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Brown University reinstated three varsity teams after athletes said the school was hurting diversity

Andrew Cuomo

Track is the reason Eric Ingram is a student at an Ivy League school like Brown University.

Coming from a small suburb of Columbus, Ohio, Ingram said he had never even heard of the Rhode Island school until a coach reached out to recruit him to run sprints.

When Ingram woke up to news that he and his track teammates were stripped of their varsity team status on May 28, he said he was shocked and frustrated that effective immediately he was no longer a varsity athlete and track would be considered a club sport instead.

Ingram’s team was not alone.

Eleven of the school’s sports programs were stripped of their varsity status in an effort to “improve the competitiveness of varsity athletes, enhance the strength of club sports and provide equal opportunities in athletics for women and men at Brown,” the school said in an online statement.

Ingram and his peers in the demoted sports pushed back.

“We got a group together of all the student athletes of color and, in wake of everything that’s happening in America, we decided that it’s an incredibly accurate and timely example of just why we’re put in these situations and why we face what we face in terms of systematic racism and just all these hard challenges we have to overcome,” Ingram said. “And Brown indirectly made it harder for us to overcome those obstacles and clear those hurdles.”

Their calls for reinstatement resonated with leadership

On Wednesday, Brown President Christina H. Paxson said the university would reverse the decision for the school’s track, field and cross country teams after the Brown community expressed serious concerns about the rank change’s “implications to build and sustain diverse and inclusive communities for students at Brown, and particularly for black students and alumni.”

While Ingram is pleased with the reversal, he told CNN, he’s frustrated that it happened in the first place.

“Our students, alumni and parents took the time to share their deeply personal stories of the transformative impact that participation in track, field and cross country has had on their lives,” Paxson wrote Wednesday in a letter to the Brown community. “Many noted that, through Brown’s history, these sports have been a point of entry to higher education for academically talented students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity, many of them students of color.”

Sports are an entryway to the Ivy League

Former Princeton track athlete Russell Dinkins joined in the fight to get Brown to reverse its decision because he saw himself in those athletes.

“Sports is the greatest entryway to the Ivy League,” he said. “It provides the biggest admissions advantage, more than legacy admissions.”

Varsity teams are allotted a certain amount of spots for recruiting purposes, according to Dinkins, whereas club sports don’t have recruited spots. And while Brown, as a member of the Ivy League, doesn’t award academic or athletic scholarships, varsity athletic coaches are able to recommend to admissions officers students they think will be a welcome addition to campus, according to the school’s website.

Brown’s decision to drop track, field and cross country from its varsity ranks could have had life altering consequences, Dinkins said.

He took issue with Brown’s initial decision to close off access for deserving students because had it not been for track he too would have missed out on an Ivy League education at Princeton.

Even though Dinkins is a Princeton alum, he said it’s not about where he went to school. He wanted to help fight for one of the few access points available for students coming from diverse backgrounds and disadvantaged socioeconomic statuses.

A decision two years in the making

In Paxson’s initial letter to students in May, she said the school conducted an internal review during the 2018-19 academic year and consultants concluded there were too many varsity sports at Brown which “was a barrier to competitiveness.”

“In the decade ending in 2018, Brown earned 2.8% of Ivy titles, the lowest in the Ivy League,” Paxson said. “This outcome is inconsistent with the Ivy League principle of competitive balance across schools, and with Brown’s commitment to excellence in all we do.”

In January she asked a committee of alumni with “deep ties to Brown athletics” to come up with ways to improve the student athletics program.

The committee recommended the following changes: revise rosters by reducing the amount of varsity sports teams from 38 to 29, and “continue to focus on admission and recruitment of outstanding student-athletes, as well maintaining roster sizes that build competitiveness, enhance our focus on coaching, training and conditioning, including professional development for athletics staff, and advance facilities improvements that will make a difference in recruiting talented coaches and student-athletes, and improve competitiveness in varsity athletics.”

The 11 teams affected in the initial advisory were men and women’s fencing, men and women’s golf, women’s skiing, men and women’s squash, women’s equestrian and men’s track, field and cross country, which are considered three individual varsity sports under federal Title IX rules.

In light of the reversal of track, field and cross country, eight of the other teams will maintain their new club status and Brown’s varsity program will now include a total of 32 teams, according to the online statement.

Additionally, club coed sailing and club women’s sailing will transition to varsity status, the school said.

Alumni and student athletes mobilize for change

Within two hours of the announcement from Brown in May, Ingram said alumni quickly mobilized on Facebook. The group consisted of former Brown student athletes, current Brown student athletes, former Brown coaches, parents, and former Olympians — anyone who shared a common goal of wanting Brown to reverse its decision, according to Ingram. That’s when Dinkins got involved.

In response to Brown’s decision, athletes from the sports teams who were stripped of their rank coordinated efforts and created six online petitions championing for their sport to hold onto its classification, according to the student publication at Brown, The Brown Daily Herald.

Additionally, captains from each of the demoted teams authored an open letter to Brown administrators, The Herald said.

Brown addresses the timing of its announcement

In a second letter on June 6, Paxson said she was met with feedback from the community about the timing of Brown’s decision to demote these varsity teams, shortly after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died at the hands of police while being arrested in Minneapolis.

Paxson said there’s never a right time to make a change like this without affecting some group of current student-athletes, new recruits and coaches.

“But I never could have imagined the release of the initiative would come on the heels of one of the most heart-wrenching moments in our nation’s history — the death of George Floyd and the illumination of the longstanding problem in this country of anti-black racism — and I am truly sorry for the impact the collision of these circumstances have had on so many in our community,” she said.

Paxson further clarified the school’s decision, saying this was the result of years of discussions with members of the athletics department who expressed concern about physical and financial resources within the department, conversations with alumni who said Brown should cut sports, and the external review on how Brown could improve varsity athletics.

On June 1, Brown’s senior leaders issued an online letter to the community titled “Confronting racial injustice” in response to Floyd’s death. In the letter, the school said they don’t condone acts of racism, discrimination or violence.

“This cannot be accepted as ‘normal,'” the letter said. “We must continue to demand equity and justice for all people, inclusive of all identities. And we must continue to care for and support each other, especially in this time when we are apart.”

There’s more work to be done

Even though Brown’s track, field and cross country teams were reinstated, Ingram said there’s a lot of advocacy work still to do.

After seeing the success at Brown, student athletes of color from other Ivy League schools have reached out to Ingram for support in being a catalyst for change on issues like racially tone deaf staff, trainers and directors and by cosigning letters to administrators for change at their own schools.

“We’re not just going to stop making our voices heard because we got what we wanted at Brown,” Ingram said. “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done in diversity in athletics across the board so we’re going to do more work as a group to fix that.”

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