Courtesy: Jim Rees
My kids grew up swimming. As a result, I have suffered through more than my fair share of hours in the Texas heat, pool side, wading through thousands of swim races to watch the three participants I care about dive into the pool. During my extensive down time in the stands and on deck, I have listened to countless parents discuss aspirations in the water for their child while I harbored my own. At one large meet several years ago, attended by over 1,000 competitors, another father asked me how many Olympians I thought were on deck and was surprised by my blunt answer: “None”.
Swimming suffers the misfortune of being an Olympic sport, watched with passion once every four years, but otherwise shunned by the American spectator. Hence, most people know the names Franklin, Phelps, Lochte, and Coughlin but few others. The US Olympic Team takes two swimmers in each event with an age range that has spanned 16 (Ledecky) to 40 (Torres) in the last three Olympic Games. With some swimmers qualifying each year in multiple events (recall Michael Phelps 8 gold medal haul in Beijing 2012), the odds of making the games are infinitesimal and of monetizing the achievement even less.
That’s not to imply swimming is a fool’s errand for all but the select few. I often advise young people to “use swimming, don’t let swimming use you” and to “learn its life lessons to advance your own agenda”. Usually this is interpreted by an accomplished swimmer as a ticket to a better academic institution. In my local area I know young people whose swimming success has helped them garner spots at some the nation’s most elite academic institutions, Yale and Stanford among them. While those students are unlikely to swim in the Olympics they will have received a fine college degree in return for their dedication to the sport — which brings us to the Michigan State University decision to end it’s Swim & Dive program.
The Big Ten school joins a long list of institutions culling its swim program as a way to save money. In 2012, another Big 10 school, the University of Maryland, petitioned its swimmers to raise $11.5 million to save their program. Unfortunately, the team proved better swimmers than fund raisers and the program was disbanded.
Michigan State’s Athletic Department cited a $30-$60 million budget shortfall in a posted letter as the primary impetus to cut the Swim & Dive program. While the AD realizes “this is devastating to the student athletes” there was no other choice. The men’s and women’s swim programs cost MSU approximately $2 million/year according to an NCAA membership financial report in 2018/19. Umm, $500 million was paid to the victims of Larry Nasser in 2018 by Michigan State for his horrific conduct. On a smaller scale, in 2019 the head football coach and head men’s basketball coach were paid approximately $4.0 million each. The school had an endowment of $3 billion at year end 2018. But the school has no ability to keep student-athletes in the water?
And there is the sad truth, for the swimmers truly are student-athletes. No great riches await them at the end of their collegiate careers. They’ll get up early to stare at a black line and compete in front of the same people they’ve competed in front of all their lives without much fanfare. Upon graduation, they will join the game of life hopefully better prepared for it by the experience.
It is a sad statement that another high-profile university has decided a swimming team is not worth the cost or contributes to its educational mission. As a consolation, the kids recruited to the program are free to stay at MSU under existing scholarships or transfer to another school. The options seem hollow accountability for promises made, but not kept.
The only active swimmer left in my family is my youngest daughter, a high school freshman. She holds aspirations that I hope she will achieve, and I hope there are a multitude of programs available at the collegiate level for her to have the opportunity. Swimming is a great sport, but collegiate swimming, and particularly men’s swimming, is under siege. When a major state university uses its $2 million swim budget to close a $30 million-plus fiscal deficit it’s a warning worth heeding for those who care about the future of the sport. College swimming is the pinnacle of achievement for most kids, ensuring it has a vibrant future means being vocal today.
ABOUT JIM REES
Jim Rees is a swim parent who resides in The Woodlands, Texas. A graduate of Fairfield University and The Wharton School of Business, Jim is married with three children.