Cutting College Track Hits Black Athletes the Hardest
Former Princeton runner Russell Dinkins argues that universities should preserve their "most accessible" sport
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In late May, Brown University announced that it was going to cut its men’s track and cross-country programs in addition to several other varsity sports (including fencing, golf, and skiing), in an effort to channel more resources to its remaining, ostensibly more successful, programs. The news struck a nerve. Protests against racial injustice were gathering momentum across the country, and here was an elite university that was planning to do away with track—a sport where Black athletes were unusually well-represented. For an institution that was making lofty claims about its commitment to diversity, abolishing an admissions opportunity for prospective Black students felt like a betrayal.
That, in any case, was a prominent part of the argument put forward in a savvy lobbying effort by Brown alumni (and current students) to save the school’s running programs. The campaign was aided by a viral op-ed on Medium from a former Princeton track athlete named Russell Dinkins, who pointed out that an inexpensive, accessible sport like track and field provided a crucial avenue for prospective Black students from less privileged backgrounds—students like him.
The campaign worked; less than two weeks after its initial announcement, Brown reversed its decision and reinstated men’s track and cross-country.
Not all college athletes have been as fortunate, however. Last Friday, the board of regents at the University of Minnesota voted to cut men’s indoor track, tennis, and gymnastics following the 2020-21 season. Initially, men’s outdoor track was slated to be cut as well, but a last-minute amendment saved the program. Prior to the vote, Dinkins published another op-ed, this time in Minneapolis’s Star Tribune, arguing that since Black athletes were over-represented in revenue generating sports like football and basketball, there was a moral imperative for the University of Minnesota to continue to support the one Black sport that wasn’t making money for the school.
I spoke with Dinkins to gain some more insight into his reasoning and the fraught, racial politics of NCAA sports.
OUTSIDE: You didn’t attend Brown University, but you have been vocal about the fact that what happened at Brown hit you on a very personal level. Why is that, and can you summarize your position for readers who may not be familiar with your argument?
DINKINS: Having gone to an Ivy League school, I know what an opportunity it can provide, so I saw myself reflected in the opportunities that were being taken away. Also, if Brown’s decision had been allowed to stand, that would have softened the ground for other Ivy League institutions to also cut their track programs. My argument, broadly speaking, is that when you look at the racial makeup of teams in the NCAA and in the Ivy League you really only have Black student athletes in three sports, to a large degree: football, basketball, and track. After that the numbers drop off pretty significantly. So, when you take away track and field, and maintain these other sports, you are taking away one of the few sports that offers admissions opportunities to a large swath of people, and protecting the sports that cater to a very specific racial and class demographic. Sports like lacrosse, ice hockey, or crew—these sports cater almost exclusively towards more affluent, white families. And my argument isn’t that those sports should be taken away, but that you should not be taking away track. In high school, track is typically the most accessible sport, the cheapest sport, and the sport with the greatest participation if you include male and female participation numbers.
You’ve now written op-eds about both the cases at Brown and the University of Minnesota. Beyond obvious aspects like the fact that these schools offer different sports and have different budgets, do you think there are crucial differences between the two cases, or do you think that the main issues are the same?
Brown’s decision was not a financial one. They stated that their decision was to increase competitiveness and to balance out their Title IX compliance. (One of the Title IX requirements at Brown is that the male-to-female ratio of their varsity sports should be roughly proportionate to that of the overall student body.) The weakness in their argument is that they’ve actually had a lot of individual track athletes be successful at the national level. As for the other side of it, instead of cutting the whole team, they could have just cut a few male athletes from each of the rosters, instead of removing a whole team. At the University of Minnesota, they had more of a budgetary issue. But when you look at the amount of money that they lose on track and field, yes, they operate at a loss, but they also lose money with baseball. Depending on the data you look at, they either lose more money on baseball or equivalent money on baseball. Also, for baseball, they are supporting 35 athletes for one season of play—and they spend about $130,000 per baseball athlete. For track and field, they are supporting 52 athletes across three seasons of play, and they end up spending about $6,000 per track athlete. So, if you look at it from that angle, if it’s a money issue, you are getting more bang for your buck with track and field.
Where are you getting your numbers from?
If you go to the University of Minnesota’s official athletics website, gophersports.com, I think it’s under the athlete tab, they have both the annual Financial Report data and the Equity in Athletics data—both are official documents made publicly available by the university.
In your Brown op-ed, you focus more on the school’s hypocrisy in the way that they were emphasizing their commitment to diversity, while cutting a sport in which Black athletes are atypically well-represented. Your more recent piece points to the examples of schools’ willingness to exploit Black athletes in revenue-generating sports like football and basketball. But how relevant do you think the latter issue is to this debate? Does keeping men’s track somehow redeem the exploitative aspects of college football?
It’s somewhat of a separate issue, as far as what needs to be done with the exploitation. Because, yes, football and basketball athletes are absolutely being exploited. But my argument is that if these schools are effectively using their football and basketball players to support the rest of their sports on campus they shouldn’t take away the one sport where you have some Black athletes who are not in a revenue-generating sport. Otherwise you are effectively subsidizing these sports that cater mostly to a white demographic via money-making sports, which have an overrepresentation of Black athletes.
As you mention, track seems like a relatively inexpensive sport for a university to sponsor. So what would be a university’s incentive to cut it, instead of another sport that is more expensive, and also doesn’t generate a profit for the university?
I think that, from the university’s perspective, there are two issues. There’s the money aspect and Title IX. Even though track may be losing just as much money as another sport, the Title IX issue becomes something administrators can use to justify cutting their men’s running teams because these teams tend to have more athletes than almost all other sports besides football—and no school is going to cut their football program. But I think the schools are trying to have it both ways in many cases. In terms of finances, they are looking at track and field, indoor track, and cross-country as one sport. In the school’s financial reports, the expenses for track and cross-country are combined. But in terms of Title IX, they are looking at it as three sports that they can cut for the price of one. If they are going to do that, then they also have to look at it as three sports from a financial standpoint. And when you break it up by sport—all of a sudden it doesn’t lose that much money. Also, in terms of coaches compensation, the cross-country coach is the distance coach for track—indoor and outdoor. And the sprinting coach for indoor track is the coach for outdoor track. So, instead of having a distinct coaching staff for each of those sports, they end up only having three paid coaches, per gender. So if you look at it that way, you are actually saving a lot of money. You are offering six sports and getting six sports on the cheap. But they are just looking at the end of the day balance sheet.
Here’s one of the comments to your Minnesota Star piece: “Dinkins makes some good points, but failed to mention the loss of (predominately white) tennis. He is ‘cherry-picking’ his argument, and those who are not familiar with the situation at the U of M are therefore misled to a degree.” Do you think this criticism is valid?
I am not cherry-picking my examples, because my focus is on how track and field provides opportunities that a lot of the other sports do not provide for a wider swath of people. According to data I sourced from the NCAA’s website, there is an average of 98 Black male athletes, per year, in all of D1 tennis. For track and field, that number is 2,861. After track and field, which is third on the list after football and basketball, the next highest is soccer with 565. So, it drops off precipitously. I understand their perspective, but the fact of the matter is that there are only three sports that have a large number of Black athletes. Yes, cutting away tennis and a few of these other sports like lacrosse does represent a lost opportunity for athletes—I’m not saying that it doesn’t—but track and field, unlike those other sports, actually offers opportunity to more people, not just in terms of race, but also socio-economically. The argument wasn’t simply focusing on track and field as something we should protect because it’s track and I like track. I’m not cherry-picking my examples, so much as highlighting something that’s happening and the reasons why it’s problematic.
At the high school level, beyond any question of cost, isn’t it also just a matter of general availability? Not every high school is going to have an ice hockey team.
There was one outdoor ice rink in my section of Philadelphia that pretty much served the entire northern section of Philadelphia. If I wanted to play hockey, I could have probably gone over there and learned how to play—I would have been able to be introduced at a certain level—but you get to a certain point where you can’t progress any further unless you enter into a certain league or play on a certain team. And then you have to do tournaments and those tournaments are incredibly expensive. In track and field, you don’t necessarily need to do any sort of expensive tournaments. In track, at a high school meet, if it has electronic timing, those times can be uploaded to MileSplit, which is a national database, and every single college coach has access to that database. It’s really clean and easy and it fully democratizes the process in a way that you don’t have in other sports.
Hours after this interview, the University of Minnesota regents voted to reinstate outdoor track, while voting to cut men’s indoor track, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis. In an email to Outside, Dinkins wrote that, while he believed that some of the concerns about the racial impact of cutting track had been heard, he regarded the decision as a face-saving measure by the university. “Cutting indoor track will hurt the competitiveness of the team, hurt recruiting, and may result in [outdoor] track getting its roster size reduced, which will still limit opportunities for athletes from more diverse backgrounds,” Dinkins wrote.