Cutting Community College Athletics

With no economic recovery in sight, some community college administrators are wondering what else on their campuses they can reasonably cut while fulfilling their educational missions. For some, the answer is athletics.

June 24, 2010

With no economic recovery in sight, some community college administrators are wondering what else on their campuses they can reasonably cut while fulfilling their educational missions. For some, the answer is athletics.

Intercollegiate programs at two-year institutions typically do not generate as much criticism as those at four-year institutions, not only because of a lack of press coverage but also because they do not cost a lot of money to operate. And many community colleges do not have intercollegiate athletics at all. While some prominent universities are accused of spending too much on athletics at a time of academic cuts, at community colleges, some of the disputes have been set off by administrators making cuts – and running into opposition from fans.

Last fall, on the eve of announcing major state budget cuts, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour caused a stir among athletics directors and presidents when he suggested that the state’s 15 community colleges either significantly downsize or completely eliminate their intercollegiate programs as a cost-saving measure. Though some presidents suggested at the time that trimming sports should be a last resort, at least three presidents recently gave word that they would be making such a move.

James Southward, director of athletics activities for the Mississippi State Board for Community & Junior Colleges, noted that three institutions have reported trimming at least one sport for the fall so far. The teams on the chopping block, however, are not the most expensive ones to operate – they are actually some of the cheapest: soccer at East Mississippi Community College; golf and tennis at Pearl River Community College; golf, tennis and track at Southwest Mississippi Community College.

Though eliminating a football team could potentially save an institution more money than cutting multiple lower-profile sports, the likelihood of that happening is virtually nonexistent, Southward explained. This is Mississippi, after all.

“Mississippi has a very storied and prestigious position in community and junior college football, probably more so than any other state,” said Southward, who was for 15 years a football coach at Mississippi Delta Community College. “Our football, basketball baseball and women’s softball teams are very costly to operate, but they’re also the sports that bring students onto campus. It’s kind of a pay-back situation. The feeling among most of our presidents is that if they start cutting out some of these major sports, they would see a major drop in enrollment. If that happens, it’s as bad as being cut in funding.”

In addition to eliminating a few sports, the state’s community colleges pledged to make a number of other cost-cutting measures starting this fall. For example, the regular seasons for all sports will be trimmed by 10 percent, all pre- and off-season scrimmages will be eliminated and all of the colleges will consider consolidating their athletic insurance policies. The football-crazy colleges even agreed to start football season one week later, saving money by not bringing players, band members and cheerleaders to campus before other students.

All in all, Southward said it was hard to tell whether athletics at the state’s community colleges have been more a target of institutional budget cutting than other, academic divisions.

“I guess because athletics draws more public attention, people might say it’s been cut to a greater degree,” Southward acknowledged. “Still, I think all [departments] have suffered. It’s going to be that way for the foreseeable future.”

Elsewhere in the country, tough decisions are being made at community colleges that have some athletics boosters seething. For example, administrators at Erie Community College, in Buffalo, N.Y., caught flak recently for cutting eight teams – men’s and women’s golf, cross-country, track and field, and indoor track.

Jack Quinn, president of Erie Community College and former U.S. House representative, said the rationale for trimming athletics offerings at his institution was not one of zero-sum budgeting, where this was chosen over cuts to an academic unit of the college. In fact, the cuts will only free up $40,000 a year.

“Making these cuts was difficult for me, because I’m a jock,” said Quinn, who played Division I basketball as a walk-on at Siena College. “I know how important intercollegiate sports are in schools. The philosophy was never that it is easier to cut athletics than academics. We were just top-heavy.”

Instead of “downsizing” athletics on his campus, Quinn argued, the cuts “right-size” them. Before the cuts, Erie offered 22 intercollegiate sports – 10 more than the national average at community colleges with intercollegiate programs. And though the cost savings are small, Quinn tells athletics boosters he may have saved the program from further cuts down the road by trimming today. Still, that line does not play well with supporters of the teams that have been cut.

“I may have done athletics a favor in the long run by starting here,” Quinn said. “I think our trustees’ appetite to cut athletics is fulfilled. … Still, I had some people who said, ‘If you’re looking for money, then cut the football team.’ I just wasn’t into that. I was able to trim eight teams and [because the coaches maintained other positions] not fire anyone. Also, these are not what I would call high-volume teams. For instance, those young men and women, they can still golf or run. … I’m not cutting off their ability to recreate.”

Though football is safe throughout Mississippi and in Buffalo, some community colleges have made the bold move of cutting their marquee team. Last year, North Iowa Community College announced it was getting rid of its football team, which had been around for nearly 70 years. The cost – $250,000 annually – was simply too much for the institution to handle amid cuts of more than $800,000 to its state appropriation. And the expansion of its conference – the Midwest Football Conference – had raised the team’s travel costs significantly.

Debra A. Derr, president of North Iowa Community College, noted that there was “no pressure from the academic side of the house per se,” only that the institution was looking at making reductions “across the board.” Still, her rationale for cutting football – untouchable at some institutions – was simple, and remains so a year later.

“It was the most expensive of our sports, and we saw fewer community colleges having the sport, making travel extremely challenging,” Derr wrote in an e-mail. “Our goal is to provide our students with a quality experience and this was being challenged as well. We know there are student-athletes who will not choose [North Iowa] because they want to play football and will seek a college where that opportunity exists. It is our goal to strengthen our remaining athletics programs and continue to improve those programs.”

Not everyone in the community college athletics world thinks the sky is falling, though. National Junior College Athletic Association officials, for instance, remain optimistic.

“I would like to mention that not all colleges are contemplating cutting sports or athletic programs,” wrote Mary Ellen Leicht, NJCAA executive director, in an e-mail. “Some colleges are actually adding athletic programs and teams. Although the numbers for the upcoming 2010-2011 academic year are not yet available, I expect to see an increase in the number of colleges applying for membership within the NJCAA.”

Currently, the NJCAA has 511 member institutions. Though Leicht acknowledged that the organization is encouraging its member programs to be “proactive in their response to the financial concerns” of their campus leaders, she argued intercollegiate athletics deserve a spot at two-year institutions.

“If you believe athletics is an integral part of the college community and experience, then it should be as easy to support funding for athletics as it is to support funding for the arts or math or English,” Leicht wrote. “Understanding that in these difficult financial times, some colleges are being forced to make some very difficult decisions from a funding standpoint, I think all programs should be analyzed and reviewed on an equal basis. Only then can informed decisions be made.”

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