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Stanford wrestling cut result of ‘unfortunate oversights’

Stanford University graduate Gabriel Townsell knows wrestling is an NCAA leader in first-generation college students, and wants his alma mater to save the program. (Photo: John P. Lozano/Stanford Athletics)

STANFORD, Calif. (BVM) – Stanford University wrestling’s Twitter account last week shared never-too-early individual and team rankings for the 2020-21 season from The Open Mat.

Six Cardinal were ranked in the top 27 of their respective weight class while the team checked in at No. 15.

It was another signal of a bright present and future for a program returning seven NCAA qualifiers and four Pac-12 Conference champions in 2021. But any excitement garnered from that Tuesday evening tweet lasted no more than a few hours.

In an open letter to the Stanford community and athletics family the following morning, the university announced that it will discontinue 11 of its varsity sports programs at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Six of the sports being discontinued are not NCAA-sponsored championships sports (men’s rowing, squash, sailing and others), but included on the list of cuts was also wrestling.

Gabriel Townsell just graduated from Stanford, is a three-time NCAA qualifier and racked up 60 wins on the mat for the Cardinal. He said he was heartbroken for the kids who would potentially never have the opportunity to realize their dreams.

“The upward trajectory that the Stanford wrestling team has continued to experience in the past few years has been inviting and inspiring for recruits, spectators and past or present Stanford wrestlers from everywhere,” Townsell said. “I hurt for my friends who may not get the chance to finish their careers.”

Members of the slashed programs will have the opportunity to compete in their upcoming 2020-21 seasons, should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 allow it, before they are discontinued at the varsity level.

The university pointed to the growing financial challenge of supporting 36 varsity sports and one of the largest athletic departments in the country. Due to the escalating costs of operating such a large athletics department, according to the open letter, a structural deficit emerged several years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession have only exacerbated the gap; before these sport reductions, our revised forecasts indicated a best-case scenario of a $25 million deficit in FY21, factoring in the effects of COVID-19, and a cumulative shortfall of nearly $70 million over the next three years,” the letter read. “These projected deficits could become much greater if the 2020-21 sports seasons are suspended or altered due to COVID-19.”

Despite claims from the university that a wide variety of alternatives – including ticket sales, broadcast revenue, university funding, philanthropic support and others – were investigated, Townsell firmly believes that there were stones left unturned.

One misstep on behalf of Stanford, Townsell said, came back in April when it was one of a few wealthy universities to decline funding from a stimulus package designed to help schools and students impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Stanford, whose endowment was $27.7 billion at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, opted out of $7.3 million in relief funds.

“We were blindsided, unaware that the loss of the program was even a possibility,” Townsell said. “They (Stanford) could have informed us of the likely decision earlier and given us the opportunity to do what we could to change it. They could’ve reached out to our donors, and quite a bit of this would’ve been avoided if they had accepted federal aid for COVID-19.

“The impasse we find ourselves at is a sum of a few unfortunate oversights.”

It doesn’t appear that Stanford wrestling will go down quietly, as a petition to reinstate the program has nearly 13,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Although the support is present, Townsell said a petition alone isn’t enough.

“If we’re going to keep the program, we need a mechanism of leverage,” Townsell said. “We’re working to find as many sources of leverage as we can, but we need a combination of strategies to get to where we’d like to be.”

Wrestling has one of the highest percentages of first-generation college students of any NCAA sport (23%), and Townsell doesn’t want those opportunities to vanish.

“It’s important that we work to keep that option open for those students who have worked hard enough to search for academically elite options at the end of their high school careers.

“Unequal resources should not stop kids from reaching their dreams.”

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