One of the toughest days for the U.S. wrestling community since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was an announcement from Stanford University on July 8 that it will drop 11 varsity athletics programs after 2020-21 season.
Almost a month later, the same question is still being asked again and again. Why wrestling?
The Cardinal wrestling team has been a rising program in recent years under head coach Jason Borrelli, winning its first-ever Pac-12 conference tournament title in 2019 and fielding a strong, young team that was expected to do some serious damage on the national scene over the next few years. This past season Stanford had three All-Americans; all underclassmen, two of them freshmen. The California Regional Training Center, affiliated with the program, recently added two-time Olympian and 2008 Olympic coach Kerry McCoy to lead the effort. The wrestling program, which has been on campus for 104 years, has established a new level of success with the current group of athletes, coaches and supporters.
Borrelli’s tweet on July 8 set the tone for the effort that has moved forward to save the Stanford program. It said:
Nothing like a little adversity and a good challenge. First we will listen to understand why. Then we will strategize and prepare for the battle! Lastly, we will execute and make this right. Let’s go @CardWrestling fans... who’s with us?
A motivated and positive group of alumni and supporters of Stanford Wrestling has developed into the #KeepStanfordWrestling. effort.
Heading the campaign are three impressive alumni leaders: Robert Hatta (Class of ’97), Olympic bronze medalist Patricia Miranda (Class of ’01) and Shawn Harman (Class of ’01). We had the opportunity to visit with Hatta this past weekend, and discuss the plan that is being put into place and how they believe this can be a successful campaign.
In Stanford’s announcement, the university claimed that it had undertaken “a deliberate and collaborative decision-making process with our Board of Trustees and campus leadership,” and also claimed that it had exhausted “all alternatives before making profound changes in our programs.”
Stanford also wrote in its announcement, “the decision to discontinue these 11 varsity sports programs comes down primarily to finances and competitive excellence.”
#KeepStanfordWrestling is taking issue with both of these statements as it works to make its case for keeping the wrestling program.
“That speaks to the primary issue with this whole process. We only have what they printed in that letter on July 8. The athletic department did not consult the alumni nor any of the 11 programs during the decision-making process. When they said in the letter that they exhausted all possible alternatives, that is simply not possible if you don’t engage the stakeholders in each of those sports, and the creativity and the resources of the alumni in those sports. There has been no communication or clarification since on what exactly are the problems. When they talk about financial issues and competitive excellence, we are kind of reading the tea leaves,” said Hatta.
The #KeepStanfordWrestling proposal, which is going through extensive research and development, is to fully fund Stanford men’s wrestling and a new women’s wrestling program for perpetuity.
“Our interpretation is that we need to prove that we can endow a fully competitive program, while at the same time addressing gender equity and Title IX compliance. Our interpretation of that is we need to go out and raise enough money to fully endow the program at a competitively excellent, title-competitive level, for both men’s and women’s wrestlers. We are prepared to do that. Our mission is to be fully self-sufficient and control our own destiny. That would be a fully-funded and scholarshipped men’s and women’s wrestling program,” said Hatta.
Adding a women’s program is not just a strategy that was developed to deal with the current crisis. It is something that alumni has wanted to do for a long time. It is also very appropriate now that women’s wrestling has achieved Emerging Sport Status on the NCAA Div. I level.
“This is the opportunity to do what we as alumni and members of the Stanford wrestling community has always wanted to do. We want to control our destiny and keep the program off the perennial chopping block that faces so many programs. It just makes sense with the women’s aspect at Stanford. We have the first U.S. Olympic medalist as an alumna, but we are in the hotbed of women’s wrestling in California. We have an RTC at Stanford, and we can leverage that to bring in incredible assistant coaches and training partners to the program. Up until July 8, Stanford was an example of globally in how to invest in women’s and men’s sports to the same level of excellence. If we were talking about this under different circumstances, this is something Stanford would want to do and would be well positioned to do. Within a very few short years, we could be a dominant program,” said Hatta.
Once the wrestling community is able to get Stanford to engage with them in a dialogue, this group of Stanford wrestling alumni and supporters feel good about their chances.
“If you are going to explore all options, you want to include the people who care the most. Just in wrestling, it’s 400 alumni, many of them successful, all of them passionate about the sport and the experience it gave them at Stanford. Four-hundred very creative minds are going to find a solution. Those pressures and financial challenges withstanding, when you get into these situations you want all people on deck. This was a highly unilateral, not all that well-thought-out strategy. We think that when we present solutions, that we have a shot for them to select those solutions,” said Hatta.
The alumni are taking a leadership role, in part to allow the coaches and athletes currently in the program to focus on training and education, not advocacy.
“This should be an alumni-led effort. It is also equally important that the coaches coach and focus on the athletes right now. I can’t imagine what they are going through. Even before this, you had the questions of school and COVID and if there is even going to be a season. They lost their NCAA tournament last year. Yet, coming into the season with four ranked wrestlers in the top 12 and six in the top 25, there was a lot of momentum in spite of those challenges. I am glad that we, as alumni, can take this effort forward and let them do what is essential for them, which is to take care of those athletes and allow them to be focused. That is what they have proven to be. They are wrestlers. These guys are tough and resilient,” said Hatta.
#KeepStanfordWrestling posted a great video from the athletes, which is embedded at the top of this article.
Since 2006, 44% of Stanford’s wrestlers reported being first-generation college bound and/or low income students, in comparison to an overall university rate of 17%. Wrestlers are exactly the kind of student-athletes that Stanford is seeking to embrace in order to have a thriving and diverse student body.
“Wrestling is the ultimate inclusive sport, if you have the work ethic and tolerance for pain. On a campus where economic diversity is shrinking every day, to have a program that is built on economic diversity to go away is a real blow to the fabric of what Stanford claims to be,” said Hatta.
The leadership group is taking a positive, can-do approach, understanding it will not be easy, but is something that is fully achievable.
“This is an opportunity. This isn’t an act of desperation to save a program at some middling level to just keep it at varsity status. This is the opportunity to build the program we’ve always thought was possible. Coach Borrelli, with not a lot of resources, has done a lot to demonstrate that. We approach this as a very positive opportunity for us,” said Hatta.
KEEP STANFORD WRESTLING RESOURCES
Want to help? #KeepStanfordWrestling has created an extensive website, which gives people who want to assist the effort very specific action items. Also included are athlete testimonials and other examples of why wrestling matters at Stanford.
• Keep Stanford Wrestling Website: https://www.keepstanfordwrestling.com/
You can also follow this through its extensive online presence via:
• Keep Stanford Wrestling Twitter: https://twitter.com/KeepStanfordWRE
• Keep Stanford Wrestling Facebook https://www.facebook.com/KeepStanfordWrestling/
• Keep Stanford Wrestling Instagram https://www.instagram.com/keepstanfordwre/
There is also an online Petition for Keep Stanford Wrestling, which has been posted to Change.org, which can be signed at: