From Slow-Motion Crash To High-Speed Tragedy: Beware The Deep Impact Of Cuts To College Swimming Programs

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When the black line turns red in the pool - Photo Courtesy: SwimSketch

College swimming programs are among sports being cut or facing the chop in the United States. The trend has been a relative trickle for a while. The novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is being cited as a response why the trickle has turned into a stream and could soon turn into a flood (writes Craig Lord).

The trend coincides with pressure bring felt at all levels of the sport off swimming, coaches and clubs feeling the squeeze, closures of YMCA programs and campaigns to have local pools open up after lengthy lockdowns, all a part of the mix in the the United States. Overseas swimmers are affected, too: many train and study at U.S Colleges, where some reach for a swim-school balance like nothing that exists back home. The more cuts and closures there are, the fewer opportunities there will be for swimmers all round.

The situation has caused even some of the bigger programs to adjust their approaches to the season ahead after the current one was wiped out. At Arizona State University, Sun Devils coach Bob Bowman and his team yesterday announced their decision to have the entire men’s and women’s teams redshirt the 2020-21 season, a move that has drawn plaudits far and wide.

College swimming  programs, of course, are not simply about the NCAA, the Big 10 and so forth: they are the birthing pool and staging post for some of the finest swimming talent in the world. They are the feeder programs of the world’s leading swimming nation; they contribute engine and fuel to a conveyor belt of what has been endless progress in the pool as far back as the 1960s for men and a little more recently than that for women.

COVID-19, say many critics of the decisions to cut programs, is being used as an excuse by colleges who were looking for a way out of swimming and other sports below the league and draw of football and the like. 

Whatever is driving the trend to cut, the cuts are real – and so will their impact be. 

In the following Commentary, George Block, President of the World Swimming Coaches Association, explains why College Swimming Programs Are Key To American Success

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George Block – Photo Courtesy: San Antonio Sports

1994

It started in slow motion.  First, it was UCLA and Miami.  We lost gold-medal producing men’s scholarship programs.  Every year, we would lose a program or two.  Women’s teams seemed safe.  The numbers were balancing football.  Then it started to accelerate.

We started losing entire College swimming programs – men’s and women’s, swimming and diving.  Nothing was safe, but the bleeding was still slow.  Two to three universities a year would drop scholarship swimming.  COVID has accelerated all of this.

According to Sports Illustrated, men’s swimming is the third most cut sport in the past 30 years.  Back when UCLA and Miami cut men’s swimming, half of all Division I schools had men’s swimming teams. Today that number is one-third.  Even women’s swimming is now down to one-half of Division I schools with a team.  

Why it Matters

College sports are what separates the United States from every other nation at the Olympics.  College coaching jobs are usually the most stable and best paying and create an environment where the top coaches and athletes develop into national and world-class swimmers.  The same is true across all the Olympic sports.

Not only are the coaching jobs and athlete opportunities unique in Division I college sports, so are the facilities.  Many of our championships take place in collegiate facilities.  They are the few built with enough seating to host both an NCAA Championship crowd and stands full of age group parents.  But the trickle-down is more than just facilities.

The college sports roster itself, and even the facilities, become models for the state high school associations.  It is common to see a state high school association model the sports offerings of that state’s flagship institution(s).  Sports dropped at the collegiate level often lead to the same thing at the high school level about a decade later.

The Death of Dreams

Once high schools begin to drop swimming, where will our community clubs train?  Clubs all over the country train and compete in school district facilities.  But the trickle-down goes even beyond high school opportunities and facilities.  It goes down to the dreams and motivation of hundreds of thousands of children all over the United States.

Only 52 swimmers, once every four years, make an Olympics Team, but virtually any serious swimmer could find a home someplace in collegiate swimming.  This dream of competing on a college team was and is a prime motivator for high school swimmers all over our country.  

The dream pervades the world, as swimmers from all over the globe strive to come to the US, where they can uniquely pursue world-class athletics and world-class academics simultaneously.  When we lose that advantage, we become Australia.

Some coaches and administrators, with a combination of both cynicism and arrogance, say that we will be fine if we maintain the top 10 College swimming programs.  A quick review of the NCAA point totals shows teams moving in and out of the top 10, but a closer look shows entire programs that move from unranked to world powerhouse.  Louisville is a recent, classic example, but a real examination of this is an article all its own.  Kids, coaches, and universities all aspire.  When programs die, aspirations die with them.

An Avoidable Tragedy

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Sadly, this didn’t have to happen.  A few years ago, the ASCA and USA Swimming collaborated to develop a plan to both stop the loss of scholarship programs and to relationship build our way into taking over the NCAA Championships at all levels.  The idea was simple because the problem was simple.  College swimming programs were dropped because of money.  We would help the colleges raise funds.

Step 1 was to teach our Div. I coaches how to raise funds from their alumni.  That is a group that is currently both untapped, yet fiercely protected, by collegiate Development Directors and Athletic Department fundraisers.  Once we trained the coaches, USA swimming would initiate a splash fee or meet surcharge to develop an annual “matching fund” on the USA Swimming side.

The fiscal year would match the swimming season.  Every August 31, the colleges would total up all the funds raised by their coaches that year.  Whatever percentage of the total funds raised were raised by a university would be matched by that same percentage of the total funds raised by USA Swimming meets.

Our Div. I teams would be raising funds.  Those funds would be “matched” by USA Swimming.  The college presidents and athletics directors would see their coach raising funds, and they would know that USA Swimming had “skin in the game.”  It was simple, but a victim of bad timing.

The plan was moving to the board level right when USA swimming was both bringing on a new Executive Director and completely reforming their Board of Directors.  The endowment program was a key initiative of our previous Executive Director, but not our new one.  As the board transitioned, the board champion transitioned off, and no new member picked up the project.  Even the staff focus and strategy changed.  

Surviving Post-football

One of the ironies was that the program was predicated on a loss of football.  We had no idea that it would be lost to COVID-19.  Our concern was and is CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy).  Pre-COVID, research was very close to putting a test for post-concussion brain damage (tau proteins) in every pediatrician and family practitioner’s office.  When a mom would bring her son into the office for a “return to play” clearance and saw test results showing the new risk profile for premature dementia for her son, we believe that football will die the way boxing did 60+ years ago.

Boxing went from being a mainstream sport, practiced in every Catholic school in the country, to a low-income, inner-city sport.  We think football could do the same.  Nearly every Div. I athletic department funds their department on football revenue.  In a few places, basketball helps.  Many are even funding it with (massive) debt on stadium renovations and facility construction.  Massive debt always becomes reverse leverage during an economic downturn, and if middle-class and above families turn their backs on football, the college sports model will collapse.

Who knew that we would witness the collapse we predicted would occur, if only temporarily, at high speed?  But even if the COVID threat is temporary, the precarious collegiate sports model is permanently fragile.

This plan is a multi-generational plan.  It was to start with Div. I scholarships, then Div. II and NAIA.  After that, it would endow coaching positions in the same order, with Div. III added.  Finally, it would endow operations.

Is it too late?

Failing to do this a few years ago left our sport incredibly vulnerable, but COVID has exposed a multitude of weaknesses in the fabric of our society and higher education.  As we come out of COVID, the next generation of coach and board leadership should reinvigorate this project. 

Our failure to act over the past 30 years has cost far too many kids their opportunities and dreams. If we don’t act, it will end up costing every child those dreams and our nation’s place as the leading swimming nation in the world.

 

7 comments

  1. Ja Bounce

    Aquatic Facilities need to show (Admin, Management, etc) is that they can hover well above the RED. They need to have more than just the facility to be able to do this (I.E – Water Park, something fun to bring in the masses to help generate $$$). Events will ONLY ever just cover the cost to pay working staff & rental of facility (most of the time they barely cover these cost with most events. Fundraising, Corp sponsors, & the Occasional Big $$$ gifts will sadly no be enough. Most if not all need to look into a better working model to be able to better use each facility to help keep them open & stay out of the RED.

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