MSU: There's no 'viable path' for bringing back swimming, diving programs

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Any hopes of Michigan State reinstating the women’s and men’s swimming and diving teams appear to be sunk.

Michigan State trustee Melanie Foster said at Friday’s Board of Trustees meeting that there is "not a viable path" for reinstatement, despite cautious optimism among program advocates in recent months.

Foster cited the continued financial restraints, plus the lack of a competition swimming pool. Michigan State is building a $154 million recreation and wellness center, with the first phase set to open late in 2025 or early in 2026, that has options to include a 50-meter competition swimming pool, but a pool isn't in the current plans for the first phase, university officials said Friday. Foster also said the university does not want to support an athletic program on the back of student fees, and student fees will be used to fund the new recreation center. Swim and dive supporters have maintained that a reinstated team could compete in the pool at IM West until a recreation center is completed with a pool, though a lack of program-designated locker rooms would then remain an issue.

"We do not see a viable path to establish a swim and dive program," Foster said. "Most prohibitively, without sufficient existing fundraising, there is not a path to build a new competition pool without assessing a fee to the entire student body, something we do not wish to do. We appreciate the advocacy those supporting the swim and dive program have shown. While we know this is not the answer supporters are seeking, we feel we owe an honest, transparent and definitive statement on the issue."

At a Board of Trustees meeting earlier this fall, trustees asked athletic director Alan Haller to meet with members of the program by the end of this semester, and make a final decision on the programs' fate by the end of next semester.

Haller held two meetings with representatives of the swim and dive programs, including one Dec. 1 with members of the teams who have stayed at Michigan State since then-athletic director Bill Beekman announced the elimination of the programs in October 2020, amid the financial uncertainty early in the pandemic. Then, on Dec. 8, interim president Teresa Woodruff met with swimmers and divers. Woodruff's predecessor, Samuel L. Stanley, had repeatedly declined to consider reinstatement of the swim and dive programs.

Advocates for the programs, which stopped competing one year shy of their 100th season, had hoped a changed in university president and athletic director would help them build momentum toward reinstatement.

On Friday, they learned that wasn't the case.

David Habel, head of the advocacy group Battle For Spartan Swim and Dive and a Michigan State swimming alum, said Foster's comments Friday "do not align" with his one-on-one conversation with Haller on Nov. 3, nor the swimmers' meetings with Haller and Woodruff. Advocates for the programs have vowed to continue the fight, even though the swimmers and divers who stayed -- currently, 15 women and six men -- likely won't be around the university should the programs ever be reinstated.

"The Battle for Spartan Swim and Dive condemns this morning’s announcement," the advocacy group said in a statement Friday afternoon. "The outstanding student-athletes who have been valiantly fighting since their teams were cut in October 2020 have been ignored, dismissed, and fed false hope in recent weeks -- only to have the door again slammed in their faces without any warning. We find the Board of Trustees and President Woodruff’s comments this morning defeatist and they fly in the face of 'Spartans Will.'"

Michigan State remains involved in a lawsuit filed by multiple female swimmers, and that's set to go to trial in federal court in January after the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear a university appeal. The university has been ordered by a federal judge to come up with a compliance plan for Title IX, after the elimination of the women's swimming and diving program put it out of balance. Title IX says there must be equal athletic opportunities for women that mirror the male-female breakdown of the university.

The judge who ordered the compliance plan stopped short of ordering reinstatement of the women's program.

Beekman, in cutting the programs in October 2020, said the decision would eventually save the university $2 million a year. The university's athletic budget is over $100 million. The cost of the programs was expected to rise if reinstated, Haller told program advocates, saying to be in line with the new standards set for Olympic sports, there would have to be upgrades in team nutrition, designated athletic trainers and chartered plane travel, especially with the Big Ten set to expand to the West Coast. Advocates for the programs have said they’ve secured $10 million in pledges to keep the programs afloat for several years.

MSU swim and dive team supporters listen during a Michigan State University Board of Trustees meeting at the Hannah Administration Building in East Lansing on Oct. 28, 2022.

When Michigan State eliminated the programs, it followed a trend in college athletics, where many programs were cut amid the early financial worries of the COVID pandemic. When financial pictures improved, several universities ordered programs reinstated, including Iowa with the women's swimming and diving program. But Michigan State has stood firm, spending more than $700,000 on legal bills to fight the women swimmers' lawsuit, all while the program posted record-good grades the very sane semester it was cut, and as several members of the defunct teams joined the university's club team and helped it win a national championship.

"Some of the circumstances around that decision-making has carried itself forward," Woodruff told reporters after Friday's meeting. "I know it's hard to hear, because it is the same answer as has been heard before and, you know, I think that is a difficult, emotional place to be for students whose identity for coming here as well as for the ongoing nature of who they are is as a Spartan swimmer and diver. ... I certainly appreciate our students, which is whey we're really trying to work through this, but right now we don't have a through-path forward."

Woodruff said she told student-athletes in her meeting earlier this month that she would come watch the club swimming and diving team compete.

"I know that feels a little bit emotionally vacant," she said. "But it is what I offered."

Advocates for Michigan State swimming and diving, who have been regular speakers at Board of Trustees meetings for over two years, have called into question the school's financial worries, given the Big Ten is about to receive a massive windfall from its new television deal with UCLA and Southern Cal set to join the conference.

Through an athletic-department spokesperson, Haller said Friday he would continue to follow university leadership on the issue. Over the past year, he has declined to comment on the fate of the swimming and diving programs, besides echoing Stanley's statements on the matter when he was president.

Haller did sit for a court-ordered deposition in August, and said that any discussions about reinstating the teams included talks of bringing back both the women's and men's programs, not just one of them. Female swimmers involved in the ongoing lawsuit have also indicated a desire to restore both, not just one.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984