The eighth. In July 2020, Stanford wrestling coach Jason Borrelli was on the ninth hole of a golf match when one of his assistants sent him an unusual text message.

Why are we blocked on social media?

Strange, thought Borrelli. He got no answer. An assistant contacted a Stanford sports information officer and learned that the social media accounts were not being managed due to routine maintenance. Borrelli wasn’t paying attention, but on the 18th. He got another message.

What is this emergency meeting we’re supposed to be at?

I thought maybe there was an announcement that everyone needed to hear, but it was strange, Borrelli said. So I read the letter again, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. A head coach and assistant coaches from 11 programs were featured. There’s no football or basketball. Well, that’s not good. I always thought: There’s no way… Not at all. You’re not going to cut into our program.

Then his wrestlers began to ask him why they also had a distress call. For Mr. Borrelli, it was an unofficial confirmation of a scenario he tried to convince himself would not happen. Some time later, athletic director Bernard Muir made it official.

1 Connected

Minutes after coaches and athletes learned their sports would be cancelled, the university sent out a press release disguised as an open letter from President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Chancellor Persis Drell and Muir announcing the cancellation of fencing (men’s and women’s), field hockey, track and field, rowing (men’s), sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, volleyball (men’s) and wrestling (women’s).

We were still talking when I started getting messages from people about it, Stanford wrestler Shane Griffith said. How could they do this publicly before some [athletes] even knew what was going on? It was heartbreaking.

Athletes have been informed that their scholarship will be maintained if they choose to remain at Stanford to complete their studies, but that the sport will no longer be funded after the 2020-21 academic year. Griffith was not a lone athlete who might one day compete for an Olympic spot, only to have his world turned upside down.

These 11 programs include more than 240 outstanding student-athletes and 22 dedicated coaches, according to the press release. They were built by more than 4,000 graduates whose contributions have led to 20 national championships, 27 Olympic medals and countless academic and professional achievements.

In the attached FAQ, the school indicates that this is a last resort when all other options have been exhausted and finances and competitive advantage are the primary concerns.

These rules ring hollow for everyone associated with Stanford athletics – including Olympians, current and former professional athletes, Stanford Hall of Fame athletes, celebrities, current students, coaches and staff. The idea that all viable avenues had been exhausted, even if the vast majority of those involved were groping in the dark, was easily dismissed, while independent fundraising efforts and athletic performance since Griffiths won the national championship in March have exposed serious holes in the logic presented in the original announcement.

Shane Griffith became Stanford’s second national wrestling champion this season. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

After the news was announced, a group of alumni called 36 Sports Strong formed to try to overturn the university’s decision. Among the group’s best-known defenders are Andrew Luck (football), Julie Foudy (soccer), Kerry Walsh Jennings (volleyball), Josh Childress (basketball), Janet Evans (swimming) and Michelle Vee (golf).

In an interview with ESPN on Friday, the group of executives said they had received more than $50 million in pledges to save the sport, were close to giving $4 million and were optimistic that they could raise the rest of the money needed to make 11 sports financially self-sufficient in the near future.

I look at the numbers, and we think we’re between 55 and 60 percent of the way there, based on what we have, said spokesman Jeremy Jacobs, a former Stanford volleyball player. And that’s six months from now. So give us a few years and we think we can do it.

One of the biggest sources of frustration for 36 Sports Strong, as well as the student-athletes and coaches involved, is the administration’s stubborn refusal to discuss possible solutions. However, at Ms. Tessier-Lavigny’s request, the group will hold a virtual meeting with university officials Tuesday to discuss the group’s petition.

Stanford declined ESPN’s request to interview anyone familiar with the university’s decision-making process, but issued a statement disputing the financial assessment of 36 Sports Strong.

According to a Stanford spokesperson, ending athletics was an extremely painful decision because of the financial challenges of supporting twice as many sports teams as the Division I average at a level we feel is necessary for our student-athletes to excel. The fundraising figures cited by groups that have organized the restoration of individual sports and the 11 sports underestimate the total funding needed to support the programs they seek to restore and, in most cases, seem to ignore the need to meet Title IX’s gender equity requirements.

Chairman Tessier-Lavigne looks forward to meeting with the leaders behind the petition to ensure their views are carefully heard.

The alumni group doesn’t just want to be heard – they hope to have a serious discussion about how to save the sport and work toward a model that allows them to thrive in the long run.

I don’t think we need a meeting to unwind and be heard, said former NBA player Adam Keefe, who was inducted into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 and now works as a financial adviser. We’ve had this meeting before. The fact that [Tessier-Lavin] has reached out gives us reason to believe that they are sincerely trying to find a way to correct this mistake and restore the institutional credibility they have lost in this process.

I think it’s very clear, after really digging into the finances, that this is not a financial decision. Cutting eleven sports will not eliminate the athletic department’s deficit.

After reviewing the Education Board’s requests, 36 Sports Strong estimates that, given the $23 million in athletics donations already cut, cutting 11 sports would save Stanford’s athletics department $4.5 million per year, or about 3 percent of the athletics department’s annual budget.

If Stanford says our numbers are wrong, they just have to prove it, Jacobs said. The whole process is not transparent enough and the school still does not account for its grades. We face the challenge of working with them to find a solution – and not being left out of the process, as we have.

Thanks to @dc_mma for highlighting #KeepStanfordWrestling on last night’s episode of DC & Helwani! @arielhelwani @espnmma

– Continue the fight from Stanford (@KeepStanfordWRE) March 23, 2021

Some members of the department acknowledged that the elimination of 11 sports would have minimal impact on the athletics department’s finances, but argued that the motivation lay elsewhere. And this is in the form of reception areas.

With 36 varsity teams and approximately 850 athletes, Stanford has one of the largest athletic departments in the country and by its own admission, 12% of its students are athletes. Everyone brings impressive academic records, but the threshold for admission for an admitted athlete is not as high as for the general population of the school. This dynamic has led to the assumption that those who decided to cut sports did so in order to allocate the 240 slots for admission to students with other academic specialties.

Borrelli said he raised the admissions issue with Muir after the cuts were announced.

I asked him: Is this about the reception? Do they want the access points back? And he said: No, that never happened, said Borrelli, who was named the 2021 Pac-12 Wrestling Coach of the Year. And they doubled the number of times they said it wasn’t about that. It’s about finance, it’s about a competitive advantage. It’s about these things. We’ve given them so many chances to tell us that this is the reception or what’s really going on.

What it’s about is ultimately irrelevant to those involved, including Griffith.

After hearing about the cuts, Griffith realized that in order to graduate this summer, he would have to take classes to have the ability to transfer as a graduate and wrestle elsewhere in 2021-22. Is it worth it? It wasn’t immediately clear, especially since Santa Clara County’s strict COVID-19 protocols made it even more difficult to monitor.

Finally, last year he and his teammates decided to wrestle only in black singletons without any distinguishing sign to protest Stanford’s decision to abolish their sport.

We didn’t go there to represent [Stanford], Griffith said. Because they don’t really care about us. They cut us off, they don’t believe in us.

For the first time this season, the Cardinals did not participate in scrimmages until late January, giving the team just a few weeks to prepare for the Pac-12 and NCAA championships. That didn’t stop Griffith from delivering perhaps the most memorable performance in the 104-year history of wrestling at Stanford. At the NCAAs, Griffith finished eighth due to a lack of competition with the rest of the field. He advanced to the final at 165 pounds, where he won a televised match and became Stanford’s second national champion.

Stanford’s chance to save wrestling resonated in the arena, and his post-match interview reinforced that message.

Stanford’s Shane Griffith became a national champion after the school decided to close its wrestling program.

Griffith and his teammates wore black singles shoes to the NCAA championships in response to the program’s suspension.

(via @ncaawrestling)

– ESPN (@espn) March 21, 2021

While Griffith is about to graduate and transfer, his younger teammates don’t have that luxury. They were traded for the opportunity to attend Stanford and extend their athletic careers. They were now faced with a difficult decision: Stay to study at Stanford or leave to extend your athletic career.

Unless, of course, 36 Sports Strong makes a decision and the university reverses its decision.

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