By Chris Korman and Childs Walker
9:11 PM EST, March 8, 2013
Towson University president Maravene Loeschke was escorted by several police officers into a meeting with the school’s baseball and men’s soccer teams Friday morning to tell players she had decided to cut their sports.
Her speech to members of the teams — some could not make it because they’d been given less than an hour notice and were in class — lasted only a few minutes, players said. As they left, they noticed that the cars carrying Loeschke and other officials were surrounded by about 10 additional officers.
“That was the final insult in what has been one of the most unprofessional, least classy experiences of my life,” said Matt Butler, whose son Brendan plays on the baseball team and is a former Orioles draft pick.
Loeschke’s decision to ultimately uphold a recommendation put forth by athletic director Mike Waddell last fall leaves more than 55 athletes without a place to play, many of whom opted not to transfer while the sports were in limbo. The baseball team will finish out the season, but the soccer program was disbanded immediately. Baseball players wore black tape over the word Towson on their jerseys Friday afternoon when they opened Colonial Athletic Association play with a loss to Delaware.
Loeschke’s decision has also alienated her from a group of the university’s most prominent and involved alumni. That group, led by MacKenzie Ventures, Inc. president and CEO Gary Gill, included Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz, who played both sports at Towson. They repeatedly sought meetings with Loeschke and other Towson officials, and as late as Thursday night believed they could persuade members of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents to advise the first-year president to change her mind (the regents have no direct power over athletics decisions).
Loeschke ultimately decided that cutting the sports would best allow the athletic department to achieve fiscal stability and Title IX compliance. The move will eventually save the department about $900,000 a year.
“I don’t think Maravene ever had any real interest in finding a solution,” said Mike Gill, Gary’s brother. “If she really wanted to maintain those teams, she would have been able to do it without any onerous adjustments to other programs.”
Members of the Towson community have rallied to save the sports since early October, and railed against what they viewed as a rigged process to ram through a plan devised by Waddell to divert money to marquee sports football and men’s basketball. A task force Loeschke assigned to study Waddell’s recommendation included a deputy athletic director and others with ties, direct or indirect, to the department. Task force chair David Nevins eventually led a faction of the group that voted against the cuts. He later joined the Gills’ effort to enact change behind the scenes.
The process used by Towson to reach a decision has been marred by a lack of transparency and the dissemination of unreliable data, those who fought for the sports said.
When the Gills demonstrated that there was no Title IX problem and that the budget could be balanced without cuts, “Towson moved the goal posts on us late in the game,” Mike Gill said, by introducing new data and questions. Parents of baseball players combed through Title IX data and budget numbers released through public record requests, only to be told they were not working with the right figures, Butler said.
Though Towson released a 22-page report explaining its decision Friday, it did so minutes before Loeschke held a telephone conference with reporters. She and other Towson officials were not available for further comment or to explain budget and roster-size projections that differed from information previously disseminated by the school. In an executive summary sent out by Waddell in October, figures purporting to show Title IX inequality — the percentage of opportunities for women to play sports at a school must be nearly the same as the percentage of women in the student body — did not accurately account for Towson’s indoor and outdoor track teams. The school acknowledged the mistake but did not offer a new count.
Loeschke had originally planned to make her decision in November so that baseball and soccer players could transfer before next semester, but instead announced her intention to conduct a further study of the issue days after members of the regents held a meeting on the topic. She said she hoped to come to a final decision soon after the end of winter break in late January, but continued exploring every option for saving the sports.
Several members of the soccer team did leave the program prior to the spring, but the baseball roster stayed intact and players on the team have now used a year of eligibility. Many of them said Friday they planned to transfer after the season, whether or not they could play baseball at their new school.
“They just don’t have any respect for us,” senior Sean Bertrand said.
Schuerholz has been one of the athletic department’s top donors, and the stadium is named for him because he gave $250,000 toward renovations.
Loeschke said Friday that Towson representatives were in talks with Schuerholz about moving his name to another campus building. Schuerholz said he had not heard from Towson.
“The next conversation I have with them about what they plan to do with the stadium or the money I’ve given will be the first,” he said.
Schuerholz declined to discuss whether he’d continue supporting his alma mater.
“I’m really most upset for the kids,” he said. “This is what brought them to Towson, and they were supposed to learn from the school how to do the right thing.”
Asked if the decision will damage his connection to Towson, Mike Gill said, “That’s one where I have to take a deep breath. But my disappointment is significant. … We’ll get over soccer and baseball, but it’s a trend that creates more questions than it answers about where the university is headed.”
Baseball coach Mike Gottlieb was prevented from attending the meeting when his players learned the team would be cut. He had been called to a separate room, where a Towson official handed him his termination papers, effective June 7. Gottlieb played for the Tigers in 1978-79 and has been with the program ever since.
“This isn’t about Title IX,” he said. “This is about money. A budget has been created in athletics that could not be sustained, and the priorities of the department changed. Anyone who tells you anything differently is lying.”
Loeschke said the athletic department’s budget deficiency was the result of slowed enrollment growth, not mis-management by Waddell. Student fees account for $14 million of the Towson’s $18 million athletics budget. Gill and others had suggested raising the fees slightly, but Loeschke refused and said the issues of financial stability, Title IX compliance and “competitiveness” — meaning the ability to fully fund the remaining sports — were so inter-connected that only the cutting of sports could solve all three problems.
“We dealt with them holistically,” she said.
Loeschke repeatedly said she made the decision with great sadness. She was asked to describe how the players responded to the news.
“They were incredibly respectful,” she said. “Clearly very sad, as was I. But I could not have asked for more respect from them as I was telling them this news.”
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun