Two years and six days since announcing the elimination of the women’s and men’s swimming and diving programs, Michigan State is ready to discuss the possibility of reinstatement.
At its Friday morning meeting, Michigan State’s Board of Trustees announced athletic director Alan Haller will meet with advocates of the programs by the end of 2022, and a decision on the program’s status will be made by the conclusion of the academic year in spring 2023.
Advocates for the swimming and diving programs, and former swimmers who remain enrolled in school, amid hope the programs would be reinstated, have struggled to get face time with university officials. Four swimmers met with president Samuel L. Stanley in June, but came away discouraged. Stanley has resigned as president, and Friday’s meeting was expected to be his last at Michigan State.
“The board requested a report from the athletics director regarding the university’s athletics programmatic plans,” Michigan State trustee Melanie Foster said Friday. “As a result of the report and subsequent dialogue, the university will reach out to swim and dive advocates by the end of the semester. The board remains committed to listening to all constituents. We have heard swim and dive students, alumni, parents and the greater Spartan community. AD Haller will work together to strategize a plan forward for the team within the next academic year.”
No discussion among trustees took place, nor was any vote taken regarding the future of the programs.
When asked about the future of the swimming and diving programs over the last year, Haller has consistently deferred to Stanley, who has been firm in upholding Beekman’s decision.
Stanley declined to discuss his June meeting with Michigan State swimmers when contacted this summer by The Detroit News, but said at the time through a spokesman: “He appreciated their time and the ability to have a dialogue on the situation.” He also said that financial obstacles remained an issue.
Members of the swimming and diving program, along with alumni, had been cautiously hopeful some resolution might be reached Friday, ahead of the sides going to trial in January.
The advocacy group, Battle for Spartan Swim & Dive, said in a statement following Friday’s board meeting it was “disappointed” there was no definitive action taken Friday, but pointed out “this is the first time that there has been any real action by the board.”
“We are optimistic that they took the step to put it in the hands of Alan Haller,” Battle for Spartan Swim & Dive said in its statement. “Now it is a test of Haller’s leadership.
“We hope he will work with us, and quickly, to get the team in the pool this year.”
The swimming and diving programs were eliminated in October 2020, with then-athletic director Bill Beekman citing the financial crunch amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as infrastructure issues with pools on campus.
Beekman resigned in August 2021, and Haller was named his successor the following month.
The elimination of the programs was said to eventually save the athletic department $2 million a year, which is less than 2% of the department’s annual budget, though the university is honoring the scholarships of swimmers who decided to stay. In total, 21 swimmers and divers remain enrolled at Michigan State, including 15 members of the women’s team, and have continued to train in anticipation of possible reinstatement. Thirteen of those swimmers attended Friday’s meeting; the rest had class obligations.
“Right now, I’m supposed to be starting my senior year on the swim and dive team,” said Sophia Balow, a member of the women’s team, in addressing the Board of Trustees on Friday morning. “I’m supposed to be teaching freshmen our century-old traditions, singing the fight song under the shadow of the football stadium every Saturday morning in the outdoor pool and training for what would be my last year competing for the green and up.
“But instead, I’m up here today speaking to you again, repeating our two-year-old ask.”
Balow told a story about being in the stands at Spartan Stadium for the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Oct. 8.
During the game, Michigan State celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX in a video board production, while the university is being sued for being out of compliance.
A judge has given Michigan State until November to come up with a plan to get in compliance, while stopping short of ordering the university to reinstate the swimming programs. The plan had been due in October, but Michigan State’s lawyers received an extension while waiting to see if the Supreme Court of the United States takes up the case.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” said Balow, the daughter of Mike Balow, who is running for a seat on the MSU Board of Trustees, and who also spoke. “Prove to me Michigan State cares more about Title IX than slapping a video together of women across our campus for the football games and yet, in the same stroke of that computer click, filing legal paperwork supporting lowering that statute of limitations on sexual-assault survivors (amid the ongoing Larry Nassar lawsuit) and reducing opportunities for women in college athletics.”
During closing remarks at Friday’s meeting, trustee Renee Knake Jefferson briefly addressed advocates of swimming and diving: “I hear you and I agree we shouldn’t be litigating Title IX.”
Advocates for Michigan State swimming and diving have argued there are no obstacles for reinstatement.
They have secured financial commitments of nearly $10 million to keep the program going, including a hefty estate donation, even though they say the university’s athletic department is plenty able to fund the program, citing an influx of millions starting next year from the Big Ten’s new seven-year, $7 billion television contract.
Advocates also secured commitments from other Big Ten schools to put Michigan State on the schedule this fall should the programs be reinstated. The swimming and diving season is underway and runs through the Big Ten championships in February and NCAA championships in March. Advocates say longtime associate head coach Kathleen Milloy, who remains on campus in a different role, could step in as an interim head coach.
While Michigan State’s outdoor pool is no longer fit for competition, advocates say IM West, with a 25-yard pool, can at least host dual meets. The university is building a $154 million recreation center, with plans calling for a large pool, but no locker facilities for swimmers and divers. That center could open as early as 2024.
“The time to reinstate MSU swimming and diving is now,” said Travis Nitkiewicz, a member of the teams who also spoke Friday. “Not next meeting, not next season. Now.”
Haller didn’t return a message from The News earlier this week and wasn’t made available for an interview with The News when asked for comment Friday morning. An athletic-department spokesperson told The News on Friday that the meeting with the swimmers hasn’t yet been scheduled.
In sitting for a court-ordered deposition on Aug. 24, Haller said there have been internal discussions about the swimming and diving programs in the athletic department. Internal discussions about possible reinstatement have included both the women’s and men’s programs, not just reinstating the women’s programs.
“It was both teams,” Haller said in his deposition, when asked about the budget review for swimming and diving.
Jen Smith, associate athletic director, has been Haller’s point person on department budgetary issues, including the feasibility of reinstating swimming.
Title IX requires universities to allow opportunities to both men and women athletes that mirror the university’s general population. On average over the last several years, including the two years since Michigan State eliminated swimming and diving, the university has fallen short by more than two dozen women athletes compared to men.
Michigan State had spent $626,442.05 in legal fees defending the decision to cut the programs, from February 2021 through August 2022, according to receipts reviewed by The News through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those receipts included more than 1,700 billable hours. Should the case go to trial in January, that bill could more than quadruple. Lawyers for the Michigan State women’s swimmers have extended a settlement offer to the university, which includes reinstatement and paying the plaintiffs’ legal fees.
The women suing the university also want the men’s team reinstated. Several members of both teams joined the Michigan State club swimming team and led that team to a national club championship in April.
Amid the early stages of the pandemic, dozens of Division I universities across the country eliminated more than 100 athletic programs, including Central Michigan, which cut men’s indoor and outdoor track and field. Central Michigan fell below the NCAA minimum for men’s sports offerings, but received a waiver, and has since added men’s golf.
Several schools that cut programs eventually reinstated them once the financial picture began to improve, including Iowa, which reinstated women’s swimming and diving in February 2021. The program was cut in August 2020.
In cutting its swimming and diving programs, Michigan State eliminated a program for the first time since 2001, when it cut men’s gymnastics.
“Recognize when a mistake has been made,” Tom Munley, a key member of Battle for Spartan Swim & Dive. “This is something you can change, and you can change today.”