person puts too much on “an already burdened staff.”
“The policy has been, much like it is at every other school, to go through the typical process as if a kid was throwing a Frisbee out there and sprained their ankle,” she explained.
Layte claimed that the wrestling team also offered to pay for these services, but was denied. Soriero does not recall having this conversation, although she acknowledges it may have happened. Regardless, she doesn’t think that DAPER would grant the uses to wrestling even if it was paid by the team.
“It still puts a demand on our staff that’s not there to launder their equipment and to treat them when they’re injured,” she explained.
“Granted, the wrestling numbers are small, but where do you draw the line? If club sports have certain policies that they abide by and we have certain expectations for how a club sport is conducted, then they’re only a step or two away from being a varsity program again, and that wasn’t the intention of the decision.”
Soriero also added that DAPER does not have enough locker room space or training room space to accommodate all club teams.
Dissatisfied athletes also mentioned the lack of physical education credit for club sports as a nuisance. Leger finds the lack of credit for club sports disturbing: “A lot of club sports have just as many practices or just as many demands for their athletes,” she said.
“When you look at some of the PE classes and how often they meet versus how often the club activities meet, clubs are meeting way more than your PE class ever would.”
Swenson claimed that the Golf Club team practices as frequently as they did while varsity. However, he was quick to add that the lack of PE credit was not a “big issue.”
Grant M. Kadokura ’11, an NCAA Division 3 2010 National Wrestling Champion, believes that not giving PE credit is something that the administration could have allowed to make the varsity-to-club transition easier for the team.
“We come in here and we work as hard — harder — as the varsity program every day, and get nothing from the administration. If they come in and watch us practice for two hours, they’ll understand why we’re so upset about that. It’s just ridiculous,” he said.
Andrew K. Sugaya ’11, pistol team captain, describes the lack of PE credit as a “really big” issue. “I feel like the administration could definitely make an exception for the eight varsity sports that got cut,” he stated.
“We think that we have the same number of hours, if not more, than all PE classes.”
Alex Jiang ’11 of the pistol team said that the number of practices and matches the club team has is no less than the varsity team.
The times of PE classes have been a hassle to some on the Women’s Gymnastics team, according to Watkins. She added, “I understand the reasoning to some extent as to why club sports do not get PE credit, but I know that our program is much more than most people will get out of a PE class.”
While Shapiro noted the large amount of time teammates spent in the gym, he still believed that “the PE system is a great system.”
“Administratively, we can’t really support [PE credit] at this point,” said Soriero. Unless something changes in the staffing levels, she added, credit will probably not be supported.
Losing coaches, losing athletes
Soriero said that the the two full-time coaches of cut teams, Pistol Coach Will Hart and Women’s Gymnastics Coach Jennifer Miller-McEachern, initially stayed on with DAPER in some capacity. Hart remained as a physical education instructor and equipment manager until he left MIT last August. Miller-McEachern is now equipment manager.
The wrestling team was the only team fortunate enough to have its coach remain. The golf team, for instance, lost its coach to another school and was forced to face the following season without a coach to take his place. Two graduate students certified in coaching supervise the Men’s Gymnastics Club team, and the group does not have the capacity to pay for a coach at the moment. The Alpine Skiing Team encountered a similar scenario, and as a result, has relied on recent alumni to volunteer and coach the team. Jillian R. Reddy ’11, a member of the ski team, said that although these alumni do an “amazing” job, the team also would like to eventually hire a full-time position.
Although the women’s hockey club team coach is still in the same position, the varsity women’s hockey coach had to find another position elsewhere.
“We felt bad for him because he put everything into our program: trying to recruit new players and bringing everything for the team. MIT hired him for the start of that season only to fire him at the end of the year,” claimed Leger.
The Men’s Hockey coach volunteered to coach for one season after the cuts for free, according to the team’s captain, Riley E. Brandt ’11. Eventually, the coach took a paid position at another school. However, the team was able to secure enough funding to hire another coach for this season.
Hart left the club pistol team at the beginning of this academic year. The group hoped to reach out to Mike Conti, who was hired as pistol range master and as the pistol PE instructor after Hart’s departure, to ask him if he was interested in coaching. When asked about the possibility of coaching, Conti did not rule the option out for the future, but he first wants to focus on teaching the physical education classes.
“First I want to make sure that I’m doing the jobs that I was hired to do as well as I can before I expand into other areas,” he said, adding that he has not had any serious discussions with the team concerning the issue. Currently, members of MIT’s Pistol and Rifle Club (PRC) supervise the team at practices, and Hart accompanies the team to away matches. Several pistol members received coach training at the beginning of the year, and others took a safety class during IAP in anticipation of later applying for a Massachusetts License to Carry, which would allow the them to supervise practices independent of the PRC or of a coach.
Coaches were not the only people that the sports lost in the transition to club teams. Several players on the Men’s Hockey team may have considered quitting if the quality of their competition dropped, said Brandt. Layte remembered in particular a certain freshman that didn’t return after the cut: “[He] would’ve done pretty well. He decided not to wrestle because it wasn’t a varsity program.“
The Alpine Skiing team, which typically caps its numbers at 20 people, only had nine members for their IAP 2010 competitions. Reddy believed that this drop-off could be attributed to the uneasiness of former members after the loss of varsity status.
“Everybody knew that it would be a huge time commitment to get [the club] up and working. I think some people were afraid of this,” she said.
The varsity Women’s Hockey team already had an existing club counterpart at the time of the cuts, which welcomed not only undergraduates, but graduate students and MIT affiliates as well. Still, according to Leger, some members of the varsity squad were resolute in their decision to leave even with an existing club team. Ultimately, only a handful of the total number of former hockey team members on the cut varsity team stuck around to play with the club team.
“We had a bad attitude going on in our team in terms of competition level and changing to a club setting … a lot of people were just really frustrated with the process and with MIT, and they just wanted out of it,” said Leger.
Recruiting took a hit for some teams as well. Watkins believes that it “really difficult” to recruit without the varsity name, adding that they didn’t have as much “pull.”
“I think most people who do gymnastics in college are people who’ve been doing it their whole lives … if you’re coming out of high school and don’t know any better, it looks a lot better to be on a varsity team,” she said.
Still, some teams saw some newcomers join their ranks.
Shapiro said that more inexperienced people tried out for the gymnastics team. “I think the name ‘varsity’ scares people off,” he explained. He believed a more beginner-friendly team is not necessarily a terrible thing, and that the different competition level also suits the new players well.
By moving to a club sport, teams now have the option to welcome graduate students on board. Reddy is looking forward to eventually welcoming grads to the Alpine Skiing team. Brandt claims the hockey team is composed of about 20 percent graduate students. Swenson, too, cited interest from graduate students.
But while some teams were welcoming graduate students to their fold, the Women’s Hockey team were doing the opposite: the club team, composed of students, alumni, faculty, and other MIT affiliates had to receive a few undergraduate varsity players. Initially disappointed at the amount of varsity members that stuck with the team, Elaine Y. Chin ’94 nevertheless was impressed with their talent. She still believed the transition was hard at first: “We tried to welcome [the varsity players] but we just didn’t know where we stood, and it was just awkward.” She noted that the common bond between everyone was their love of hockey.
Leger also acknowledged some rough patches were present in the beginning. But she said that the attitudes of her and the rest of the varsity members who stayed help to ease the switch. “I think the varsity players that stuck it out were more receptive to the club team, as opposed to trying to make it something that it wasn’t or expecting it to be what varsity was.”
Still, even once all of these issues — league changes, losing athletes, losing coaches, reduction of facility use, loss of PE credit — had been identified and acted upon, two huge issues still faced the teams: money and management.
This is the second of a three-part series on the current status of MIT’s cut varsity sports.