'Really frustrating': MSU swimmers meet with president, who's non-committal about reinstatement

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Michigan State has plans to build a $154 million health and wellness center that is set to include a 50-yard pool.

For the first time since Michigan State abruptly eliminated the men's and women's swimming and diving programs in October 2020, members of the teams met face to face with the university president.

The four student-athletes who were in the room with president Samuel L. Stanley on Friday, June 10, were encouraged that they finally were able to get him to hear them out, but aren't convinced he's taking possible reinstatement seriously, despite swimming and diving parents and alums securing donor commitments of about $10 million that could fund both programs for at least the next four years.

The advocacy group, The Battle for Spartan Swim and Dive, has given Stanley a 37-page proposal for reinstatement of the programs, the first varsity programs cut by Michigan State in 20 years.

"He said he would take a look at our proposals," said Travis Nitkiewicz, a rising senior from Novi. "That's something. We're happy with that. It feels more productive than last year around this time.

"We hope he looked at it. He said he would."

Nitkiewicz was joined in the meeting — which took place in Stanley's fourth-floor office at the Hannah Administration Building — by Peter Corsetti, a rising senior from Rochester; Sophia Balow, a rising senior from Plymouth; and Kasey Venn, a rising senior from Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. Stanley was joined by Vennie Gore, Michigan State's senior vice president for student life and engagement.

The meeting lasted about 55 minutes; it was scheduled for an hour, but Stanley was five minutes late.

There was no commitment from Stanley, who has previously said he considered the matter closed since then-athletic director Bill Beekman made the call to eliminate the programs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stanley didn't agree to an interview with The News to discuss the meeting, but confirmed the meeting and through a spokesperson said: "He appreciated their time and the ability to have a dialogue on the situation."

There are 15 female and six male members of the swimming and diving programs that remain in school at Michigan State, which could help revitalize the program.

The News asked a follow-up question through the spokesperson, asking if the financial strain brought on by COVID-19 was the chief reason for the elimination — as was cited in October 2020 — why wasn't that mentioned as a reason against reinstatement during the meeting. Two of the student-athletes said the COVID-19 pandemic was never mentioned by Stanley as a reason for keeping the programs defunct.

Instead, two student-athletes told The News, the two reasons mentioned by Stanley were the limitations of an already-set budget for the athletic department and the program's lack of competitiveness in recent years.

More: Women win an appeal in dispute over ending MSU swim team

Through a spokesperson, Stanley said: "The impact of COVID on our athletics budget was definitely one of the factors in the decision to cut the program, and ongoing financial challenges are still a reality."

The spokesperson, Emily Gerkin Guerrant, noted that the athletic budget is separate from the university's.

The financial argument doesn't make sense to the swimmers and divers, nor the advocacy group.

Talking numbers

Michigan State athletics suffered a $17.8 million deficit for the 2019-20 fiscal year — the pandemic came on late in that fiscal year — and reported a deficit of $15.4 million for 2020-21. Michigan State athletics had a budget of $123 million for 2020-21. It cost a little over $2 million a year to fund the men's and women's swimming and diving programs, including coaches' salaries and scholarships. That's an amount that's less than 2% of the overall athletics budget — a budget that, by the way, is in better shape today than in previous years, as stadiums, particularly football, basketball and hockey, are full again.

There also was a pledged gift of $32 million from former basketball player and current home-loan magnate Mat Ishbia, some of which was supposed to go to nonrevenue sports. Plus, the Big Ten has been negotiating a new TV deal that was expected to reach $1 billion, and that was before the announced additions of UCLA and Southern California to the conference starting in 2024. That deal now will be even more valuable, providing a substantial windfall to the 14 current members, including Michigan State. The university also recently signed a lucrative deal to partner with Caesars Sportsbook.

Four MSU student-athletes met with university president Samuel L. Stanley to discuss reviving swimming and diving, including significant financial backing that could help sustain the program.

"There's not really that shortage of money that he claims there to be," Corsetti said. "He just doesn't want to partake. It's just heartbreaking. You hear all about 'Spartan Will' ... they try and talk the talk, but they don't walk the walk.

"It's really frustrating. I don't think we're going to give up anytime soon, and I think he knows it."

If the student-athletes take anything away from their meeting with Stanley, it's that he at least seemed to listen, while previous meetings with Beekman — who has since been replaced as AD by Alan Haller — were unproductive, they said. Haller, who was hired in September 2021 but was in the department when the programs were cut, has repeatedly deferred to Stanley's stance when asked about reinstatement.

More: Former Olympic swimmers lobby MSU trustees to reinstate swim, dive team

The Battle For Spartan Swim and Dive advocacy group is made up of eight parents or alums (some are both), and have been relentless in their visibility, packing monthly Board of Trustees meetings with guest speakers from across the country advocating for reinstatement. One of the members is Balow, who was so incensed by the university's handling of swimming and diving that she decided to run for the MSU Board. At the Republican convention in April, she was one of two candidates endorsed.

Stanley has declined to meet with the advocacy group — and chose just to meet with the students, an intimidation tactic, the students believe.

"We've asked repeatedly," said Mike Balow, Sophia's dad. "But have never got an answer."

The advocacy group has secured a July 20 meeting with Vivian Leung of MSU University Advancement and Rebecca Surian of the Spartan Fund.

The advocacy group has received a $7.5 million estate pledge, plus $2.13 million in additional pledges and endowments to go with the $1.2 million in existing endowments. That's a total of $10.85 million. The group also said it has an additional $500,000 in commitments if the Spartan Fund endorses the fund drive. That would more than fund the program for several years, argues the advocacy group, which also has offered to work with the Spartan Fund to help create a model of fundraising for the university's other Olympic, non-revenue athletic programs.

Possible plan

Dozens of athletic departments across the country cut many programs early in the pandemic, but several reversed their decision when the financial picture improved, including the reinstatement of swimming and diving programs at Iowa, Dartmouth and East Carolina. Some were reinstated under threat of court order.

On that front, members of the Michigan State women's swimming and diving program remain in court with their Title IX suit against the university. An appeals court delivered the swimmers a favorable ruling in February, and they are due back in court July 21 for a preliminary injunction.

Another reason cited early by Beekman about the program elimination — Central Michigan was the other state Division I school to eliminate a program amid the pandemic, men's indoor and outdoor track and field, eventually replaced by the soon-to-start-play men's golf program — was the inferior-facility situation. Parents, athletes and alums dispute that, too, noting there are three 25-yard pools on campus (IM West, IM Circle, Jenison Fieldhouse) that are up-to-code for NCAA competition. (Ten of the Big Ten's 12 swimming and diving programs use a recreational pool). The school also has plans to build a $154 million health and wellness center that is set to include a 50-meter pool, at a cost of $30 million.

As for the lack of competitiveness for MSU swimming, athletes say a change in coach would've seemed like a better first step. MSU, under Haller, has recently had coaching changes in hockey, softball and volleyball — three sports that have combined for one top-30% finish in Big Ten play between them, over the last decade — though softball and volleyball were announced as retirements.

MSU's final swimming and diving season was 2020-21, though the university offered to honor the scholarships through graduation. Several swimmers stayed, some joining the club swimming program, and helping that to a national championship in April. The student-athletes say it's not past the point of no return for reinstating the program.

There are 15 female and six male members of the swimming and diving programs that remain in school. Reinstating for this winter is doable, they say, given there will be options in the transfer portal. They also point out that longtime associate head coach, Kathleen Milloy, remains on campus in a different role, and could quickly transition to interim head coach.

That might remain a stretch, the student-athletes acknowledge. But it's no reason to give up the fight.

"I do hope that it will happen before I leave, but I'm more thinking about the kids that come after me," said Corsetti, who is interning for Ishbia's United Wholesale Mortgage. "I want to be able to come back to Michigan State and come to a swim meet and meet the kids on the team and talk about their experience."

Said Nitkiewicz: "It seems like it's a question of when, not if. That said, it's not really up to us."

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984