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Advocates for sports dropped by U get chance to ‘tell their story’ at Minnesota Legislature

Committee Vice Chair Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) says he’ll ask the University of Minnesota Regents to appoint a commission to review the U’s rationale, restore the programs and make them viable. But legislators can only ask: the Regents are under no obligation to comply.

John Roethlisberger
Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol, the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee will hear from three-time Olympic gymnast John Roethlisberger, above, and other representatives from U men’s gymnastics, tennis and indoor track and field.
REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

For more than a year, supporters of the three men’s sports programs dropped by the University of Minnesota have asked the Board of Regents to reconsider the decision. Multiple times they’ve requested to speak at Board meetings, and each time the Board turned them down. 

Now the state Legislature is getting involved.

Tuesday afternoon at the Capitol, the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee will hear from three-time Olympic gymnast John Roethlisberger and other representatives from U men’s gymnastics, tennis and indoor track and field. 

Committee Vice Chair Jason Rarick (R-Pine City) says he’ll ask the Regents to appoint a commission to review the U’s rationale, restore the programs and make them viable long-term. But the committee can only ask: the Regents are under no obligation to comply.

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“The main point of the hearing is to give these three programs a chance to tell their story,” Rarick said. “The biggest thing is, why were these programs not given the opportunity to have some input? Can they reach out to their supporters to create an endowment that will help them?”

The U, citing pandemic-related financial difficulties and a Title IX imbalance, cut those men’s sports along with some women’s roster positions, mostly in track. The cuts are expected to save the school $1.6 million in 2021-22 out of a budget of $126 million. Athletics ran a $21.5 million deficit in 2020-21, much less than athletic director Mark Coyle feared but enough to require a loan from the university.

State Sen. Jason Rarick
State Sen. Jason Rarick
Supporters of the dropped programs, known as the Minnesota Athletics Alliance, question why the U never gave them a chance to fundraise or brainstorm possible solutions, as it did the last time programs were endangered. In 2001, then-Athletic Director Joel Maturi solicited alumni help that saved men’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s golf and established endowments in those sports. Separately, booster Bob McNamara raised $1.2 million to endow tennis scholarships. With rising tuition and fees, those endowments no longer cover all costs.

Rarick said the U declined to send a representative to the hearing, citing pending litigation. Former Gophers gymnast Evan Ng is suing the school in U.S. District Court, seeking a temporary injunction to restore gymnastics in 2023. 

State Rep. Marion O’Neill
State Rep. Marion O’Neill
On the House side, Rep. Marion O’Neill (R-Maple Lake) also has questions about the Regents’ decision and the money saved. “It seemed like a small dollar amount that had a huge impact to a lot of people,” she said. “I care because it impacted a whole bunch of very strong athletes here in Minnesota, and they’ve actually lost some great athletes to other programs because we cut the Minnesota programs.”

The Regents recently approved salary increases for Coyle and U president Joan Gabel, which doesn’t sit well with O’Neill, either.  “To me, it just seems like a contradiction,” she said. “You cut all of this, and now you turn around and give the president a raise? And now the athletic director wants a raise, too? That’s a really bitter pill for me to swallow.”

The hybrid hearing begins Tuesday at 1 p.m. at the Minnesota Capitol