As Towson works numbers, gymnastics feels cold draft

January 31, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IT SEEMS DIFFICULT to understand. Gymnastics, one of the most successful sports at Towson University, could be dropped so Towson can make its sports teams more competitive.

Sacrifice gymnastics, which garners Top 25 rankings and is highly competitive with other top Division I programs in the country, so that more money can be directed toward football, basketball and other sports.

It's little wonder that a not-so-mild skirmish is under way. Former Towson gymnasts and other program supporters are angry, worried, confused.

"You have a team and a sport that has brought you regional and national recognition. Why would you possibly want to drop that so you can get better at other sports? That seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face," said Anne Wolff, a 1992 graduate who competed for the Tigers.

It's probably with good reason that Towson gymnasts are worried their sport could be dropped. Gymnastics will cost the university $500,000. At 12 full scholarships, that averages out to $60,000 per athlete. That's about $45,000 more per athlete than the school spends in other sports.

Plus, gymnasts compete in the East Atlantic Gymnastics League, while the school's 22 other teams compete in the Colonial Athletic Association. Gymnastics does little or nothing to strengthen Towson's stature and competitive ability within the CAA, which will no doubt exert pressure on Towson to pump more life - and money - into its high-profile sports.

With the entire athletic department under review, all sports except football, basketball and lacrosse are subject to possible change in status or elimination.

Thursday, athletics director Dr. Wayne Edwards said emphatically that no decisions have been made regarding how the university will reorganize, although change is coming. Towson athletics' current slogan is it can't be all things to all people.

However, "all decisions relevant to athletics will be made after our president meets with all our student-athletes later this spring," Edwards said.

That hasn't eliminated suspicion that gymnastics could be a casualty. Longtime Towson gymnastics coach Dick Filbert, who did not return phone calls, has apparently stopped recruiting until a decision is made official.

Decelia Willacy, a high school senior who trains at Fairland Gymnastics in Laurel, signed a letter of intent with Towson last fall for a gymnastics scholarship. Now, Willacy's parents are seeking a release from Towson, though there's concern about Willacy's eligibility. If she is released and accepts a scholarship to another school but Towson doesn't drop gymnastics next year, she would lose a year of eligibility.

Wendy Kwiatkowski, another '92 grad, whose gymnastics career landed her in the Towson Hall of Fame, has commenced a battle plan to try to pre-empt any move toward cutting the sport. She has attracted the interest of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a national group that has handled Title IX civil rights suits for collegiate athletes.

Arthur Bryant, a TLPJ attorney based in Oakland, Calif., has already promised to look into the "potential case." Bryant has told Kwiatkowski any suit brought against Towson would have to be done by current or potential future gymnasts.

"They had to know awhile ago when they moved to the new conference that they'd have to put more money toward football. They must have known all along gymnastics could be a casualty," Kwiatkowski said.

"It's heartbreaking for me." she said. "The slogan for Towson is `Athletics With Integrity.' They don't seem to be handling it with integrity. They're not being up front."

On that issue, Towson officials disagree, but maybe those officials should just come out and say it: It has been a long, bumpy road these past 12 years, trying to establish consistency for the school's Division I athletics programs.

Conference changes have scrambled Towson's image. New presidents and different athletics administrators have meant shifted priorities. Title IX compliance and funding issues put vise-like constraints on the mission, which isn't impossible but close to it - especially if you're talking about funding 63 football scholarships for a school with an enrollment that's 60 percent women.

Now this: a crossroads at which Towson, in its quest to step up and play with the big boys, has to scale back at the expense of some of its 23 different sports.

At such a high cost, it's no wonder the university might be looking hard at whether the benefits of gymnastics - excellent students, graduation rates, historical success - outweigh the financial reality.

Edwards said that before Towson joined the CAA two years ago an unsuccessful effort was made to expand the conference's gymnastics competition. Only two other CAA schools (James Madison and William and Mary) offer gymnastics - at minimal support. Towson kept its association with the East Atlantic league, in which it competes against Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, New Hampshire, Pittsburgh and Rutgers.

Most of these schools are powerhouses - in football and basketball. Revenues from those sports can help pay the bills for gymnastics and other minor sports. At Towson, however, the move toward a bigger, better football/basketball conference will not guarantee television or bowl dollars anytime soon.

Also, as Towson continues to seek compliance with Title IX legislation, it (like all schools) must provide proportionate opportunities to achieve gender equity.

So the dog will chase its tail as Towson chases the dream of bigger-time college athletics amid all kinds of nearly impossible financial and legislative constraints. Towson looks around and sees how so many other universities have painfully shed programs.

That Towson would even consider dropping its gymnastics program, igniting certain and warranted backlash, can only be proof of what a nightmare it is to try to keep up with the Joneses in Division I athletics.

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