Inside the Sophisticated Campaign to Save Men’s Running at Brown

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Fergal Mullen, a venture capitalist in Europe, spent the end of May resigned to a sobering prospect: The varsity men’s cross-country and track and field teams at Brown, where he had been a team captain in 1988, would be shut down.

But as he browsed a private Facebook group from his home in Geneva, he came across a dazzling presentation: a crisp, data-fueled rebuttal to the university’s surprise decision to relegate the men’s running programs to club status. It would be enough, he was certain, to persuade Brown’s leaders to think again.

“I see companies presenting themselves every day of the week and entrepreneurs trying to put together tens of millions” of dollars, Mullen said. “I looked at that deck and said, ‘Game over.’”

On Tuesday, Brown spared the men’s running programs after almost two weeks of anger, strategy sessions and back-channel talks that spanned the globe.

The 12-day campaign was a speedy show of how people tied to Brown — an Ivy League university in Rhode Island’s capital that is steeped in history, wealth and power — could marshal extraordinary resources to upend a decision that university leaders depicted as considered and final.

Yet the effort, whose swiftness, precision and organization surpassed that of some campaigns for public office, hardly offers a template for other student-athletes whose teams are cut, an increasing possibility during the coronavirus pandemic. Few students and alumni networks, experts said, would have the means to pressure a university so forcefully so quickly, especially to salvage teams that draw little attention.

Interviews and internal documents show that the effort benefited from financial weight, a web of well-connected alumni, students willing to publicly challenge their university and retired coaches who could offer support. Events beyond Providence also shaped the debate, with national turmoil over racial injustice and George Floyd’s death in police custody elevating questions about why Brown would demote teams with diverse rosters.

“The level of sophistication is rare, but Brown is a different kind of institution,” said David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University and an adviser to some efforts to save college teams.

Brown, despite outrage from other student-athletes, is still planning to demote eight teams to club status: fencing, golf and squash for both men and women, as well as women’s equestrian and women’s skiing. Two club teams, coed sailing and women’s sailing, will become varsity sports.

Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, declined to be interviewed. A Brown spokesman, Brian E. Clark, said university officials were “not surprised by the campaign that emerged.”

“What we did not fully appreciate until hearing from our community was the transformative impact of varsity track and field and cross-country on the lives and the experiences of students,” he said.

The initial verdict came without warning.

Other colleges have shuttered teams during the pandemic. Among them, Akron cut men’s cross-country, men’s golf and women’s tennis; Furman closed down baseball and lacrosse; and East Carolina eliminated its tennis, swimming and diving teams.

Brown, though, has been weighing the size of its athletic program — among the nation’s largest, in terms of the number of teams — for years, recently with help from outside consultants.

Although the university declined to release its advisers’ findings, it said they thought the number of teams hurt Brown’s ability to be competitive in each sport. In secret, university leaders and a handful of Brown supporters considered a path forward.

Then, on May 28, the university told athletes that some teams would move to club status.

The pandemic’s financial effects, Brown officials insisted, were not a factor. Instead, they argued the move would let the university devote greater resources to the sports that remained. The men’s running teams were cut to remain in compliance with Title IX, the gender-equity law, and a legal settlement specific to Brown.

Clark said “a large volume of the calls and emails” after the plan’s announcement was “tremendously supportive” of the new strategy, but the university’s explanations baffled students.

“When a major Division I football team isn’t winning enough, they make changes to the recruiting process and scouting and facilities,” said the distance runner Dominic Morganti, who will be a senior in the fall.

Morganti and his teammates began considering whether to transfer or stay and surrender what remained of their athletic careers.

“I’m not willing to let the university take away my opportunities to receive an Ivy League degree,” Eric Ingram, a runner, said on June 2. “If that means losing one extra year of competition, that’s sad, but that’s the choice I’m willing to make.”

In those first hours, though, their GroupMe conversation crackled with anger and frustration.

The plans to push back took shape.

The news spread among infuriated students and alumni, and urgency soon replaced surprise.

“I felt like part of me was eviscerated, and President Paxson basically made me feel for the first time that I was not welcome at Brown,” said David Loeb, a sprinter at Brown before he earned his degree in 1981.

Brynn Smith, who graduated 30 years later and was a thrower, organized a Zoom call to talk through the announcement’s implications for a university with a rich history of coordinated protests. Her initial expectation — 20 people to organize a letter to administrators — proved too modest.

The call reached a 100-person limit within minutes. It was clear that a haphazard process would not do. “You’re going to die in like three days if you don’t get organized,” Jordan Mann, a volunteer coach, recalled telling Smith.

They created committees, with their tasks, like fund-raising and statistical analyses, detailed in writing. One group, called Disrupt and Annoy, identified lobbying targets and considered how to argue the strengths, affordability and diversity of the running programs.

“There were a lot of people, a lot of ideas and a lot of emotions, especially in those first 24 hours,” she said. “We created the structure of a nonprofit in 24 hours.”

A strategy of public and private pressure took shape, but Mann worried about disjointed or predictable messages.

“There are 50 alums that are writing testimonials over why it’s sad, but the university knew people were going to be sad,” he said. “We had to be focused and clear in what we were saying.”

An early salvo came the day after the university’s announcement, when Melissa Perlman, a publicist who ran at Brown, sent journalists a current student’s essay. He accused Brown of undermining diversity as it sacrificed a program that had molded Olympians.

“Brown athletics, if you believe that as a program we will go down without a fight, you are mistaken,” Numan Maloney, a rising junior, wrote. “The push to compete once again has just begun.”

ImageMembers of the Brown track and field sprint squad at the Alden Invitational in December 2018. Eric Ingram is top row, far left.
Credit…None

Two of Brown’s most celebrated running figures, Bob and Anne Rothenberg, longtime coaches who had retired years earlier, were already working in the background to offer counsel and the organizational prowess that came with having directed hundreds of meets.

The Facebook group’s ranks swelled, and many of its members began devoting four or more hours a day to the cause. Some donors warned Brown that they would suspend future gifts. Raw data became graphics and charts. A website and at least three social media accounts went online. Outside supporters wrote letters and signed a petition. (Clark, who suggested that internet petitions can draw inauthentic support, said that “petitions generally don’t drive decisions at Brown, and certainly did not in this specific case.”)

And coaches and athletes at Ivy League rivals warned that the demise of men’s varsity running programs at Brown could imperil other teams.

“The implications of this decision could have set a really bad precedent for other institutions to follow,” said Russell Dinkins, who ran track at Princeton and wrote a widely shared essay that questioned Brown’s commitment to racial justice.

As the campaign brewed, the national agonizing over race was an inescapable factor in the debate, especially online. Some of Brown’s athletes said they did not believe the university acted with malice, but the issue still resonated.

“I wouldn’t say they were going out of their way to take away opportunities or be blatantly racist,” Ingram, who is black, said. “This obviously isn’t a Black Lives Matter issue, but the implications are a subset of that: Removing access to higher education, whether systematic or not, is just another way that black people have been oppressed in this country.”

In an email, Clark said that the university had always sought to maintain a diverse athletic program, but that “the national climate around race was a factor in that it informed and enriched our understanding of what we were hearing from black alumni and students.”

“We are encouraging everyone to back off the pressure.”

In public, Brown appeared largely unmoved. Near the end of an email on the morning of June 6, a Saturday, Paxson said she remained “committed to the decision to reduce the number of teams.” She also acknowledged “critical questions to consider about the potential long-term impact on the black community at Brown.”

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Credit…Mike Cohen for The New York Times

The campaign’s supporters were contemplating escalation, like advertisements in The Boston Globe and The Providence Journal that together would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But about seven hours after Paxson’s email, the Rothenbergs sent word that Brown’s position seemed to be softening. Within days, they said, people could expect “a positive announcement.”

“We are encouraging everyone to back off the pressure,” they wrote in a message that spread quickly.

Some supporters were skeptical, fearful of losing momentum and that Brown’s decision would fall short of a reversal.

But about 7 p.m. Tuesday, the men’s running teams joined a call with Paxson. Paxson, athletes said, offered an apology, and then an explanation.

As they listened, the runners exchanged messages, debating what would ultimately come of the meeting. Then Paxson announced the teams’ reinstatement.

“It didn’t seem real for a minute,” Morganti said. “I kept listening, and, sure enough, it was the real deal.”

That evening, Brown supporters received an email that said men’s running would survive the purge that would otherwise go on unabated.

“It takes a lot of bravery and leadership when you’re president of the university to go all-in on a major decision and then walk it back that quickly,” Loeb said. “She made a mistake, flat-out. They fixed it. That’s a lot harder to admit than just saying, ‘Well, we’re sorry.’”

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