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Lawmakers reach compromise on Towson sports

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State lawmakers have crafted deals that could send Towson University not only $300,000 to save its men's baseball program, but also $2 million to build a new women's softball field.

The day after Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to give Towson money to keep the baseball program afloat drew criticism, lawmakers on Thursday reached a compromise that they said would help Maryland colleges address the financial and legal challenges that led Towson to cut its men's soccer and baseball programs.

Lawmakers stepped away from giving money directly to Towson for its baseball team — a plan that Comptroller Peter Franchot called a "bailout" — and agreed instead to send the $300,000 set aside by O'Malley to the University System of Maryland.

The system would use it to distribute matching grants to any Division I school looking to meet Title IX rules on gender equity in its athletic programs.

"This gives a little bit of breathing room to allow the baseball supporters — the alumni — to step up and say, 'We want to save the baseball program,'" said P.J. Hogan, a lobbyist for the university system.

Franchot declined through a spokesman to comment on the new plan. O'Malley's spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said "the administration is fine with the compromise."

Lawmakers also made plans to issue state bonds to help pay for the planning of the new softball field, which they said would help Towson comply with its federal Title IX obligations. A vote could come as early as Friday.

"We're going to get that done," said Sen. Ed DeGrange, co-chair of the committee that oversees changes to the capital budget. "The softball field issue has to be addressed relatively soon."

The deal signed by lawmakers from both chambers late Thursday acknowledges a growing conflict on Maryland campuses as administrators require sports programs to be self-sufficient and as women's enrollment grows faster than women's athletic programs.

"It's expensive and disruptive if you don't address this issue," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on education.

The matching grant fund would allow the Towson baseball program, other teams at that school and teams from other schools to apply for money to keep their programs going.

Towson President Maravene Loeschke announced last month that she would cut the men's baseball and soccer teams. She said it was the only way to solve funding problems and to help the university meet its obligations under Title IX, which requires schools to offer equivalent athletic opportunities and facilities to both male and female students.

Advocates of Towson baseball and soccer, including prominent alumni, rallied to save the programs.

But the cuts seemed certain until O'Malley and Franchot entered the debate at a Board of Public Works meeting last month. The pair voted to withhold funding for a separate Towson project in Harford County until Loeschke gave an explanation.

On Monday, a week after meeting with Loeschke, O'Malley sent down a $222 million supplemental budget that gave $300,000 to Towson to help the baseball program survive another year.

Marina Cooper, Loeschke's deputy chief of staff, said university officials needed time to review the General Assembly's new plan before they could comment on it.

Lawmakers and lobbyists said Thursday the gender imbalance was acute at Towson, where women make up 61 percent of the student body but only 52 percent of the athletes, according to university figures.

Towson had long sought to comply with Title IX by adding women's teams, but a legal consultant advised the school in 2011 that the method might be insufficient, and officials said it was becoming expensive.

So Towson decided to rely on another method, called "proportionality" — increasing the percentage of women athletes to match the percentage of women enrolled at the university.

One way to increase the proportion of athletes who are women is to reduce the number of male athletes.

Even with the money to support baseball — which costs $490,000 annually — the school does not have financial resources to keep expanding women's sports, said Hogan, the university system lobbyist.

The university still has to make difficult choices about which men's programs to eliminate. Plans to restore men's tennis would also have to be scrapped if the baseball program continued.

"It sounds cold, but it is what it is," Hogan said. "If you have a budget problem, how do you add another team? This wasn't easy. It's like choosing between your children."

Frank Olszewski, Towson's soccer coach, said directing the money to baseball would be "inherently unfair." He said he suspects the baseball team had a more vocal set of advocates.

He spoke of his players.

"It's very difficult to look into their eyes and answer 'Why us?'" Olszewski said. "When they're doing everything they can to be sure they're what a student athlete should be."

He said his players and supporters would look at the matching grant fund and try to take advantage of it.

ecox@baltsun.com

cwells@baltsun.com

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