Foul Play

Carolyn F. Segal, an English professor, and Libby Segal, her daughter and a college athlete, reflect on what it means when a team is eliminated.

May 23, 2008

Carolyn F. Segal:

My daughter has a T-shirt with “A-10 Field Hockey” emblazoned on the front; the back says simply, “Believe.” She doesn’t wear the T-shirt any longer; it’s packed away at the bottom of her trunk.

On April 12, she, along with her teammates had traveled to Connecticut for a weekend spring tournament; on April 14, her field hockey team at the University of Rhode Island was cut.

In January, the women's gymnastics team had been cut, and plans for the creation of a lacrosse team were announced. In the first week of April, all of the athletes on the remaining 21 NCAA Division I sports teams at URI were convened: they were told that three more teams would be cut, but not which teams. On April 14, my daughter learned by text message that her team was finished. The other teams cut were men’s tennis and men’s swim; all plans for lacrosse have been canceled. The university needs to cut $12 million in expenses; $800,000 of that is to come from athletics. In early May, the field hockey players who are remaining at the school were told that there is no possibility of even a club team next year.

The key word there is “remaining.” To use words like “death” and “grief” is not to exaggerate. Since the middle of the summer before their freshman year, these young women have worked, played, and traveled together. My daughter and her best friend from the team have just finished their sophomore year. With very little time, they have to make some very big decisions. Deadlines -- for transfer, financial aid, housing bids, and team line-ups -- have either passed or are rapidly approaching.

And there is the other part of the scholar-athlete equation to consider. My daughter has completed all of her core courses at URI, and completed a considerable portion of her major -- communications -- and film minor. At her top choice for a transfer school that will allow her to continue playing Division I field hockey, she would have to spend most of her junior and senior years -- and possibly part of a fifth year -- making up an extensive list of core courses, at the time when students need to bond with their departments and to prepare for grad school. At URI, she has strong ties beyond athletics: four semesters on the dean’s list; a position as an entertainment reviewer for the college paper; friends on other teams both cut and uncut.

As she said again this past weekend, after reviewing her list of options, “There really is no good solution.”

The cuts at URI aren't limited to sports teams and sports personnel; academic departments are facing a 10 per cent reduction. As one of my daughter's professors said, "Everyone is at risk." I understand. As a faculty member at a small liberal arts college, I've witnessed and protested the same cost-cutting measures. In difficult times, many faculty members say, "cut sports, not academics." Cutting teams may seem like the logical place to start. And, of course, some may say that I'm writing here as a parent, not as a member of academe. But I'm writing here based on the education I've received as the parent and advisor of scholar-athletes. Participation in competitive sports trains students in all those things we stress will be important after graduation: team building, self-discipline, flexibility, leadership skills, and dedication to a goal.

My daughter is an athlete. From the age of 5 she has played on a team or teams, first baseball -- she was the only girl in the league -- then softball, then basketball, and from the age of 12, field hockey. Her summer work involves coaching and assisting coaches; she always planned to coach high school after her graduation from college. When she was 7, the Little League commissioner told me that he liked to sit next to her at games because her commentary was spot-on. She played ball and field hockey like a chess player, always looking ahead.

But the announcement on April 14 was something that she didn’t anticipate. When she was a senior in high school, URI said “believe,” and she did.

Libby Segal:

Someone once told me to reach for the moon so that if I ever fell I would land among the stars. When it came time to search for a college, I reached for the moon just as I was told. In fact, I made it and even left my footprints. Then I fell back down to earth on April 14, 2008.

As of April 14, the University of Rhode Island field hockey team was cut. At 2 in the afternoon I received a devastating text from our head coach. Tears clouded my eyes, and I immediately called my mom. In the hours that followed, my teammates surrounded each other hugging and reassuring one another that everything would be okay. At 7 we met with the athletic director and that is when it truly hit us that everything was not OK. Our sport had been officially removed from the university.

Last April, my team was made up of 16 girls, a trainer, a gym floor to practice on, and a four-month search for a coach. The athletic department guaranteed us that this would be the lowest it would ever be for our team. At 8 pm on April 14, 2008, we felt as if we had fallen even further.

Since that day, I have heard over 100 “sorries,” I have encountered over 100 blank stares, and I have felt over 100 different emotions. With two weeks left in the spring semester, my heart was beginning to break. But from the past, I have learned that it is the challenges that build us, that make us stronger, and that make us more durable.

The biggest challenge now is figuring out where I will be in four months. I could be in St. Louis, I could be in Pittsburgh, I could be in Montclair, I could be in Rome, and I could be right back at the University of Rhode Island. There are options, but not many. Because of the cut it is just too late. It is too late to transfer with confidence, too late to cancel a housing lease you signed in January, too late to start a club team for the possible 7 remaining girls on the team, too late to study abroad without having to pay a late fee, and too late to find a way to be happy in the months to come. It is just too late. There are no good options.

I have played sports since I was 5 years old. Sports are what keep kids out of trouble. Athletics can be training for life. I call the cutting of sports stepping out of bounds. In field hockey, that’s a penalty.

All our young lives we are told to dream. Then a college tells us to dream with it and picks us to represent it, and then they take it all away.


Carolyn F. Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College. Libby Segal is a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island.


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