UNM cut men’s sports, but how much was Title IX a factor?
On March 31, 1999, the long-dreaded ax finally fell on three University of New Mexico men’s athletic programs.
Wrestling, men’s swimming and men’s gymnastics were gone — poof, just like that.
As with the death of a friend due to a lingering illness, this move was not exactly a surprise. Talk of cutting sports at UNM had been circulating for years.
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Still, says Asher Lichterman, then a member of coach Rusty Mitchell’s highly successful Lobo gymnastics team,”It was a shock.”
But, why did this happen? Was it in reaction to Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that called for equal opportunities for men and women in — among other educational venues — college athletics?
By no means was Title IX the only factor, then-UNM athletic director Rudy Davalos said that day, nor was it the overriding one.
Yet, it was there.
“This is a painful, but necessary, decision,” Davalos explained in a news release. “Due to the escalating cost of running a Division I-A athletics program, we simply do not have the resources to support 24 sports.
“Maintaining programs that are regionally competitive was a condition of membership in the (new) Mountain West Conference, and we will allocate all of our resources to ensure that our remaining sports can achieve excellence.
“In addition, we have a responsibility to achieve compliance with Title IX. These reductions will move the university in that direction.”
New Mexico was not alone. Before UNM’s cuts and since, men’s college athletic programs — particularly in the Olympic sports — have dropped like so many gymnasts off the horizontal bar.
According to a 2011 story in the Columbus Dispatch, there were 234 men’s college gymnastics programs in 1969.
In 1999, there were 28.
Today, there are 17.
Dozens upon dozens of wrestling programs were scrapped as well, along with men’s swimming, men’s track-and-field, even some football programs.
Was it, is it, all about Title IX?
Davalos, who retired in 2006, continues to say no — at least, not in UNM’s case.
Virtually from the day he arrived at UNM in November 1992, Davalos believed the school had more varsity sports programs than it could adequately support.
Title IX, he insists now, wasn’t the major concern. Money was, followed closely by the fact that the sports in question were viewed as being on life support in the college arena. Few schools in the Mountain West, which would begin play that fall, fielded teams in any of the three.
“Twenty-four sports was unbelievable for the size of our budget,” he told the Journal recently. “I was flabbergasted. We had more sports than Texas and a lot of other schools that had huge budgets.”
Yet, Davalos acknowledges it was clear that, if programs were to be cut, they couldn’t be women’s programs if UNM wanted to move toward compliance with Title IX.
Upon his arrival, Davalos did not immediately move to trim the roster. But he did move to see all women’s sports were fully funded while working to generate more revenue for the athletic program as a whole.
From the start, Davalos says, he had an excellent working relationship with associate athletic director Linda Estes. A tireless advocate for Title IX and women’s athletics, Estes worked equally hard on behalf of the men’s Olympic sports for which she had responsibility.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Bill Dotson, UNM’s wrestling coach from 1980-99. “Linda Estes helped the wrestling program as much if not more than any of the athletic directors did.”
Even so, Dotson says, he had seen his budget dwindle for more than a decade.
Wrestling actually had been dropped in 1987, along with baseball, women’s swimming and women’s basketball — a cost-cutting move obviously not linked to Title IX. A private fund-raising campaign saved all but women’s basketball, which wasn’t revived until 1991.
Women’s gymnastics was dropped in 1992, for reasons having nothing to do with Title IX. That action nevertheless resulted in a Title IX-based lawsuit filed against UNM, but, since UNM added women’s soccer at the same time, the legal action went nowhere.
During Davalos’ tenure, athletics fund-raising increased dramatically. In a 2002 Journal story, Davalos said corporate donations had increased from $200,000 to $2 million during the past decade.
But Dotson says wrestling saw little of the money. The number of scholarships available to him dwindled.
“We just worked on a wooden leg and half a leg,” he said. “We couldn’t compete with anybody. We couldn’t even field a (full) team.”
This time, the UNM administration made it clear that private donations would not save the three programs in question. They were being dropped — period, end of story.
When the ax finally fell, Dotson recalls, it was almost merciful.
“Each year got worse and worse,” he said, “and then it got to the point where the best thing to do was let it go.”
Davalos notes that athletes in the three dropped sports retained their scholarships.
Lichterman remembers well the day Mitchell’s highly successful men’s gymnastics program was axed. A few weeks later, he, Mitchell and other athletes and coaches, as well as supporters of those programs, staged a protest on the UNM campus.
Fred Hashimoto, a UNM professor of medicine and a former college swimmer, filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. Gwen Poe, a diehard gymnastics fan, chained herself to a statue. Both efforts were to no avail.
Lichterman, a junior at the time, was one of Mitchell’s top gymnasts. He also was a member of UNM’s student-athlete advisory board. He recalls a heated discussion between members of the advisory board, on one side of the issue, and Estes and senior associate AD Bill McGillis on the other.
“Personally, I was pretty angry,” Lichterman says.
So was Mitchell, a 1964 United States Olympian who’d coached the Lobos for 33 years — building a regional powerhouse and a national contender. His Lobo gymnasts had won 16 NCAA individual-event titles, and he had produced 53 All-Americans.
“Our goal,” he said at the May 1999 protest, “is to get (UNM) to reinstate the program. The value of the program over 33 years speaks for itself.”
Mitchell also noted that his annual budget was $165,000, hardly a back-breaker. Wrestling and men’s swimming had been far less successful over the years, but also were low-budget items.
Of course, reinstatement never happened.
A phone message left for Mitchell by the Journal for comment for this story was not returned. Efforts to reach Bill Spahn, UNM’s swimming coach at the time, also were unsuccessful.
Spahn, who also coached women’s swimming, stayed on in that capacity until retiring in 2005. Mitchell, a tenured professor as well as a coach, continued to teach physical education at UNM. Dotson took early retirement.
Lichterman transferred to Nebraska, competed for the Cornhuskers as a senior and graduated with a degree in exercise physiology. He earned a doctorate in physical therapy at Washington University in St. Louis and now works in that field in Southern California.
So, looking back, was Title IX the bad guy here? Was there one?
No bad guy, Davalos says, least of all Title IX. The University of New Mexico simply had more varsity athletic programs than it could financially support, and something had to be done. Wrestling, men’s swimming and men’s gymnastics were the logical fall guys, since few of UNM’s fellow Mountain West schools fielded teams in those sports.
“You can blame it on women’s sports and say Title IX caused us to do that,” Davalos said. “But in reality we had too many sports to start with. So we made the call.”
Title IX, he adds, was in his mind a positive step for college athletics and one that needed to be taken.
Lichterman agrees, but differs sharply on what the response should have been.
“We weren’t angry about Title IX,” he said. “We were all for women’s sports. We were all athletes, at the end of the day. But our understanding was that Title IX wasn’t designed to cut men’s programs; it was designed to implement women’s programs. … I think it’s just a failure of priorities.
“It’s never the policy; it’s always the implementation of the policy.”
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal