NCAA to MAC, other mid-major conferences: You can't fall below minimum number of sports

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

None of the state's major athletic programs are considering cutting sports teams, at least not yet.

Now, the NCAA has put up a roadblock for those considering such a move.

The NCAA on Friday night decided that it won't allow a waiver for colleges and universities to temporarily fall below the minimum number of athletic programs to be considered Division I. Five Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, including the Mid-American Conference, had sent a letter to the NCAA earlier this month, requesting a waiver to fall below the 16 sports mandated to be Division I.

Eastern Michigan has no plans to cut any sports.

“Higher education is facing unique challenges, and the Division I leadership believes it’s appropriate to examine areas in which rules can be relaxed or amended to provide flexibility for schools and conferences,” said M. Grace Calhoun, chair of the NCAA's Division I Council and athletics director at Pennsylvania. “We will prioritize student-athlete well-being and opportunities balanced with reducing costs associated with administering college sports.

"But a blanket waiver of sport sponsorship requirements is not in keeping with our values and will not be considered.”

All colleges and universities are facing a significant financial crunch, given uncertain future enrollment numbers and state-appropriations distributions.

That trickles down to athletics, which are lacking revenues, given the sports shutdown from COVID-19.

More: State's mid-major budgets growing grim, and that's before a resolution on football

Michigan's Division I schools, particularly at the mid-major level with Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Oakland, are bracing for major cuts to their athletic-department budgets, though eliminating sports programs isn't on the table for now.

"We're not there," said Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford, "yet."

Western Michigan's athletic department was asked to cut its budget by $2.5 million back in November, before the coronavirus crisis escalated and shut down NCAA sports and pretty much all professional sports. That number will go up. Central Michigan has to cut at least 15 percent. Eastern Michigan and Oakland haven't been given specific numbers for cuts, but they're coming.

Eastern Michigan was the state's last Division I program to cut sports, back in 2018, when it eliminated four sports, including softball and women's tennis. A court order restored the tennis program, and allowed the school to replace softball with women's lacrosse to keep up with its Title IX obligations.

The lacrosse program is supposed to start in 2021, and a coach was to be hired soon, but a state-mandated hiring freeze has put that on hold.

The sports cuts came early in athletic director Scott Wetherbee's tenure at Eastern Michigan, and caused a significant public uproar from the public.

"I have no desire to ever do that again," Wetherbee said. "I've had enough of that."

The waiver request, also signed by commissioners of the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference, pleaded with NCAA president Mark Emmert to allow temporary relief from sports minimums for up to four years. Sixteen is the magic number, though there is slight wiggle room so long as there as many or more women's teams than men's teams.

Among schools that have cut sports amid the COVID-19 outbreak: Cincinnati with men's soccer, Old Dominion with wrestling and Division II St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, which cut six sports, including men's golf, though Warren De La Salle alum Nico Ciavaglia is trying to save the program.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984