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eric swenson
Nicholas C. Swenson ’12 reads the green during a 2009 match. Today, the golf team continues as a club sport after losing its varsity status almost two years ago.
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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. 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. Faced with the daunting task of entirely restructuring their teams, and without the financial advantages afforded to varsity groups, students of the new clubs had to take matters of money and management into their own hands — adding even more work to the already busy schedule of the student-athlete.

Funding the team

Along with losing their varsity status, the teams lost DAPER funding. The Club Sports Council (CSC) offers some financial support to the sports, and DAPER increased funding to the CSC to accommodate the seven new teams. However, there was not enough money to cover all expenditures, and the new club sports had to adjust to budget shortfalls.

According to Sport Pistol Club Captain Andrew K. Sugaya ’11, the pistol team had just enough ammunition and targets left over from the previous season to support itself for about half a year. The team immediately reached out to alumni to cover the rest of the team’s operating costs for the future. Along with many other new teams, pistol now charges club dues: $150 last season, and $100 this season.

Other sports derive most of their funding from generous alumni donations, with dues making up a minimal part of their budgets. Riley E. Brandt ’11, the Men’s Hockey Club team captain, said that the team is completely funded by alumni donations.

“Right now, we’re raising enough money to run the team on a per-season basis,” he said, adding that the long-term goal would be to raise enough money to endow the program.

Club Wrestling (and former varsity) Coach Thomas Layte said that the team is supported by alumni, with the only serious issue being the lack of some facilities access, such as laundry and medical facilities.

The Alpine Skiing team is also primarily supported by alumni. An unexpected benefit of the financial attachment is bonding between alumni and skiers, said team member Jillian R. Reddy ’11.

“We are trying to foster a community. When we were varsity, we never really talked to [alumni]. Now we’ve all been in contact with those people, which is cool,” she said. Reddy was quick to add that raising funds was “the biggest issue we have.” The operational costs of the Alpine Skiing team is $10,000–12,000 per year, and although DAPER allowed the team to continue using its equipment, the helmets and speed suits are wearing down and will be expensive to replace.

Brandt said that the team’s expenditures as a club are less than they were as a varsity sport; as a result, members supply their own equipment and only bring trainers to games, but DAPER still indirectly helps the team.

“There are hidden costs like maintaining the ice and Zamboni that DAPER still bears,” he said. He also added that the team does not have to pay for ice access, which would be a considerable expense.

“We also reach out to [alumni] through newsletters and updates — as a 106-year-old program with 400 living alumni, we’re trying to build a strong sense of community,” he explained.

Kristen D. Watkins ’11, one of the Women’s Gymnastics captains, said that DAPER also bears some expenses for gymnastics.

“We are still allowed to use the [training] facility, and MIT kept all of our equipment, which has been an incredible help. We are so thankful that DAPER kept our gym, because without that I don’t think we could really have a club team at all,” she said.

By sending a newsletter to alumni, the golf team was able to procure money for this season. Golf Team President Nicholas C. Swenson ’12 credits golf alumnus Paul Rudovsky ’66, who had previously sponsored the construction of MIT’s indoor golf training course and a refurbishment of the weight room, for being a driving force for keeping the team alive with his support.

Managing the team

With their varsity status gone, none of the new club teams had a management structure in place to allow them function independently as the changes required. The change “adds a whole new aspect to being on a team,” and places a lot of responsibilities on the players, said Swenson.

“We are solely in charge of the finances we make, the decisions, what we spend money on, that sort of thing,” he said.

The new responsibilities were also mentioned by Watkins, who, along with her co-captain on the Women’s Gymnastics team, has a whole new set of duties to fulfill. Before, she said, captains just had to lead the team and participate in a couple of traditions. “Now,” she said, “the captains are scheduling all the meets, talking to all the coaches, managing all the money, buying all the equipment that we need...it’s not that much more work for the average team member, but for the captains it’s a significant amount of work.”

Brandt runs his team with the help of a core group of about three people. He believes that this leadership core should take on the brunt of the responsibility associated with managing all logistical aspects of the team. While he admitted that sharing leadership tasks requires a bigger time commitment for more team members, Brandt also said that he did not want to place too much of a burden on any one person in fear of scaring players away with extra responsibilities.

Some teams are seeing benefits from DAPER’s lack of involvement in their activities. Flexibility in schedule is one of these advantages. For instance, the wrestling team now only competes on weekends, which has been a goal of Layte’s for a while. “We’re not pulling kids out of classes during the week,” he explained.

“One thing that has surprised me is that … because we’ve been able to raise all our own money, we have control over it, and we can make more decisions pertaining to what we do, what tournaments we play in, where we go, if we do a spring break trip, that kind of thing,” said Swenson.

Vsevolod M. Ivanov ’14, a member of the Men’s Gymnastics team, believes that flexibility of practice times is a nice plus. Jacob T. Shapiro ’11, another a member of the Men’s Gymnastics team, also liked the added freedom that came with managing money, mentioning that players could spend “more than five dollars per meal now.”

According to Brandt, the Men’s Hockey team actually has more scheduled games than it did as a varsity team. On a more personal level, Brandt also enjoys the leadership experience he has gained from helping run the team. “I’ve probably learned more from running the club hockey team than I have in anything else I’ve done at MIT,” he explained.

“The number of day-to-day challenges with delegating and leading your peers … has been a huge learning experience for me.”

Looking towards the future

Many of the athletes show pessimism regarding whether their respective teams will ever return to varsity status. Reddy doesn’t expect to see any of the club sports getting reinstated. Leger, who thinks that the requirements DAPER set for possible reinstatements are “exceedingly high,” doesn’t see a way of coming back unless MIT re-funds the programs. Watkins said that she would be “really surprised” if her team was brought back.

Brandt is more hopeful than his counterparts. He hopes that as MIT as a whole recovers from the economic downturn, money will return to athletics and some of the sports will be reconsidered.

While Shapiro believes that gymnastics as a sport needs more varsity programs due to its dwindling number of collegiate varsity teams, he acknowledged that it will be “very tough” for MIT gymnastics to get reinstated.

Wrestling attempted to return as a varsity sport last year, but was eventually denied status even after securing a donor to fund the $1 million endowment. Although the donor stayed committed to the payment even as it increased to $1.6 million, DAPER ultimately decided that no amount of money was enough to sustain the wrestling team.

“I felt like the administration, they lied. When they cut the programs, they told every student athlete, they told the community when they sent out that e-mail on their webpage, that [the programs] were cut for budgetary reasons. And we had someone that was going to give us the money, and they changed their tune,” said Layte.

“When you look at it historically, our roster numbers were incredibly low,” Soriero explained when questioned about the decision. “[Wrestling] really wasn’t a program we felt was healthy. To endow a program in perpetuity, which an endowment would do … if we’re going to support a program at that level, it should be a program of excellence. And we weren’t there.” She was quick to point out that the decision wasn’t just about the money.

Reinstating a program would require a “very thoughtful analysis of [their] health and vitality,” according to Soriero. She expressed doubt that MIT would want to go back to supporting 41 varsity teams.

Moving On

A year and a half after the cuts, Soriero has come to grips with the criticisms from the MIT community. To her, such outcry is part of making hard decisions ­— it comes with the territory.

“I know what we had to do and I know why we had to do it, and I have to live with the decision,” she said.

“Criticism will come with it, I understand that. And I have to accept it.”

As the teams played on, athletes have had time to reflect on the decision and its effect on MIT’s image. Most athletes feel that the cuts were much more upsetting to the MIT community than the outside world. “I think that they were done at a time where a number of schools were making cuts … it was part of a bigger context,” said Brandt.

While Shapiro recognizes the context in which cuts were made, he still believes that the public may have held MIT more accountable than students realize. “In general the public holds MIT to a higher standard,” he explained. He claims that people he told about the cuts felt that if MIT couldn’t find a solution, no one could.

Sugaya believes that most students, including him, have less trust now in how DAPER is run. Alex Jiang ’11, pistol team manager, felt that the number of sports MIT had before was refreshing.

“The thing about varsity sports was it wasn’t for the sports and to win and do well in competition,” she said.

“It’s more because we have such a diverse student body and with so many different interests. It was nice that there were so many different sports that were available.”

Although distressed initially from the cuts, Swenson has come to grips with the decision. “Looking back on it, it’s a decision they had to make,” he reflects. “Having 41 teams in a recession and trying to float that kind of budget is a little absurd. So from their point of view, I can completely understand why they had to do it.”

Shapiro and Ivanov are ready to move on as well. “We did as much as we could to try to prevent the cut. Given that we’ve been cut, we’re doing the best that we can with what we got, and I think we’re doing pretty well,” said Shapiro. Ivanov added that “it is what it is” and that the team will slowly work toward getting back varsity status.

For now, some of the eight teams are still adjusting to their new status. Reddy will not consider the transition process to be complete until the team raises enough money to place in a savings account. But, she believes that they are in “a good place to continue.” Brandt would also like to raise enough money so that the team wouldn’t have to worry about funding on a season-by-season basis.

Layte is not satisfied being a club team. His goal is to increase the numbers of the wrestling team and try to get reinstated as a varsity team again. “We’re not done, by any means,” he said defiantly.

The pistol team is pretty much fully transitioned, said Jiang, adding that things are almost back to the way they were in varsity. Sugaya even added that the team is shooting better this year than last year. As a club team, the pistol team did well at the 2010 National Championships, placing second in two team events and naming several All-Americans and individual winners. The team was featured in this week’s Boston Globe Magazine.

Other teams are seeing comparable success. The Wrestling team won its first national title in 2010, and the Men’s Hockey team is currently second in their division. Although the Golf team did not qualify for nationals this year, they have had the opportunity to host an event at The International Golf Club, which Swenson described as “an extremely prestigious course.”

Every team is here to stay, in one form or another. Despite the differences in every situation, every team expressed a desire to not only continue, but excel. Like getting up after losing a wrestling bout, stumbling down a ski slope, or being checked into the boards, the athletes are ready to move on the next match, bout, or competition.

After all, it’s what they do.