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Eastern Michigan University athletics under investigation, leading to many questions

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Being a MAC Athletic Director might be the toughest job in town

Swoop Kenneth Bailey

As most of our readership knows, Eastern Michigan has cut four sports from their athletic program, and they have been sued by former athletes, including two women that are claiming discrimination as a result of the aforementioned cuts, per David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2018 by former softball player Ariana Chretien and former tennis player and Czech national Marie Mayerova, comes about after the school cut four programs in a cost-saving effort to offput a substantial budget deficit. The move saved the school about $2.4 million and is paired with several other cuts affecting the academic side.

As part of the move, EMU cut 58 male athletes and 24 female athletes, which is where the brunt of the problem starts to reveal itself.

From the Free Press article above:

The sports fan in me is fairly confident that at the end of this investigation, I am going to have more questions than answers.

How are the numbers tabulated? Could this investigation yield positive results for female athletes, which is the basis for Title IX? Why an investigation now, when it seems to the lay person, or at least me, EMU would be more compliant than before cutting the four sports? Was cutting the programs necessary in the first place? Would any changes as a direct result of the lawsuit affect EMU’s standing in the MAC?

The MAC has many fine athletic directors who all do a fantastic job of juggling the stresses of their peculiar positions. They must decide where limited funds should be spent to keep fans, coaches, athletes, parents, students, and the government happy, with each subset having completely different goals.

EMU, it has to be said, has its own set of problems which has led them to this situation. The atmosphere around the program has been fairly hostile from within, with students and faculty often clashing with administrative officials over the athletic budget, especially the football program, which up until recently, was regarded as a cursed “sacred cow” by some.

The fact that the athletic budget woes were paired with academic cuts didn’t help the cause, as the school estimated it was set to lose $6.5 million in fiscal year 2018, due in part to a decrease in student enrollment, which fell by 11.6 percent from fiscal year 2014.

One of the potential outcomes of this lawsuit/investigation is that the government might take over as defacto athletic director at EMU, which would undoubtedly be less-than-optimal for both the university and prospective athletes and potentially create more problems than it fixes.

Looking from the outside in, I have no doubt that would be terrible for women’s athletics at EMU, as the government would be hyper-focused on fixing the numbers for the school to become compliant in providing equal opportunity for sports as a whole, rather than digging deeper into the school’s books to try and figure out what could be causing the short in the first place. It’s all right to go in with good intentions, but there’s also a legitimate fear of missing the forest for the trees.

Even though I have absolutely zero legal expertise other than my own ego, I believe the outcome will be that EMU will have to shell out monies to the aggrieved parties, make a few tweaks to the athletic program, and all of this will be a distant memory for those not directly involved in a matter of months.

But what if it isn’t?

There are three scenarios here, unless you count a Law and Order-esque option where a lawyer for the cash strapped university files a complaint so that federal investigators basically tell the court that EMU is compliant, and on the cheap from the school’s perspective. Then the lawyer immediately gets fired for costing the law firm money.

In Scenario A listed above, the university is ordered to pay money and be more compliant in the future, which basically keeps things largely the same. In Scenario B, the university is taken over by the government and the comings and goings of the athletic programs are out of their control.

This leaves the foort open for Scenario C: the university taking proactive steps to show compliance by rehandling the books and finding ways to make progress. One way to do that is to use the women’s programs as a sort of experimental ground on how to run the rest of its programs more efficently as a whole.

If I had to be an athletic director of a MAC school, I would try do a better job of promoting women’s athletics. MAC football is king for most of you, and an important enough part of my life that I take time out of my busy day to write about it. Great, now use the fact that “we” are willing to play on weeknights. Instead of asking for more money from ESPN for sacrificing our student’s Saturday football experience, maybe the ADs could say, “Instead of Weeknight #MACtion just being about football, we want that to be a theme with ESPN for basketball, too. Specifically women’s basketball. Of course the other colleges play on the weeknights, and the men, too, so maybe you have Women’s Wednesday, and we get a bone thrown our way once a month.”

As some of our more devout readers know, I am a huge proponent of women’s athletics. I’ll use basketball as the example, but it goes to all women’s athletics.

  • Playing to win the game. As Herm Edwards so elegantly put it years ago, you play to win the game. There is no 100 million dollar contract at the end of the rainbow for the ladies. I know that when I tune into the game, they are focused on the moment, and the task at hand, which is winning the game. That’s a life lesson.
  • The team. In golf, the most dramatic moments come in the Ryder Cup. Why? Because an individual sport is transformed into a team game at the highest level. There is nothing more beautiful in sports than an athlete playing for others.
  • The drama of competition. Can these ladies do a 360 dunk over a Honda? No, but is that why I watch sports? Also no. I am looking to find a rooting interest (they go to the same school, from the same state, or whatever) and then I root for “my” team to win. When they win, I am happy, when they lose, I am sad. That’s the end of that story. Looking at the promotion and investment of programs from this perspective gives schools an opportunity to draw closer connections with their communities, which drives the drama on the playing court or field.

A bigger focus on promoting women’s athletics is a triple edged sword. One, better compliance. Two, making the student/athlete experience more available to all, and three, fans will like it once they get in the door.

There are ultimately a million trees in the forest of a MAC athletic director, so I am not trying to tell them which trees to cut and which trees to leave standing, but a little bit of spray paint and some blueprints can go a long way. They just have to be willing to listen and find a way to make it work.

If MAC fans wanted the best of the best, they would be watching the NBA. But ultimately, being a fan of a MAC squad is more important than that. The bond is inherently stronger, and the traditions unparalleled, so it makes sense to cater to that experience. That’s my humble suggestion, or it is my job to generate interest in the MAC. And my passion. More my passion than my job. Maybe it is a tie.

Ok, it is my job, actually, and I hope this post does exactly that.