CollegiateGeneralNewsAlaska NCAA Skiing Remains in Limbo as Fall Approaches

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchSeptember 19, 2016
The University of Alaska Anchorage nordic team talks technique with assistant coach Sara Studebaker-Hall during a rollerski session last Tuesday in Kincaid Park. (Photo: UAA Nordic)
The University of Alaska Anchorage nordic team talks technique with assistant coach Sara Studebaker-Hall (r) during a rollerski session last Tuesday in Kincaid Park. (Photo: UAA Nordic.blogspot.com)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The University of Alaska president has recommended two options that could preserve the future of intercollegiate skiing at one or both of Alaska’s NCAA member schools – but both options may be without precedent in modern NCAA history. The final decision will be made by the Board of Regents in mid-November.

The future of college skiing in Alaska has had a bumpy ride since this spring, with alternating suggestions first that there was little cause for concern for ski-team supporters, but then that skiing at either or both of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) was under threat. The current status is that the teams are once more in limbo, and awaiting a final decision from the Board of Regents later this year.

At a University of Alaska (UA) Board of Regents meeting in Juneau, Alaska, last Thursday, UA President Jim Johnsen presented his initial directions regarding Phase I of Strategic Pathways, the campus-wide audit aimed at reducing costs in light of reduced oil prices, a decimated state budget, and declining financial support for all aspects of the UA system.

Regarding intercollegiate athletics, President Johnsen recommended:

  1. Pursue with NCAA: (1) waiver of ten team rule, or (2) consortium; BOR [Board of Regents] action would be required
  2. Increase private funding support
  3. If waiver or consortium unsuccessful, consider modifying existing programs to reduce cost and/or elimination of 1 or both programs

The decision is in some ways a non-decision, to the extent that it directs further action but does not make a final decision at this time. (The Strategic Pathways site states, “President Johnsen will appoint teams to begin the implementation workability of each of the options presented.”)

The Alaska Dispatch News, or ADN, reported that the Board of Regents reacted to Johnsen’s Thursday recommendation by expressing that it hoped to avoid any option involving the elimination of an athletic program: “But regents said they were concerned that eliminating UA’s athletic programs would trigger community backlash and create instability for current student athletes, as well as issues with recruiting. They unanimously passed a motion directing university management to develop options to allow UA to avoid eliminating athletic programs.”

The ADN also quoted Alaska Governor Bill Walker as telling the Board, “I feel pretty strongly about athletics. … It would be hard to have a university without athletics as part of it. So I’m a strong supporter of athletics.”

How feasible are these options?

President Johnsen’s team investigating the feasibility of either option may face a tough go of it: it appears that both options are without precedent in modern NCAA history.

The Strategic Pathways team charged with analyzing intercollegiate athletics already recognized as much. As it wrote earlier this year when it first discussed the option of a consortium model, “This model would require an unprecedented exception from the NCAA to allow two athletic programs who are geographically isolated from one another to compete as one program while not duplicating sports in either location.”

The athletics review team added that cons of this approach include, “May be difficult to obtain NCAA approval due to unprecedented exception.” And, “Longest timeline to implementation.”

Christian Dennie, a Texas attorney who has previously worked for Division I athletics departments and whose current practice includes representing both student-athletes and athletic departments in disputes over NCAA waivers and conference rules, mirrored the review team’s skepticism regarding this proposal.

“As far as the consortium model,” Dennie wrote to FasterSkier after hearing the facts of the UA proposal, “it does not seem feasible due to the distance unless all of the athletes were on one campus, which would be more like a consolidation.”

As FasterSkier previously explained, typical examples of schools in a consortium model are much closer to each other than the 360 road miles that separate Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The NCAA Office of Public and Media Relations did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding whether either proposed option had any precedent.

While examples exist of schools that successfully operate in some version of a consortium model, there may be no other coeducational college or university in existence that has successfully proceeded under President Johnsen’s first option, that is, obtaining a waiver of the 10-team rule.

The reference is to section 20.10.3(a)-(b) of the NCAA Division II Bylaws, which provides that “A member of Division II shall sponsor in Division II a minimum of” either five sports for each of men and women, or four sports for men and six for women. Section 20.10.3.3.11 provides for a probationary period and restricted membership status for a school’s failure to meet minimum sports sponsorship criteria.

While section 20.10.3.3.12.1 discusses the possibility of waivers for a failure to meet the “minimum contests or participants” standards – that is, a school failed to have a sufficient number of ski meets in a year, or to enter sufficient athletes in a meet – this rule envisions “situations beyond the control of the institution (e.g., weather conditions or disaster preventing completion of a scheduled competition, or verified injury or illness at the site of competition preventing the participation of the required minimum number of individuals).”

There does not appear to be any bylaw provision that would allow either UAA or UAF to consistently and purposefully operate an athletics program with fewer than the required number of sports teams, and still maintain its NCAA Division II status.

(Regarding a potential waiver to the 10-team requirement, Dennie wrote, “I know of at least one institution that has less than 10 sports at the D2 level. Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas has 5 sports. I am not sure if they received a waiver or not.” But this is likely kosher under bylaw section 20.10.3(c), “single-gender programs.” That section states, “Institutions that sponsor and conduct athletics programs for only one gender must sponsor a minimum of five varsity intercollegiate sports, including at least two team sports.” That is, it may, strictly speaking, be the five-team-per-gender rule that controls this situation, not the 10-team rule.)

The ADN reported that the university system has yet to make any sort of formal request to the NCAA, but quoted President Johnsen as saying, “We have engaged expert counsel to advise us and assist us with this.”

Town hall meetings throughout the state

President Johnsen’s recommendation follows a spate of public meetings and public outreach over the last several weeks.

In early September, a town hall meeting was held in Fairbanks to discuss the Strategic Pathways recommendations, which cover multiple areas within the University of Alaska system, and not just athletics. As the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported, meeting attendees “were nearly united in their mission to protect UAF’s athletics programs. Largely absent from the discussion was nonathlete students.”

University of Alaska Fairbanks nordic skiers rollerskiing on campus last fall. (Photo: UAF)
University of Alaska Fairbanks nordic skiers rollerskiing on campus last fall. (Photo: UAF)

Reached by email shortly after the meeting, UAF Head Nordic Coach Nick Crawford wrote to FasterSkier, “I didn’t make it to the town hall unfortunately… I’ve been pretty swamped with the first few weeks of the athletes being back in town! Anyhow a few of the athletes went and said we had good support for athletics and the ski team specifically!”

A week later, and 300 miles to the south, a similar meeting was held in Anchorage. UAA Head Nordic Coach Andrew Kastning wrote to FasterSkier soon after that meeting, “It was encouraging to hear all the supporters of athletics speak up, but it was difficult to tell if President Johnsen was swayed at all from up in his podium. I will say that the outpouring of support for college skiing in Alaska from around the world has been tremendous and we very much feel the tight-knit ski community at work. I feel this is a battle we can still win and we as a coaching staff and community of skiers are doing everything we can to that end.”

Kastning added, “Regents meet Sept. 14th to discuss the options and hopefully return to the drawing board. Final decisions reached Nov. 10-11 and announcements made shortly after.”

UAA campus newspaper The Northern Light, mirroring the tone of the News-Miner, reported of this meeting that, “Although the forum was meant to be a place for students, staff, and community members to speak about all things with phase I of Strategic Pathways, the discussion was overwhelmingly focused on the possibility of cutting UAA athletics.”

The Northern Light quoted UAA student-body president Sam Erickson as saying, “I am most concerned with the preponderance of public backlash that has resulted from the athletics suggested cuts. I recognize it’s a highly visible program and that’s why those cuts are going to garner outrage. I’m concerned that that’s drowning other news, just as significant. Things that would significantly change the educational future for all students.”

Lobbying efforts and Winter Olympians

As UAF’s Crawford recently wrote to FasterSkier, “We’ve reached out to our supporters in Fairbanks and around the world in support of skiing both at UAA and UAF and have gotten a very positive response. There was a community forum with UA President [Jim Johnsen] recently and our UAF Skiing supporters had a strong presence in support of Nanook skiing and apparently the online commenting option has gotten some very good responses as well. It’s not too late to write in with your support so we would encourage anyone who hasn’t done so yet to do so!”

Meanwhile, in Anchorage, lobbying efforts were more ambitious. Earlier this month, the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage sent an email to all of its members, subject line: “Help Save Collegiate Skiing in Alaska.” The email, signed “The UAA Ski Team,” wrote, “Our program is facing a potential elimination from the University of Alaska-Anchorage Athletics Department. We are fighting for our kids and the future of our team.”

The ski team listed a number of potential talking points that supporters could use, and encouraged them to submit comments to the Strategic Pathways review team. “Bottom line,” the email concluded, “we desperately need your help.”

University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves logo (Photo: GoSeawolves.com)
University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves logo (GoSeawolves.com)

UAA Head Skiing Coach Sparky Anderson shared a similar message on his public Facebook page, writing to supporters, “Many of my friends are former athletes who I’ve had the privilege to work with from over a decade of coaching at UAA. You are all shining examples of what the ski team does for the state of Alaska. The UAA ski team attracts top minds such as yourself who graduate, excel, enrich Alaska’s community, work and provide employment for other Alaskans.”

Anderson added, “Now, we need your help. Please use and share this Strategic Pathways feedback link to comment about the UAA Ski Team’s mission of fostering a culture of education at UA. It’s imperative that UA President Jim Johnsen understands that our shoulders are up against the same wheel. With your help, I look forward to many more years working with outstanding individuals here at the UAA ski team.”

Finally, UAA brought out a bevy of boldface names in support of its cause. Last week, Holly Brooks, a two-time Winter Olympian recently retired from competitive skiing with Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the U.S. Ski Team, delivered a letter to the UA President, Board of Regents, and Athletic Directors. The full letter makes the case for the benefits of skiing in general, and its suitability to Alaska in particular.

Brooks wrote, “Nordic and alpine skiing are wildly popular recreational sports in Anchorage and the collegiate teams serve as examples or ‘pedestals’ of what many Anchorage citizens aspire to in their own athletics. Anchorage hosts the largest high school ski race in the entire country, the Lynx Loppet. Many youth in Anchorage including the Junior Nordic Program and the ASD high school programs look forward to seeing UAA skiers zip by them on the trails, serving as a ‘real-life’ example of fitness and/or technique. What other sports can recreational or developing athletes literally jump in behind collegiate athletes and hang on for the ride?”

In a follow-up email to FasterSkier, Brooks added, in reference to options for cross-country skiing in the Anchorage area, “choices are healthy and competition is healthy. We need UAA, APU, WinterStars, ANR.”

(The acronyms are references to the collegiate program at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the elite and community program at Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Center, the community program at Alaska Winter Stars, and the community program at Alaska Nordic Racing, respectively.)

The letter was co-signed by a dozen other Winter Olympians with strong local ties to Anchorage and/or UAA, including cross-country skiers Erik Bjornsen, Sadie Bjornsen, Lars Flora, Kikkan Randall, James Southam, and Adam Verrier; biathletes Rachel Steer and Sara Studebaker-Hall; Alpine skiers Anna Berecz, Megan Gerety, and Tommy Moe; and freestyle skier Alex Wilson. At least eight of the signers had attended, coached at, and/or skied for UAA. Between them, the signers boasted 24 Olympics appearances, two Olympic medals, and two FIS World Championships medals.

The dollar amounts involved

In 2015, the athletics program at UAA and UAF cost a combined $16 million for a total of 23 varsity sports teams. The ADN explained that $3 million of this came from “private sources, including ticket sales.” The remaining $13 million came from the UA general fund.

The ADN has suggested that the UAA ski team has a budget of “about $500,000.” But this number may be too high, or at least may somehow overstate the cost savings that would result from potentially cutting the team: FasterSkier previously quoted internal documents generated by the UA athletics review team as saying that suspending or eliminating the UAA ski team “would produce an immediate net savings of $272,981.00 based on FY 16 figures.”

But Anderson, the head ski team coach, confirms the higher figure, recently telling Anchorage radio station KSKA that the budget for the entire UAA ski team is “just north of $500,000.” That covers the men’s and women’s alpine and nordic programs, and includes what Anderson said is a total of 12 scholarships for a combined 23 athletes. (UAF has only a nordic program. In 2015/2016, the most recent year for which information is available, it had seven women and 11 men on its nordic team.)

Kastning, UAA’s nordic coach, said in the same radio program that he would far rather cut program costs by, for example, 10 or 20 percent than lose the entire ski program. He mentioned some money-saving steps that the nordic team has already taken for the 2016/2017 season, such as reducing the size of the travel team and eating out less while on the road.

Kastning also said that all schools in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA) will be instituting a ban on pure fluoro waxes for all races save championship meets, a move made as much for health reasons as for economics.

Finally, in a poignant nod to his personal history of job loss and displacement, Kastning noted that he left (former RMISA program) University of Nevada, Reno, shortly before it cut its nordic program, and he and his wife went to (former RMISA program) Whitman College, where she was coaching skiing, only to see Whitman cut its nordic program, also. Kastning said they thought they would be safe moving to a ski program in Alaska.

Reactions and next steps

Crawford, the UAF coach, wrote to FasterSkier last Friday following President Johnsen’s statement, “Seeking permission from the NCAA to form a consortium between athletics at UAA and UAF or pursuing an exemption to the 10 sport minimum rule seems to be bad for collegiate skiing at first glance. The 10 sport minimum rule is in place to promote smaller sports like skiing and cross-country so that collegiate athletic departments around the country sponsor more sports than just the big TV sports like football, basketball and to some extent hockey. I’m worried that if the NCAA accepts either the consortium or 10 sport minimum it will create a legal precedence that would be bad news for many of the non revenue generating sports across the country.”

University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks logo (AlaskanaNooks.com)
University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks logo (AlaskaNanooks.com)

Crawford added, “I was relieved to see that the UA Board of Regents is strongly in support of ‘preventing the elimination of intercollegiate athletics’ as shown by their 10-0-0 vote in favor of [a related motion on this issue]. This gives me confidence that skiing and cross country running will remain at UAF as they are very cost effective for the university and are strongly supported by our local community.”

Kastning did not respond to an email asking for a response to President Johnsen’s recommendation.

UAA Athletic Director Keith Hackett told the ADN last Thursday that he wasn’t yet ready to comment on the recent discussion at the Board of Regents meeting.

Final decisions are expected to be made at the UA Board of Regents meeting on Nov. 10-11. UAA and UAF begin their ski seasons with an informal dual meet at Birch Hill in Fairbanks the following weekend. The ADN recently reported that the UAA hockey team, which faces the same concerns about its future as all UAA sports teams, is still scouting potential recruits for the 2017/2018 season, but is not currently extending scholarship offers.

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Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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