Some Additional Thoughts on Tulane’s Decision to Drop Women’s Swimming

By Phillip Whitten

December 11. THERE is no question that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, cuts had to be made in the Tulane University athletic budget. In fact, cuts were made in several academic departments as well. No doubt, making those cuts was a difficult process.

Still, upon examination, the decision to kill the recently resurrected women’s swim team appears more and more curious. Tulane had recruited Daniella Irle from Fresno State, and Coach Irle had produced in a big way. In her first season, the Green Wave compiled a 13-3 dual meet record and finished fifth in the Conference – USA. In just her second year, the team won the C-USA championship.

Universities often proclaim their commitment to the concept of the student-athlete. It is, indeed, a worthy ideal. But many universities reverse the emphasis. The athlete-student is what they really want: the guy (and, yes, except for Title IX compliance purposes, we’re only talking about men) who is a super athlete and, oh yeah, he should attend a few classes every now and then – preferably easy classes taught by sympathetic professors. After all, we’ve got to keep him eligible.

Unfortunately, looking at the decisions made by its Athletic Director, Tulane falls into the category of universities whose priorities are reversed. In their brief four semesters, Tulane’s women swimmers distinguished themselves in the classroom as well as the pool, ranking at or near the top of all of the school’s athletic teams every semester.

So much for commitment to the student-athlete ideal.

Swimming was not the only C-USA championship sport dropped by Tulane. In fact, all of the school’s conference champions got the ax: men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s golf. Baseball, which shared the conference title with TCU, was spared. The pattern seems to be: Drop the Olympic sports (except track and field) and keep the US pro sports (except golf).

It may be coincidental, but Tulane’s Athletic Director, Rick Dickson, and Texas A&M A.D. Bill Byrne are friends. Byrne, of course, is infamous for killing the swimming programs at his two previous posts – Oregon and Nebraska – with rationales that fared rather poorly when examined critically. For example, he cited a lack of funds as his reason for axing the Nebraska team, which cost about $400,000. Scant weeks later he announced a multi-million dollar corporate gift to the athletic department, then distributed a record $1.4 million in bonuses to favored coaches and himself.

Without being privy to conversations between the two athletic directors, one cannot be certain that they discussed which sports to cut at Tulane, but it seems reasonable that they at least touched on the topic. Likewise, the patterns identified above – the school’s most successful programs are cut, and Olympic sports are cut – may be entirely coincidental. Somehow, I think not.

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