Universities, Sports, and COVID-19: A Defense of My Alma Mater

Alumni and others cry “Foul!” at Furman University ending their baseball and lacrosse programs for men. But some of the complaints show limited understanding of university funding—or the freight train that is bearing down on college athletics.

You will find many who give more money to Furman University than I do. But you will not find many who love the University with any greater passion.

Furman is in my blood. Literally. It is a passion and a legacy handed down to me from my parents, particularly my father.

It therefore crushed me to learn this week that the Furman administration has decided to end its baseball program. 123 years of history just disappeared into oblivion in the blink of an eye. Along with it went the athletic hopes and dreams of young men who wanted to compete at the Division I level.

While it does not hold the long history, the same thing happened to Furman men’s lacrosse. The program has played in Division 1 for only six years, but created a significant presence on the campus.

College baseball is not exactly one of my favorite sports. As for Paladin Lacrosse, I do not even know the rules. The main thing I can tell you is they are crazy enough to play a game where you run around swinging a stick, and they are the most fun fans to see at basketball games

Yet, this is incredibly sad because of the men that came to Furman, with the goal of representing the “diamond F” with pride and dignity. It is crushing that these players had the rug snatched out from under them.

What is also sad is the reaction that some alums and others have demonstrated about this situation. Furman’s administration is facing the same decisions as many other colleges and universities during the COVID-19 crisis: how do we sustain ourselves with the loss of millions in revenue?

Few, if any, of these institutions have a “rainy day” fund that will cover this. Few, if any, will want to hear a defense of Furman University and its decision. I still want to offer some things that might be food for thought.

Keep in mind that this is not hard evidence, but merely reading between the lines, reading the words of President Elizabeth Davis and Athletic Director Jason Donnelly, and talking with some other friends around the higher education community.

  1. Mistakes were made: I do not know exactly what these were, but in retrospect everyone is probably thinking about what they should have or could have done to prevent this. Someone likely made some poor decisions at some point, and hopefully will learn better for the future.

I doubt that this rises to the level of some of the wild speculation that I see on social media about how Furman spends its money. But harsh moves like this often come with great regret that we do not get many “mulligans” in life. Clearly people who had to make this call are also looking at how the University can avoid this in the future.

Probably the most logical charge that fans are lobbying is that the athletic department overextended itself by adding lacrosse. Keep in mind that the people who made that decision are no longer at Furman! That leaves the current admins to deal with the problem under the most difficult of circumstances.

  1. Some of this was coming, COVID-19 or not: Based on Donnelly’s letter to fans and alumni, he knew coming into the job (and he’s only been on it one year), some decision had to be made regarding the number of sports at Furman. 20 varsity Division I teams for a school with roughly 2800 undergraduates is not sustainable. Again, these decisions happened long before Donnelly or Dr. Davis arrived, but they are left to clean up the problem.
  2. Endowments are not checking accounts: I could offer a lot of opinions about universities and endowments and the attitude towards those endowed funds. And a lot of those opinions may sound less than generous.

However, let us go in another direction. Many alums are saying, “Why not just dip into those hundreds of millions of endowment dollars to keep things moving?”

If only it were that simple…

First off, you cannot treat the endowment like a debit card. Endowed dollars are often designated dollars. That means a lot of folks gave for specific purposes, and you cannot shift that money without a truckload of legal wrangling. Using endowed funds for an undesignated purpose would bring another truckload of legal issues.

Second, remember that the endowment has lost $100 million during the COVID-19 crisis due to stock fluctuations and investment losses. Can the University afford to spend part of that when more losses could come? That is a loss of dividends and interest that funds other programs, including academic programs. Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul is often a bad idea.

  1. The University is honoring scholarships: The critical aspect here is that Furman is not snatching away the educational opportunity from their recruits. While it is sad that these young men must go elsewhere to continue athletics, they can still take advantage of a top-level education.

Paladin athletics, especially football, means the world to me. Surely, athletes in other sports feel the same about their programs. But it is only a fraction of what Furman University as a whole means to me. For all that athletics did, the academics made the ultimate difference in my life.

I wish that these men could stay to play. The biggest difference Furman offers is found in the classroom, and that will ultimately give them their greatest value, should they choose to take that route.

  1. If anyone believes there is malfeasance by the administration, then bring the charges: I was dumb enough to engage in social media “battles” this week over this decision. Some accused the administration of fraud, mismanagement, wastefulness, etc. Some believe that Furman should be investigated by law enforcement.

I say that if you believe this, then bring your charges. And receipts. If any graduate or donor thinks that this can be proven, stop making unfounded accusations and bring the evidence. If there is wrongdoing, I will join you in calling it out.

But I doubt it. I doubt even less that anyone has the guts to bring a formal accusation or any level of proof.

  1. Furman may be the first, but it will not be the only: The notion that this is the only institution who will make cuts because of COVID-19 is simply disingenuous. Plenty of athletic programs will have to make difficult and painful cuts, even those with state funding and much larger student populations than Furman.

Central Michigan already pulled out the chopping block. Will Muschamp is taking a temporary pay cut at South Carolina. Some estimate that college football as a whole could lose $4 billion this year. And larger state schools are looking at similar issues.

If this is all due to mismanagement by administration, there is plenty of blame to go around. More likely, it is due to universities looking to take drastic, unwanted measures to deal with an intense loss of revenue that will hit the many rather than the few.

  1. I will not stop giving to or supporting Furman University: I am certainly upset with this turn of events, even more that this may not be the end of it (although I hope it is). But I am more hopeful that this is an anomaly, and not some sign of any significant wrongdoing.

Some folks have suggested that I should quit giving to Furman because of this. Why on earth would I stop giving to the school that I love for so many reasons at a time when it needs my support the most?

We give the Furman Football Players Association. We give to the Paladin Club. We give to academic departments and initiatives. And we will continue to give as long as we are able, or until someone can offer proof of why we should not.

We do these things because we believe that a Furman education is an invaluable resource, for students and student-athletes alike. The University is certainly not perfect, by any stretch. But as Ric Flair says, we believe it is the best thing going today.

I stand with Furman when things are great, and I will continue to stand with them right now, when times are tough. In the long run, I still believe the University will end up where it needs to be.

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