UR caught in a web of controversy over lacrosse decision

(Photo courtesy of Joe St. George, CBS 6 News)

The University of Richmond considered saving its men’s soccer and track teams by increasing its athletics budget, but that would have been too costly and changed the makeup of the student body.

That was one of the explanations UR President Ed Ayers gave Sunday to a crowd of about 300 at a forum organized by athletes, faculty members and alumni in the wake of the school’s announcement that it would drop men’s soccer and track and add men’s lacrosse to its athletics lineup.

At the contentious meeting, Ayers said the school’s decision was final.

At issue is the school’s compliance with Title IX, a law that requires schools that accept federal money to offer an equal number of sports roster spots to men and women.

In April, UR said it was not going to upgrade men’s lacrosse from a club team to Division I. The track and soccer teams were safe, they were told.

But in mid-September, UR reversed that decision and announced it was upgrading lacrosse to a varsity sport with scholarships. To keep the number of male and female athletes the same and comply with the law, the school said it was cutting men’s soccer and men’s indoor and outdoor track.

University of Richmond President Ed Ayers speaking at a forum Sunday. (Photo courtesy of CBS 6).

Ayers said Sunday that the school had studied adding women’s sports to remain in compliance and avoid cutting the men’s soccer and track teams, but that move would cost more than $1 million a year and require a $20 million increase in the school’s endowment.

He also said that the school didn’t want to change the makeup of incoming classes, which are usually about 13 percent athletes. “That is the highest percentage of athletes among any other school that we compete with for students,” Ayers said, adding that he was not willing to take away from students with non-athletic interests to increase the focus on sports.

The cancelation of the two sports in favor of lacrosse has created a maelstrom on campus.

In the past week, groups of alumni and students have sprung up in attempts to save track and soccer. Track boosters bought a full-page advertisement in the school newspaper with an incendiary tagline “Money can buy a lot of things, like this ad or even a lacrosse program, but it can’t buy honor.”And soccer alumni started working with a public relations firm.

Ayers, who at times seemed exasperated by interruptions at the forum, said the lacrosse program will cost the school about $400,000 a year. He said a $3 million multi-person donation would serve as an endowment to fund the program.

Several media outlets have speculated that one of the big donors is Paul Queally, a UR alumnus, Wall Street financier and member of the board of trustees.

The school’s student newspaper, the Collegian, cited an unnamed source in a report that said Queally had been described as a regular donor to the men’s club lacrosse program.

Queally said in an email to BizSense that he would not comment on the board’s decision to cut soccer and track and did not respond to a question about whether or not he donated all or the bulk of the $3 million used to start the program.

Chris Hoerner, a junior midfielder from Middleburg, Va., said soccer contributes to diversity on campus. “[The board] has let one large donor, who is also a board member, influence the decision by waving a check in its face,” he said.

Ayers said Sunday that he had decided last spring to cut the men’s soccer and track programs and that, once funding became available, the school would add a lacrosse team.

“At the time, I didn’t know if that would happen in a year or in two years or long after I leave this job,” Ayers said. “It turned out that [the donations] came in faster than we expected.”

In response to whether the decision was influenced by one powerful board member, Ayers was direct: “The answer is no,” he said.

“The members of our board serve out of a sense of loyalty and a sense of responsibility. They are smart, experienced and independent minded. And not one of them is a pushover or would take direction from another member as has been suggested,” he said.

In a document prepared by Richmond’s athletic department in advance of the decision, the school said lacrosse is the fastest growing sport among high school programs and that the school could still compete in a small Division I field.

“Because there are only [61] Division I men’s lacrosse teams, the university has the opportunity to build a highly competitive men’s lacrosse program while the field is still relatively small,” the document said.

According to Ayers, the school is saving $100,000 a year by cutting the track and soccer programs, freeing up roster spots for other sports and creating three scholarships for those sports.

There are 23 men on the track roster. Most of those men participate in both indoor and outdoor track, meaning each man fills two roster spots. So by cutting both programs, the school opens more than 40 spots. They open an additional 26 roster spots by cutting the men’s soccer team.

UR Athletics Director Jim Miller said after the forum Sunday that the lacrosse team would take about 42 roster spots.

“That leaves us with more than 20 spots that we can use to bring down the number of women on sports with rosters that are too big and gives us room to add more roster spots on men’s teams that are underserved,” Miller said.

As an example, Miller said the women’s soccer team has about five too many roster spots in an attempt to comply with Title IX. That means that not all the women can travel with the team to away games.

Men’s track and field has no scholarships. Men’s soccer has eight. Those scholarships will be transferred to the lacrosse team that will launch in 2014.

 Read more:

You can read an RBS investigation about the business of big-time college football in Virginia here.

Watch a video from the forum courtesy of CBS 6 News:

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