As NCAA track and field programs vie to survive, Black students suffer most – The Guardian

The endangerment of collegiate track and field programs across the United States disproportionately harms Black men and closes doors to educational opportunities
Many universities across the US have cut men’s sports in recent years, including track and field teams. It’s a painful reality for many athletes. But the problem is not just that these athletes lose opportunities to compete. Their supporters say that cutting these sports such as track disproportionately harms Black men and closes doors to educational opportunities. It also has some broader consequences.
In the last couple of years, five universities announced they would cut their men’s track and field (and sometimes men’s cross-country) teams: Brown, Clemson, Central Michigan, the College of William & Mary and the University of Minnesota. They have cited various reasons for doing so, including Covid-19-related budget cuts, Title IX compliance, and redirecting resources to make their athletic programs more competitive overall. Most of these teams have since been reinstated.
A fight is still under way to reinstate Central Michigan University’s men’s track and field team, which the university announced it was cutting in May 2020, due to Covid-related budget cuts. While it demoted track from varsity to club, it elevated golf.
In the NCAA, football and basketball include a substantial number of Black athletes. Beyond those two sports, track and field teams provide the next highest number of Black men – far more than any other sport. The NCAA data from 2021 on Division I shows that football teams included more than 13,000 Black men, and basketball included more than 3,000. Indoor track had 2,669 Black men, outdoor track had 2,978, and cross-country had 425. The next highest numbers: 665 in baseball and 632 in soccer. Golf teams included 55 Black men.
“College sports enable direct pathways to admission via their recruitment slots,” says Russell Dinkins, executive director of the Tracksmith Foundation and a former Princeton track athlete who has been pushing to get these men’s teams reinstated. “The only sport besides football and basketball that provides these kinds of direct pathways in a way that serves a broader population, and that disproportionately benefits Black and brown and low-income kids, is track and field.”
A school that cuts track and adds a mostly white, affluent sport like golf effectively reserves nearly all of its recruitment slots in non-revenue sports for white, affluent students, Dinkins says. “This is about educational access through sport.”
At CMU, a reinstatement committee has been trying to get the university to bring track back. Dinkins filed a civil complaint against CMU asking the school to reinstate the program, and the ACLU of Michigan has expressed its support. Mark Fancher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project, said in a letter to CMU President Robert Davies that the team has “served as a springboard to upward mobility for substantial numbers of Black CMU students”.
Eliminating a sport that benefits Black students and “replacing it with it a program that is regarded as a white sport – and, in fact, is a white sport because of historical and social reasons – that sends a hostile message,” Fancher told the Guardian.
“CMU is a public institution that’s supposed to be serving our interests and is funded with our tax dollars,” Fancher says. “We’re concerned about the message that [cutting the team] sends to students of color, regardless of whether they aspire to be in a track program.”
When the athletes found out the team was dropped, they were “pissed, confused, and heartbroken”. says Bryant Wilson, who was associate head coach of track and field at the time. “It really put them in a tough position, because some of them are juniors and seniors, and financially it doesn’t make sense for them to transfer.”
CMU honored the scholarships of athletes who had them, but if they left, not all credits would transfer, and not all the students would be able to afford tuition elsewhere, Wilson explains. A few did leave.
In track and cross-country, unlike many other sports, men’s and women’s teams often train together and share coaches and facilities. CMU didn’t expect the blowback it got from the women’s team, Wilson says. “They didn’t realize how close-knit the men’s and women’s program is, and how many women left the program because their training partners and teammates were taken away.”
On campuses that are largely white, cutting the men’s track team also denies the women athletes peers of color, Dinkins adds.
Dinkins has helped Brown, Clemson, William & Mary and Minnesota in their reinstatement efforts as well. Brown announced in May 2020 that it was cutting its men’s track and field and cross-country teams and elevating its sailing program instead. Brown students, alumni and supporters mobilized and put pressure on the university.
Brynn Smith, a former thrower at Brown, got involved immediately because she benefited from the opportunities the team opened up for her. “I am a first-generation college student. I come from a low-middle, working-class family in Maine and never really saw myself leaving my hometown, to be frank,” she says. But then, “my world begins to change … and I get this amazing education at a school that I never would have dreamt of going to.” When she got there, she learned that many of her teammates had similar experiences.
“Of course, not everybody comes from some type of marginalized background, but a lot of us on the team really identified with this concept of upward mobility” that it provided, Smith says.
Dinkins got involved when he published an article on Medium calling the university out for saying it wanted to confront racial justice while also cutting one of its few diverse sports. The article went viral. “At the time, Brown’s track team had more Black athletes on it than four of their other men’s programs combined, and there were no Black people on their sailing program at all,” he says.
Days later, Brown reversed its decision. The university president acknowledged: “[W]e now more fully appreciate the consequences of eliminating men’s track and field and cross country for black students in our community and among our extended community of black alumni.”
Replacing track and field with sailing would “create more slots at the school that are going to go to students who already have a disproportionate amount of opportunity in getting into schools like Brown University”, says Jordan Mann, who served as a volunteer assistant coach for Brown’s cross-country team.
The university chooses which students to offer opportunities to, Mann says. “It’s sad when [opportunities are] taken away from the students who do track, who are racially diverse and socioeconomically diverse, and given to students from other sports who are not.”
In fall 2020, William & Mary announced it was cutting men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and then it reinstated them. Clemson said it would cut indoor and outdoor track and field, as well as cross-country, and then reversed course. Minnesota cut indoor and outdoor track and field, but it ended up keeping outdoor.
“When the University of Minnesota announced that they were cutting their men’s track program, I said, OK, this is about to be a trend. We have to get moving on this,” Dinkins says. He and some of the Brown organizers collaborated to share what they had done and created a toolkit for William & Mary, Clemson, and Minnesota.
Universities that cut men’s track teams with little or no regard for the harm it inflicts on Black students also violate their own stated diversity, equity, and inclusion principles, advocates say.
“In the wake of George Floyd, a lot of schools made outward commitments and proclamations of being more cognizant of racial bias,” including the experiences of Black people in particular, Dinkins says. But for the schools that have cut track programs, their actions don’t line up with their values, he says.
“What is going to have the most meaningful impact: Creating a statement, having people do a workshop? … Or making sure that there are opportunities that serve populations that are historically and currently under-resourced, and ensuring that those populations are given the tools and support in order to thrive at institutions and beyond?” Dinkins asks.
For universities to act in line with their statements, they would need to “ensure that institutional decision-making engages in a deeper level analysis that looks at the impact in addition to whatever the surface-level concerns are”, Dinkins says. “From my purview, universities have not taken that step.”
A June 2020 CMU Board of Trustees resolution says: “[W]e believe diversity, inclusion and equity enhance the educational experience; strengthen communities; foster the exchange of ideas and innovation; promote civic engagement; and prepare students for leadership in a complex global society.”
Wilson says, “Actions speak louder than words. I think there’s a lot of lip service that’s associated with higher education.”
Mann agrees. “So long as an institution is officially, publicly, vocally and repeatedly saying that its values are about racial justice and racial equity, it’s really not conscionable for it to fall this far behind in action,” he says.
Joyce Baugh was a professor at CMU from 1988 to 2017, and she assisted the reinstatement committee. “Having these young Black men on the track and field team, as part of the campus, they added to the diversity in the classroom,” she says.
Baugh points to the importance of “the contributions of these young athletes to the university, not just athletically, but academically, socially, culturally – all of those things, and then the contribution to their education, to their well-being, to their ability to go to get a good education, to become successful people in whatever they decide to do, and for them to be able to go back and contribute to their communities.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of CMU’s undergraduates in fall 2020 were Black. That’s lower than Michigan’s overall Black population, which was 14% in 2021.
“By CMU not being truly reflective of the diversity that exists within the state of Michigan, those who go to CMU are not getting the fullest experience that they can get in terms of an immersive educational experience,” Dinkins says.
Smith echoes that concern. She says she is white, but she felt at home on Brown’s track and field team because of the diversity it included – in terms of race, socioeconomic background, languages spoken, support for the LGBTQIA community, and other factors – more than she did elsewhere on campus.
Track is unique in its low cost, making it more accessible to lower-income kids than other sports. A 2019 Aspen Institute survey looked at the cost of sports for kids up to age 18, and track and field was the cheapest of all the sports: $191 was the average annual cost. The average annual cost of all sports was $693. Golf was $925.
Smith says she and her Brown colleagues were also concerned that, if more schools cut track, the sport itself may be in jeopardy at the college level. “If these big leagues begin to cancel their teams, what they’re effectively doing is eliminating league competition. If even one more Ivy League cut a track team while we were doing this, then the argument begins: Do we all just eliminate track because now there’s only five Ivy League schools?” she says.
Dinkins says universities making these decisions should look “not only at the numbers but also the human, societal and community-wide impact. The educational opportunities that track and field offers to some of these students can be life-altering,” especially when they may not otherwise be able to go to college, he says. “It can also be life-altering for their communities.”
The men on these teams are the ones who lose their spots. But the harmful effect of subtracting Black men from this equation spreads to their female athlete counterparts and their fellow students, regardless of race, as well as to the broader university community and beyond.


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