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Could Cal Rugby Really Be Relegated To Club Status?

As of this writing, there are over 1200 people signed up to attend a public Facebook event with the sobering title, "Protest Cal Versity Rugby Becoming A 'Club Sport.'"


Two initial reactions:
- Why in the world would Cal relegate Rugby to "club" status?
- If this were really an imminent move, 1200 people isn't nearly the amount of support that Cal Rugby deserves.  Not even close.

But is this move imminent?  If you'd just read the article in the Daily Cal, which is based mostly off this Facebook group and a blog post by rugby alumnus and supporter Jeff Warren, you'd might think it is.  These sources are in turn based off a copy of a purported email to Sandy Barbour from Jack Clark (as well as Warren's personal conversations with Clark) and a Chronicle article written by John Crumpacker, which in turn is based almost entirely on the final report from the Chancellor's Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics, which was issued earlier this Summer.  Other sources are variously quoted, but they generally consist of University officials saying nothing interesting or refusing to comment, worried coaches stating that they have no idea what is going to happen, and background sources stating oft-repeated and generally available facts, such as the fact that Pac-10 membership requires a school to field teams in football, men's and women's basketball, and women's volleyball.  In other words, no new information whatsoever.

What we have here, then, is a two-source story (the Chancellor's Committee report and Jack Clark), neither of which actually know what is going to happen.  What I've seen over the past few days of reading online articles is bloggers and commentators becoming increasingly worried over a fear that, while a real possibility, I would argue is overblown by speculation and the viral nature of the internet.

Frankly, relegating Cal Rugby to club status is a move that doesn't make any sense to me.  It doesn't make sense from a competitive standpoint (why strip resources from your most successful program -- indeed one of the most successful programs in the history of intercollegiate athletics), it doesn't make sense from a public relations standpoint (the backlash generated by relegating rugby will by orders of magnitude greater than that generated by relegating any other non-revenue sport at Cal), and it doesn't make sense from a financial standpoint (Cal's Rugby program is almost entirely self-supporting, requiring a relatively small amount of campus support, and if the problem you're trying to solve is a gaping budget gap, you solve it by cutting sports that aren't a large financial burden).  It would be a rather baffling move from an Athletic Director that has yet to make a major misstep during her tenure at Cal.

So, to understand what's happening, let's cut through the speculation and go back to the sources of this rumor.  First off, we have the Chancellor's Committee report, which first mentioned the possibility of cutting sports.  If all you read were newspaper summaries, you simply got the sense that the committee concluded that, given that the department was losing money, they should consider cutting 5-7 money-losing sports to close the deficit.  While this is a true statement, it is hardly the whole story.

In their report, the committee thoroughly vetted both the department's finances as well as its impact on the campus, alumni and the community.  They noted a number of deficiencies in the way the department conducted its business, and listed these eight items under the heading "What Must Change".  Reducing the breadth of the athletic department (i.e. cutting sports) was not on this list.

However, the committee also included a second list of three items, "Choices for Further Change."  These were not mandates, but rather options to consider in order to effect further cost reductions; while some of them will probably need to be implemented, not all of them will.  One of those 'Choices' was the dreaded "Team elimination" option.  What did they have to say about it?  Plenty, in fact.  To start:

The Council believes that it is far preferable to cut costs without cutting teams, rather than to cut teams. So many of Cal’s teams have storied pasts that elimination of teams (that must of course be consistent with gender equity/Title IX requirements) could have significant repercussions for philanthropic support of the campus as a whole. While Council members are not in full agreement on the magnitude or duration of any philanthropic blowback from scope reduction, we all accept that there would be negative effects, and are sobered by Vice Chancellor Biddy’s estimate of a level of backlash of at least $25M annually.

Our charge did not call for us to make a recommendation one way or another on this specific point.  Instead we were asked to enumerate the considerations for and against achieving sustainability by this means.  We therefore present here those considerations, as well as a third alternative to be considered.  Individually, some of the Council members do believe that campus should seriously consider reducing the number of varsity teams in IA, while others prefer the alternatives.

The committee then goes on to enumerate the varied arguments for and against cutting programs.  One point I wish to highlight is that the oft bandied-about figure of 5-7 teams possibly getting the axe stems from the considerations that cutting only one or two teams doesn't save you as much money, and won't be worth the PR backlash, while the larger figure would bring Cal's athletic department size down to the level of the rest of the Pac-10 (excluding the 'Furd).  Not that they should cut teams, but if they do, make sure the cost savings are real and substantial.

I also want to highlight the committee's recommendations for deciding which teams to cut, if it comes to that:

If the Chancellor does opt to reduce teams, we suggest that IA employ the following criteria, taken directly from the mission statement of athletics, for deciding which teams should be retained:

o record of athletic success,
o the success and integrity of the academic programs of team members
o the extent to which the team is or can readily become self funded
o compliance with the provisions of Title IX

Only by the last criteria does Cal Rugby even begin to qualify; by any other measure, there is no justification whatsoever for reducing Rugby to club status.

My sense when I first read the Committee report was not "Oh, no, Cal is going to cut teams!" but rather, something closer to "Gee, there's something to consider, I guess, but only if Cal is desperate."  The committee was charged to lay out all the options for the Athletic Department going forward, and they did that; to not have considered the arguments pro and contra Team Elimination would have been grossly negligent of them.  And since receiving the report, what has the Chancellor and the Athletic Director said in regards to this option?  Nothing at all, except to say that all options are on the table.  That team elimination is even being considered should rightly make the coaches of non-revenue sports at Cal nervous, but I hardly think that that alone is cause to raise imminent alarm.

Which brings me to the second source here, Rugby Coach Jack Clark.  Now, I have not spoken with Mr. Clark, but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of either his conversations with Mr. Warren or the email included in the Facebook group.  The email's content suggests an intimate knowledge with the requirements for fielding a successful varsity-level athletic program, and its tone certainly jibes with the picture painted by Mr. Warren.  Reading between the lines, Clark has been asked by Athletics to justify his program's continuing varsity status, and the fact that he can't get what should be an obvious reassurance from Sandy Barbour has got him more than a little worried.  I don't blame him.  Still, this doesn't suggest to me that Rugby's relegation is imminent.  Instead, I think it reflects Ms. Barbour's extreme cautiousness on this issue, as she's being presented with very few good options, and I'm sure she'd hate to have to back out on any tacit promises made at this stage.

Still, I really can't imagine why she couldn't reassure Jack Clark that his rugby program will continue to enjoy varsity status.  It's a choice that seems so obvious there doesn't appear to be any downside to letting this one float early.  On further examination, however, three tenuous possibilities present themselves:
1) Sandy is merely sticking to a policy of not reassuring any coach about the safety of their program, so as not to further worry those that don't get such reassurances.
2) Sandy is tacitly allowing the possibility of Rugby being relegated to float out there, so that when the real cuts do come down, everyone is so relieved by Rugby's survival they don't miss those other sports nearly so much.
3) Rugby really is a possible victim here, not to budget cuts directly, but to the looming threat of a Title IX lawsuit.

Personally, I don't think Sandy should hand down any program cuts right now.  Perhaps next year, and I know it sucks to hang this threat over programs for another year, but if she is going to cut a handful of sports, I think she has good cause to wait:
1) By this time next year, the Pac-12 will have negotiated a new media rights deal with various television broadcasters, and the potential windfall of such a deal could render program cuts unnecessary.
2) It would give Athletics time to shore up its internal financial picture.  Perhaps restructuring and proper accounting practices can bring the annual deficit to within a sustainable range.
3) If you're going to cut teams, do it once and be done with it.  Make sure the surviving teams know that these are the only cuts, and further cuts will not be forthcoming.  In this case, however, waiting a little longer to get it right is worth it.

In any case, I would frankly be shocked if Cal Rugby ended up on the losing end of this budget battle.  I could be wrong, but I really, really hope I'm not.  And whether Rugby's status is really up for discussion or not, it certainly couldn't hurt to email Sandy Barbour or Chancellor Birgeneau and let them know your feelings on the matter.

Go Bears!