June 2, 2007

Just Spreading the Word

By Ralph McCausland
Head Wrestling Coach
Eastern Illinois University


Due to the Eastern Illinois University administration’s decision to eliminate the intercollegiate wrestling program after 59 years, I feel compelled to make a personal statement in response, especially in light of the extraordinary outpouring of support I have received from my family as well as from both the wrestling and the EIU community. Their response has been nothing short of overwhelming and truly heartwarming, particularly so now that I find myself dealing with a gauntlet of emotions ranging from anger, sadness and mourning to betrayal and a sense of having been deceived because of no warning whatsoever.

As the wrestling coach at Eastern Illinois University for the past 24 years, I can say with honesty and humility that this job is, and has been, the occupation of my dreams. I have been blessed to be part of a wrestling program with a proud and successful tradition of 59 years. Even more importantly, I have been part of a University community that has always valued, as I have, the education of its student-athletes more than the number of victories in the won-lost column. I fear that with this decision that defining EIU ethic and tradition is now being reversed.

The real victims of this decision, of course, are the student-athletes themselves. As a former EIU All-American wrestler, I have witnessed first-hand over the years the many opportunities afforded the college student-athlete in wrestling. My joy was to pass on those same opportunities to other wrestlers, since I know that without the avenue of sport, many young men and women would not have the opportunity to obtain a college degree.

To quote Yogi Berra, this feels like “déjà vu all over again.” Once before in 1995 the EIU athletic administration attempted to eliminate both the Panther wrestling and men’s swim teams under the guise of federal Title IX mandates, the VERY FIRST collegiate programs in the nation to be “temporarily” cut due to Title IX laws. Of course, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has always asserted that eliminating participation in sport is not, and never was, the intention of Title IX. As a result, both sports were reinstated but not without serious negative effects.

The wrestling program at EIU has never fully recovered its scholarships or budget status prior to the Title IX compliance review of 1994-95. One result is that a cloud of uncertainty has been hanging over the program ever since. The numbers tell the tale. In 1994-95 wrestling had a budget of $26,750 and 6.4 scholarships (9.9 NCAA maximum). In 2006-07 wrestling had a budget of $18,740 and 3.8 scholarships (9.9 NCAA maximum). Adjusted for inflation, the numbers reveal a program attempting to struggle to survive. Yet the program has thrived in my 24 years despite the ever-shrinking support—at least one wrestler has participated in the NCAA National Championships each of the team’s 24 years, including 60 NCAA national qualifiers, 6 Division I All-Americans, and 5 Academic All-Americans.

So why is the EIU athletic administration once again attempting to eliminate a program with a long and successful history? Once again, they are invoking an NCAA program, this time the Academic Progress Report (APR) program, which can have dire consequences for the entire athletic program if a sports team repeatedly fails to make minimum scores. And once again, EIU is the FIRST University to eliminate a sport due to a struggling APR number. Sounds like “déjà vu all over again.” As explained by Rich McDuffie, EIU’s athletic director, “…we could not take the risk of affecting the whole athletics program.”

But according to the NCAA, there were any number of avenues short of program elimination available to the administration, which they chose to ignore. For example, there is a detailed procedure set up by the NCAA for teams to recover from low APR’s, yet our administration chose to deny our wrestlers the opportunity to recover. Furthermore, there is a grant funding program developed by the NCAA to give financial assistance to programs which fall below the minimum APR score. Rather than seek those grant funds to help its athletes, the EIU athletic administration chose instead to drop the program suddenly and without warning to the team and the coach. As I was told by a staff member from the NCAA, “It was never the intention of APR to be used to eliminate athletic teams, but rather as a tool to help improve retention and graduation in athletic teams.” Nonetheless the NCAA’s APR program has provided useful cover for the administration’s axe just as they tried to use Title IX before.

Let me state emphatically and without equivocation that I support the APR. Student-athletes go to college to earn a degree first; sports are secondary. This is especially true at a University such as Eastern Illinois University. But when your program has as few a number of scholarships as wrestling, it takes only a few individuals to penalize the program. Indeed, just one out of five will put the program in jeopardy—not a problem for teams with many scholarships but potentially problematic for teams with few. We have 3.8 scholarships to offer.

Perhaps most offensive and ethically indefensible is the administration’s timing of the decision to eliminate the program. The athletic administration allowed us to actively recruit and sign student-athletes to scholarships and national letters of intent on April 11, 2007. They killed the program knowing that just the night before I had received several verbal commitments from student-athletes that would have helped us both academically and on the mat. Either they made their decision on the spur of the moment or they knowingly let us make commitments to student-athletes that they knew would be empty ones. Either is unconscionable for a University such as Eastern Illinois.

I ask only that Eastern Illinois University do the right thing. The NCAA guarantees us two more years to recover. We made a commitment to these kids who chose EIU Wrestling rather than programs with better budgets, more scholarships and support staff. Let the wrestlers prove their mettle and save their program. The incoming recruiting class is very promising, the schedule is complete, spring fundraising is finalized, everything is in place for a successful next season. The only thing missing is the moral courage of the administration to reconsider a hasty and ill-advised decision.

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