Courtesy: D. R. Hildebrand
One year ago, the College of William & Mary announced its decision to cut seven sports teams. Weeks later, following a clear and precise set of strategies employed by William & Mary alumni, parents, and supporters, the College reversed its decision. This article is intended to present other programs with some of our strategies that they can adopt, helping to reduce the likelihood of more teams being cut and, if they are, aid them in reinstatement.
William & Mary’s decision to cut its swim teams was not remarkable. 16 Division-I women’s teams and 21 Division-I men’s teams have been cut since 2008. It was the decision to reinstate the teams that was aberrant. Not since 2008, when Arizona State cut and then swiftly reinstated its men’s team, had a Division-I swim team survived termination. At William & Mary, we knew how little it took to fund our program. We knew that if our administration’s hackneyed excuses could eradicate us, virtually any team could be eliminated. We viewed ourselves as a last stand, as a final bulwark against the salvo that administrators and Boards of Visitors have unleashed upon college swim teams and other Olympic sports for decades. Reinstatement was essential.
We formed Save Tribe Swimming—complete with executive committee, social media channels, website, fundraising tools, and more—within 72 hours of the announcement. The preparation for this day, however, was years in the making. From the moment former head coach Matt Crispino was hired, in 2007, he began the tiresome but indispensable work of engaging alumni, parents, and local supporters. One person at a time, he built our database, our network, and our funding, gradually cultivating our community into one of the most robust and active in college swimming. When the cuts were announced, we mobilized without hesitation.
We held our first Zoom meeting, attended by some 300 people, the night after the announcement. On it, we discussed background, finances, and strategies. Along with an executive committee comprised of 15 alumni, parents, and coaches representing extensive expertise, we also formed six subcommittees: legal; fundraising; endowment; public relations; social media; and emotional support. The last committee focused on the individual needs of the current swimmers, who were all isolated during the pandemic. These committees ranged from 10 to 20 people, met weekly, and reported back to the executive committee and the whole of Save Tribe Swimming.
As the leader of the public relations committee, I consulted a friend—an Olympic gold medalist and a director at the largest public relations firm in the world. I asked him, “If we had the money to hire your company, what would you do to get us reinstated?” Nearly everything he told me can be summarized in three words: Control the narrative.
When a university cuts a sports team, it is often announced by its athletic director or president. The decision to cut or reinstate that program, however, often belongs to the Board of Visitors or similar governing body.
One approach to reaching reinstatement could be to persuade the athletic director or the president to put forth a new group of recommendations to the Board of Visitors. It might strive to appeal to their humanity by including references to the team’s championships or constant improvement, highlighting the team’s academic success, or showcasing its involvement within the community. It might underscore stories about shattered, lifelong dreams, the many friendships and marriages borne from the team, or last-ditch pleas from a local Olympian.
These are sensible strategies. However, they rarely work.
We elected an alternate approach. Instead of utilizing a public relations campaign to influence decision makers, we chose to focus on breaking down the facts and exposing the ill-informed decision-making process that precipitated the cuts.
Our athletic director charted an ever-changing list of reasons for why the seven teams were cut. These started with Covid-19, continued to Title IX, competitive excellence, and finally finances. We knew the financial problems were real, but we also knew, from years of involvement prior to the cuts, that the foundation for them was structural.
Like a growing number of her peers, our athletic director structured her department and spending in accordance with an overriding objective to be successful in football, and the belief that William & Mary could become the next Cinderella story. Among other things, this resulted in:
- The dismissal of several beloved and successful coaches, which in turn severed institutional history and connections to supportive alumni and hindered recruiting, performance, enthusiasm, and fundraising.
- Conflated notions of revenue and profit, along with a vague, romanticized idea about all the “incalculable, community-building intangibles” that were inherent only to football.
- A myopic unwillingness to engage stakeholders and entertain creative solutions.
In response to the College’s initial claim, Covid-19 did indeed impact all of higher education and intercollegiate athletics. At William & Mary, however, the administration proceeded, unfazed, with a $57 million renovation of the basketball arena plus millions more in gratuitous upgrades to the football stadium. It then cut 30% of its athletes that represented just 12% of its expenses.
The administration’s second claim, Title IX compliance, is what gave us irreversible momentum. The institution largely argued that men’s teams needed to be cut in order to balance opportunities for women athletes. In reality, we determined that male athletes were losing roster spots to other male athletes—namely, football players. Our football team frequently carried over 100 athletes. For us, the cuts actually reduced proportionality for women, worsening our Title IX standing rather than improving it.
To combat this, we questioned the validity of their arguments. We challenged their assertions with facts and we countered with irrefutable observations. In the first of many editorials I wrote in the wake of the cuts, I included this critical paragraph:
In addition to swimming’s $3 million endowment, track holds $7 million, gymnastics $2 million, and volleyball $1 million, all of which will get absorbed by other sports and departments. Athletics just held an eight-figure fundraiser for the college without asking for a dime.
In doing this, we effectively poisoned the College’s fundraising well and we forced stakeholders to question the integrity of nearly all its endowments. Meanwhile, we ran this in local media. For five weeks, this editorial remained the number one trending article on the Richmond Times Dispatch website. It quickly formed the backbone around which we learned an essential lesson: Control the narrative.
In the hour-long conversation I had with my Olympian-turned-public relations-guru friend, these were the most helpful takeaways:
- Utilize social media as a launchpad and a megaphone while staying focused on the issues.
- Keep editorials local, specific, and consistent; know and reach your desired audience.
- Provide local press with concrete facts; do their job for them in every way you can.
- Engage the surrounding community; local universities are meaningful to them.
- Call and email ad nauseum; create a schedule that hundreds of supporters will follow and make enough calls and send enough emails that no one is able to work.
The last approach might appear juvenile, but we knew through FOIA requests and sympathetic individuals that the Board of Visitors and uppermost administrators were betting on our fatigue. They bet wrong. Instead, we kept our communications narrow and sustainable by limiting every call and email to one topic or question. Then another, and another. We exhausted administrators and shut down operations using endless, focused, sincere interaction.
No two reinstatement campaigns will ever be the same, and while we will never know which of our strategies were most effective, these were some tactics that we employed:
- Female athletes uniformly aligned with male athletes of non-revenue sports. In addition to demonstrating their solidarity, they made it exceedingly clear that their presence would not be used as a crutch to support the untenable growth of football.
- A swimming alumnus who routinely hires some 20% of our Business School graduates halted all interviews and suspended all employment. Suddenly, the Business School dean entered the conversation.
- The Student Assembly, led by the sophomore class president, who was also a swimmer, drafted a resolution denouncing the cuts. A quarter of all undergraduates signed it.
- The faculty was tremendously instrumental in our efforts. In addition to being alarmed by the growing prominence of football, our efforts to discredit the athletic director inspired a vote of no confidence that was derailed only by her resignation hours prior.
- The more teams a school cuts at one time, the more allies each team has, and we used this to our advantage, relying on intelligence gathered by other teams, connections they held, and strategies they pursued.
- We created and circulated a pledge not to donate, where signatories could list their year of graduation, major, and sports team, as a means of conveying to the College the scope of the community they were alienating.
- Simultaneously, we pledged donations. We demonstrated precisely the extent to which we and our supporters were willing to give. In ten days, we raised $1 million.
- We dug furiously into athletic department financial records listed in public documents and synthesized the most critical elements into memes that often foreshadowed editorials and indicated to administrators that we had much more to reveal.
- We used the power of FOIAs, engaged local reporters, divided into defined committees, and filled our website and social media platforms with well-researched content.
- We controlled the narrative.
In addition to editorials, I wrote two pieces that helped solidify the narrative. One was an exposé detailing our athletic director’s inability to manage her department. The other was a proposal, aimed at shepherding the College back to its core values by reimaging the structure, integrity, and goals of our athletic department. Both pieces helped inform the administration’s decisions, as both led to even more questions from reporters, students, parents, alumni, and faculty.
We had some fortunate breaks in our efforts. We benefited from facing an athletic director who plagiarized, who offered false data to the Board of Visitors, who built enemies instead of allies, and who lacked aptitude. But we didn’t know these things until we mined. Even without this, we persisted in presenting our case in an open, factual, well-researched, exhaustive manner. Through Coach Crispino’s pioneering efforts, including the activation of our stakeholders, and our increased collaboration with administrators, we put ourselves in a position to be reinstated and become an even greater source of pride for the College.
Not every team can benefit from years of diligence, an extensive network of alumni, or a history of athletic success. All teams can, however, take specific steps to foil future elimination efforts. Whether you start with coaches, alumni, parents, or a committee thereof, every college program, beginning now, should do the following:
- Create one or more annual community events and one or more annual alumni events. This widens your circle of supporters and deepens their investment.
- Reach out often to the local press and share your accolades with them. Local media and sports information staffs are under-resourced and will welcome ready-made content.
- Friend-raise and fundraise constantly. These are integral to your success. Create goals, such as endowing salaries, scholarships, facilities, operational costs, and moving toward financial independence.
- Fundraise not only to help prevent cuts but also to increase the chances of reinstatement. Money talks in two languages: likelihood of sustainability and breadth of community. We are all wise to demonstrate fluency in both.
- Know exactly how much it costs to fund your team and who—the athletic department, student fees, donors, endowments—funds what percentages of your total budget.
- Make sound fiscal decisions and be appropriately critical of excessive spending.
- Productively seek transparency in everything your athletic department does. The better informed you are, the better positioned you will be to offer solutions to challenges.
- Form genuine relationships not just with alumni, community members, and reporters, but also with faculty and administrators. Start by inviting them to a practice or a meet.
- Study Title IX rules and the lawyers who work pro bono to defend the law.
- Form an alumni database and an alumni alliance that actively engages current athletes and administrators, emphasizing strengths such as legal, political, philanthropic, etc.
- Establish a regular newsletter that invites the broadest engagement possible.
- Maintain a current database of governance bodies like your school’s Board of Visitors, Athletic Council, and state legislatures, and engage them.
These and more are all integral components of William & Mary Swimming. True, it didn’t stop our leaders from dismissing us. But it put us in prime position to fight back. If your institution cuts your team and you have these pillars in place, approach reinstatement creatively, rationally, and swiftly, and pursue, at a bare minimum, the following avenues:
- Contact a Title IX lawyer to investigate options for an injunction or a lawsuit. The cost to a university in defending these efforts can easily exceed the cost of maintaining a team. Additionally, the discovery process can help your team leverage additional information that officials may not want exposed.
- Demonstrate the marginal cost of maintaining a men’s team if your school already funds a women’s team, and beat everyone over the head with your logic.
- Demonstrate how much harder it will be to recruit female swimmers, who have always trained alongside men and expect to continue to do so in college.
- Secure a consistent website domain and social media handles, such as savetribeswimming.com and www.friendsoftribeswimming.com.
Four weeks following our cuts, all women’s teams were reinstated. Five weeks after that, all men’s programs joined them. Since then, a new Virginia law was enacted requiring transparency at all public universities and colleges. William & Mary has required all sports, including football and men’s basketball, to reduce their budgets, and all men’s sports to reduce their roster sizes. William & Mary is currently completing a gender equity review, which will likely result in shifting funds from men to women that could provide the women’s swim team with scholarships. William & Mary has also set new standards for fundraising, to which all its sports must adhere, and has set new approaches to meeting them. The swim team’s executive committee has become even stronger and savvier, particularly in its approaches to communication, fundraising, liaising with administrators, and growing networking prospects for current swimmers. Most remarkably, following William & Mary’s seven reinstatements, Dartmouth, Iowa, LaSalle, Stanford, and others followed suit. Three Division-I men’s swim teams and four Division-I women’s swim teams were reinstated in one year, compared with zero over the last twelve.
Universities are businesses—monetary, to be sure, but also businesses of opportunity. They, more than any other industry, present themselves as a place of prospects, a place where anyone who is admitted can pursue anything they can dream of. he moment that aura begins to fade, the moment they stop providing the very opportunities they claim makes them notable, desirable, and essential, is the moment their best clients start seeking those opportunities elsewhere.
Exploit this. Control the narrative.
David Hildebrand swam for the Philadelphia Department of Recreation and the College of William & Mary. He graduated in 2003. He manages a private swim club and competes regularly in Masters swimming.