Five years ago, the Butler athletics department announced the elimination of men’s swimming, a sport that had been at the university for nearly 80 years.
Swimming became a sport at Butler in 1928, with the introduction of both a men’s and women’s team.
The two teams practiced and competed together most of the time and considered themselves to be one team, said Chris Gordon, who was a freshman five years ago.
“It was like they were pulling half of the team away,” Gordon said. “We were like family.”
The news was given to the team about a month and a half before the season’s Horizon League meet and it came as a surprise to the members.
The team had been struggling in previous years, finishing last in the Horizon League for 12 straight years, but under second-year coach Maurice Stewart, there were visible improvements being made.
“Under [my] first year we had already made significant progress on both squads,” Stewart, the current coach of Butler’s women’s team, said. “We had increased point totals at the conference championship, raised the level of competitiveness, and multiple records— both personal and school— were being set.”
But the men’s swim team was a non-scholarship sport competing against Horizon League schools where this was not the case. In addition, the team was barely meeting the NCAA minimum of 11 swimmers.
The decision to cut the team was made by Athletic Director Barry Collier in his first year at the position. It was supported by then-President Bobby Fong as well.
Before the elimination of both men’s swimming and lacrosse, Butler was supporting 21 teams with what Collier described as “a bottom-of-the-barrel financial aid budget.”
The other schools in the Horizon League averaged only 16 Division I sports.
Collier said that the decision was made after a review of the entire athletics department and after receiving information from a study by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
The study determined that Butler ranked almost last in comparison to other private, Division I schools in terms of financial support per student athlete.
Butler’s football players were buying their own cleats, its softball catchers were buying their own gear and its teams were making 20-hour trips because they could not afford to stay the night in a hotel.
“Clearly what we felt was that we were doing too much with too little,” Collier said. “We had too many teams and couldn’t support them.”
Gordon, who had been swimming since he was five years old, said he believes the team was never really given a reason why men’s swimming was cut versus another sport and that he was disappointed in how the situation was handled.
“It was 12 guys versus the whole organization, and no one listened to us, even after meetings with Dr. Fong and Barry [Collier],” Gordon said. “It was kept so secret, and nobody ever explained to us in a clear and concise way why.”
Collier said that he knew there was no easy way to decide which sports to cut, but the cost to make swimming competitive would have been “excessive.”
“The scholarships, staffing, operations and facilities available were so far below what we felt [gave] the team its best opportunity to succeed,” Collier said. “We felt that the other teams had a better chance to succeed, and Title IX eliminated any consideration of [eliminating] women’s sports.”
In addition to the determinations of the athletics department, the decision was based heavily on senior exit reviews, which are given to every athlete upon graduation.
According to those reviews, 50 percent of all Butler athletes— not including those who had left before their senior year— said they would not come back to Butler and participate in athletics again.
Collier said this was one of the most striking facts and played a big role in his decision.
“It made me sick as a Butler alum and as someone that had been here,” Collier said. “Literally 90 percent of the reasons were tied to a lack of financial support in facilities, coaching staffs, operations and financial aid.”
Stewart said there were some negative consequences as a result of the decision, such as an initial backlash in recruiting and a change in dynamic of the team, especially among the swimmers who trained with the men’s team.
At the same time Stewart also said his budget never decreased after the cut, meaning the funds originally used for two teams are now used for just women’s swimming, which he said is good for team camaraderie, retention, equipment and travel.
“Those athletes are now given everything they need to be competitive as they can be,” Stewart said.
One of the bright spots for Collier is the fact that the senior exit reviews have increased to as high as 91 percent and are currently at 86 percent.
“We have been able to better support our remaining 19 teams and that, in combination with the [improved] student athlete experience, is key,” Collier said. “Every team has benefitted and I take my hat off to our student-athletes that are able to achieve what they are.”
Photo courtesy of Butler Athletics