The University of Alaska system structured its recent waiver requests to the NCAA partially around a presidential directive to preserve men’s hockey at any cost, then backed away from that suggestion in a public explanation of its actions, an analysis of the school’s official waiver documents suggests.
University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) Athletic Director Keith Hackett and President Jim Johnsen announced last week that men’s and women’s skiing at both UAA and the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) were among the sports targeted for elimination in a waiver request submitted to the relevant NCAA membership committee. At the time, Johnsen told the Alaska Dispatch News that “hockey survived largely because the NCAA requires a school to offer two men’s team sports and two women’s team sports,” and that the only men’s team sports at both UAA and UAF are basketball and hockey. (NCAA bylaws consider cross-country skiing to be an individual sport.)
But the official waiver requests submitted to the NCAA were somewhat less circumspect. “The President of the University System has stated that Alaska Anchorage shall make every effort to retain men’s hockey,” UAA’s waiver request stated. And “the President of the University System has stated that Alaska Fairbanks shall make every effort to retain men’s hockey,” UAF’s waiver request stated in near-identical language.
(The waiver requests are substantively identical, but were written, or at least edited, by different people. Run-on sentences, typographical errors, and citations to nonexistent bylaw provisions that are present in the UAA waiver request were corrected in the UAF version of the same document.)
The 13 sports currently sponsored at UAA are as follows:
The 10 sports currently sponsored at UAF are as follows:
The team sports offered at UAA, according to NCAA Division II Bylaws Section 18.104.22.168, are men’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball. This bylaw defines all other sports at UAA (cross-country running, skiing, indoor and outdoor track, and gymnastics) as individual sports.
At UAF, the team sports are men’s hockey, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball. Cross-country running, skiing, swimming, and rifle (riflery) are all defined as individual sports.
UAA and UAF are currently both members of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, or GNAC. UAA and UAF both wrote in their waiver requests that they must sponsor basketball, volleyball, and cross-country running in order to remain a member of GNAC.
UAA and UAF are both seeking relief from the requirements of Bylaw 20.10.3(a), which states that a Division II member school “shall sponsor” a minimum of “Five varsity intercollegiate sports, including at least two team sports, based on the minimum requirements of Bylaw 22.214.171.124 and involving all-male teams or mixed teams of males and females; and five varsity intercollegiate sports, including at least two team sports, based on the minimum requirements of Bylaw 126.96.36.199 and involving all-female teams.”
There are therefore two parts to this bylaw: the requirement that a school have at least 10 sports, and the requirement that a school have at least two team sports per gender.
Both UA schools are seeking a waiver solely of the 10-sports-total provision of this bylaw. It is unclear how much attention was paid to the possibility of seeking a waiver of the two-team-sports provision, in addition to or instead of the 10-sports-total provision. Gaining some leeway with regard to the two-team-sports requirement would potentially allow either school to look anew at hockey or basketball, the two most expensive sports at UAA by a substantial margin, as a potential target for cuts.
Hackett, the UAA athletic director, was asked by email, “Did UAA consider seeking a waiver of the two-team-sports requirement, in addition to or instead of the ten-sports-total requirement?” He wrote back, “Yes, many months ago as part of Strategic Pathways. The answer is NO to the second part of your question.”
Hackett was also asked whether men’s hockey could be said to be receiving special treatment from Johnsen, the UA President, when men’s basketball is also a team sport (as well as one required for GNAC membership).
Hackett wrote, “Both waivers stated the same thing with regard to making every effort to retain Hockey at both Institutions as directed by President Johnsen. Both UAA and UAF are members of the GNAC and we wanted to be sure we would be able to maintain our Full membership with our primary Division II Conference. Men’s Basketball was not part of any discussion.”
The budget for the UAA hockey team for the 2016/2017 season is, in round numbers, $1,347,000 dollars. The budget for the men’s basketball team is $467,000. The budget for the women’s basketball team is $446,000. The budget for each of the men’s and women’s ski teams (at UAA, this includes alpine as well as nordic) is $280,000.
While direction from President Johnsen features as a significant part of the official waiver request that was submitted to the NCAA on behalf of both schools, this presidential involvement is not mentioned in the Frequently Asked Questions document posted on the Strategic Pathways website.
“In the waiver application why was hockey named specifically as a sport to keep when it is the most expensive sport?” asks question 2 of the FAQ document.
The answer given there is, “In making these decision [sic], cost was a driving factor, but it was not the only one. We applied a set of reasonable criteria that included keeping specific sports required by GNAC in order to keep our membership in that conference, making sure we are adhering to the gender equity requirements of Title IX, keeping the strong instate rivalry between UAA and UAF and cost.”
While all previous reporting on this story, in FasterSkier, the Alaska Dispatch News and elsewhere, has focused on UAA’s announced plan to eliminate four sports (men’s and women’s skiing and men’s and women’s indoor track), the official request submitted to the NCAA actually mentions the possibility of cutting a fifth sport if financially necessary:
The language in the footnote – “two (possibly three) male sports and two female sports” – suggests that, if a fifth sport were to be cut, it would be a third men’s sport. Assuming for the moment that basketball and hockey are “protected” (by virtue both of being team sports and of UAA not having sought a waiver to the two-team-sports requirement), that leaves men’s cross-country running and men’s outdoor track potentially vulnerable as a fifth sport to be eliminated.
(Analogous language in the UAF waiver request mentions cutting only two sports, men’s and women’s skiing, alongside reducing scholarships among the remaining eight sports.)
Furthermore, both schools’ waiver requests seek a waiver of the 10-sport requirement for a set period, five years, and promise to “evaluate its options to return to the 10-sport minimum required for compliance with Division II membership criteria” at the start of the 2021/2022 season.
When asked whether he thought that elimination of a fifth sport would be necessary, Hackett wrote, “I certainly hope not. I am not sure there is a timeline in place for making any further team decisions. I have not spent any time considering additional sport team reductions.”
When asked whether he expected that any eliminated sport would be able to return after having been cut for five years, Hackett wrote, “It would be difficult to ascertain.”
Since news of the waiver request first broke last week, supporters of the #savealaskaskiing movement have been busy. There is a website. (The team behind the website includes André Horton, currently a consultant with a lobbying and campaign management group but formerly a member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team, as well as UAA head ski coach Sparky Anderson, Horton told FasterSkier in an email.) There is a march and public protest planned for Fairbanks next Thursday afternoon, Nov. 10, in connection with the upcoming Board of Regents meeting. And there are alternative budget proposals being advanced that claim to save an equal amount of money through administrative restructuring, while leaving academics and athletics programs unscathed.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents heard public testimony for two hours on Monday afternoon. While the teleconference window was technically open to anyone who wanted to testify on any subject, firsthand reports from people who listened to the testimony suggest that the focus was overwhelmingly UAA and UAF skiing, and that all testimony on this subject was in favor of preserving the program.
Nearly all “of the comments were regarding skiing,” wrote third-generation Alaskan, former UAA skier, and former Alaska Pacific University ski coach Charlie Renfro in an email to FasterSkier. The only exceptions were “a couple comments about other university programs that were/are on the chopping block.”
“Something like 50 people were able to comment,” Renfro continued, “and I would say about 48 of them were very constructive and from people who are all very knowledgeable regarding the UAA/UAF programs – both nordic and alpine. Nearly everyone that called in, I knew personally from either nordic or alpine, past, present, athletes, coaches and parents. One girl, a ski alum who said she was calling from Copenhagen (it was 2am there) gave an incredibly concise, heartfelt speech. It was very moving. I hope the [Board of Regents] felt the same way.”
Anchorage resident Ira Edwards, who previously skied on the UAF nordic team and currently works for the State of Alaska, Department of Natural Resources (ski fans may recognize Edwards’s name from his side job – he spent many years as Rossignol’s U.S. race service manager), expressed similar sentiments.
“I have called into these before, for various other reasons” unconnected to athletics, Edwards told FasterSkier in a recent phone interview. “Generally, they have an hour and a half for testimony, or sometimes only an hour – they anticipated a higher call volume, so I think they bumped this one up – but I don’t think I’ve ever heard more than five or six people ever call in.”
But on Monday afternoon, Edwards called in roughly a half hour after the public comment window opened, and was caller number 41 in the telephonic queue. He was the last person to be able to speak on Monday; the Board closed testimony immediately after he had finished speaking, after hearing two hours’ worth of comments. Edwards personally knew of a friend who was caller number 91 – that is, there were at least 50 more people after him who had hoped to speak – and suspects that there were a total of “well over 100 people” on the line who called in in an attempt to testify.
Edwards recalls a total of three comments that were not about skiing (and one of those concerned the school’s running program). “There was not a single negative comment [about skiing],” Edwards said.
Two things would have to happen for either or both of the UA system’s waiver requests to be approved: (1) first the NCAA Division II Membership Committee must approve the request, and (2) then the University of Alaska Board of Regents must approve the request.
The membership committee holds a regularly scheduled in-person meeting in Indianapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, Nov. 8-9. Committee chair Kevin Schriver told FasterSkier on Monday that the committee “will see if that [the UA waiver requests] will be a part of our agenda.” An agenda for next week’s meeting is not yet posted online.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents meets the following two days, Thursday and Friday, Nov. 10-11, in Fairbanks. The agenda for that meeting “has not yet been posted,” a Board of Regents representative told FasterSkier in a Thursday afternoon phone call. They said it would be posted on Friday, Nov. 4.
The Board of Regents agenda and related materials should be accessible from here once they have been posted. Information about a live stream of next week’s Board of Regents meeting is available on the same page.
While many Alaskans are banding together in support of the ski program at both schools, the specific mood on both campuses seems somewhat different, reflecting differing circumstances and divergent views of the possibility of the NCAA granting the relevant waiver request.
In Fairbanks, ski team supporters are holding out hope that the NCAA 10-sport rule will operate as a bulwark to keep UAF from cutting the relatively low-profile sport of skiing.
As UAF head nordic coach Nick Crawford wrote to FasterSkier last week, “For UAF specifically, I don’t think skiing will be cut as I don’t think the NCAA will grant the waiver to the ‘10 sport minimum requirement.’ One of the NCAA’s core values is to provide sporting opportunities from athletes of many different sports and the 10 sport rule is in effect to protect small sports like skiing. It’s a slippery slope to allow Alaska to cut ‘less well known’ sports like skiing and indoor track to continue to fund their more popular sports, If the NCAA grants this waiver, it sets a precedent to eliminate non-revenue generating sports across the country with fewer and fewer sports offerings and that is not a direction I think the NCAA wants to go in.”
One of Crawford’s athletes, sophomore skier Conner Truskowski, expressed similar sentiments and included a call to action, writing to FasterSkier, “When we first got the news we were all pretty bummed out and mad that something as Alaskan as skiing was being considered for cuts. However, now that we have had time to process what could happen, we are all motivated to prove to the NCAA and everyone else that we are willing to fight for the sport we love and prove that the ski community benefits from having us as a team here. I want to stress that no decision has been made yet and there is still time to let everyone in the decision making process [know] that skiing is valuable. We believe that the waiver will not pass because the NCAA does not generally allow exceptions to their rules. Because of all that has happened, we are training harder than ever to make our season the best one we’ve ever had. Again, I really want to make it clear that no decision has been made yet and to let everyone know that their voice can be heard in the decision. Let the NCAA know that Alaska skiing is valuable to the ski community, both locally, nationwide, and worldwide.”
But at UAA, head nordic coach Andrew Kastning sounded somewhat more resigned, as if the NCAA were less of a bulwark and more of a Maginot Line.
In a recent phone interview, Kastning told FasterSkier, “Ultimately, I have a sliver of hope that the waiver doesn’t pass, that the Regents can be swayed and decide that skiing has to be saved and they need to make another decision. So I feel like there’s a tiny chance for UAA to survive at this point. But it’s obviously a giant hurdle to clear when the athletic director and the president have publicly recommended that this is the route to go to save the school money.”
While Kastning was clearly saddened, he saved his strongest disappointment for his athletes. “I ache the most for my athletes,” Kastning said, “the ones that I’ve coached and the ones that know how special the situation and an experience it is to go to UAA and ski race in Alaska, and travel around the American West. And also for the current team, that has just gotten here and has only been here for a year at most, and they’re really bonding well and working really hard to reach their goals. And because of some short-sighted decisions and a tough budget situation, are faced with having to find another path.”