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One more unwelcome twist for Towson sports

Our view: O'Malley's effort to save Towson's baseball team may achieve the right result, but it sets a damaging precedent

4:12 PM EDT, April 2, 2013

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By dumping $300,000 in taxpayer funds on Towson University's baseball team, Gov. Martin O'Malley has temporarily solved one problem and created a multitude of others. The frustration that led Mr. O'Malley to intervene is understandable. But his proposal to use a supplemental appropriation to buy the team two more years sets a dangerous precedent while failing to address any of the problems in Towson's athletics department that got the university into the unwelcome position of cutting two men's sports in the first place.

A bad precedent

In Maryland, public universities are prohibited from using state funds to support their athletic programs. Sports are funded through student fees, private donations, sales of tickets and merchandise, sponsorships and other ancillary revenues. There's a good reason for that. We don't want universities to skimp on professors or computer labs or books for their libraries to fund the football team.

The same logic calls for the governor not to fund operating expenses of a college team from the state budget. The $300,000 Mr. O'Malley has pledged to use to support baseball in each of the next two years amounts to little in the state budget, but it begs the question nonetheless of why we should spend the money on that rather than, say, services for the disabled or health care for the poor.

Moreover, once we start funding a sport on one campus, where do we stop? When the University of Maryland decided to cut seven athletics teams last summer, the governor didn't lift a finger. Why now and not then? And if the governor could find money to save the baseball team, why not soccer? Why should he be the one to decide which sport to save and which to cancel?

A public relations fiasco

Mr. O'Malley's involvement in the issue began two weeks ago at the Board of Public Works when Comptroller Peter Franchot raised questions about how the announcement that the sports would be cut was handled. Indeed, although the possibility that the sports would be cut was no surprise, the official announcement appears to have been made abruptly and with little sensitivity to those involved. Mr. O'Malley, in a rare bit of agreement with Mr. Franchot, said he was troubled by the circumstances as well, and the two of them voted to delay approval of an unrelated contract until Towson President Maravene Loeschke could come explain herself.

It's more than just the public relations fiasco that needed explaining.

The university has couched its decision to cut baseball and soccer in terms of its three goals for the athletic department: compliance with Title IX, the law mandating gender equity in college athletics; fiscal sustainability; and competitiveness for the school's teams. In practice, the order of those goals has been reversed. The university spent money to increase competitiveness of its big-money sports, its budget became unsustainable, and now it is wrapping the solution in the cloak of Title IX.

Budget woes

The athletic department's budget was in surplus as recently as three years ago, but in an effort to boost the competitiveness of its football and men's basketball teams, the school decided under a previous administration to spend heavily on new coaches and make other investments. The effort worked, as those two perennially losing teams have seen sudden reversals in fortune. But the timing was bad. For years, the department had been able to count on enrollment growth and steady increases in athletic fees. But amid a budget crunch, the state stopped giving the school money to expand its enrollment, which meant that growth in student athletic fee revenue also stopped. Suddenly, a surplus turned to a deficit.

The athletic department balanced its budget by using reserve funds for the last two years, but that is clearly not a sustainable solution. Ms. Loeschke made the policy decision that the student athletic fee should not be raised for the 2013-2014 academic year. At $798 per year, the fee is second-highest in the University System of Maryland (behind the University of Maryland-Baltimore County).

Title IX

And Towson does have a Title IX problem, as is easily the case for a school that has both a football team and a 61 percent to 39 percent female-to-male ratio. But it is a problem that could be solved by measures less drastic than cutting two men's teams, a practice that is disfavored as a means to comply with Title IX. After all, doing so does not expand opportunity for women athletes, which was the point of the law in the first place.

Providing parity between the gender ratio on campus and the gender ratio on a university's athletic teams is not the only way to satisfy the requirements of Title IX; in fact, Towson has not met that standard in years, if ever. A second option is to show a sustained commitment to providing more opportunities for women athletes, but because Towson cut its indoor women's track team for a period of time, that method is likely not available. A third option is to survey incoming women students to ensure that the university is providing all of the teams that female students are interested in joining.

President Loeschke believes that Towson should strive for parity of participation, and although it presents a more difficult standard, that is an admirable choice. However, it demands some scrutiny of the numbers involved.

Ms. Loeschke insists that the numbers contained in a task force report she commissioned as part of the decision process are accurate, and they show a 52 percent to 48 percent female-male ratio for the 2011-2012 school year. Alumni who have been seeking to save the baseball team point to estimates for the 2012-2013 school year that were provided to the task force. Those figures produce a ratio of about 57 percent to 43 percent — much closer to the target figure. Today, at The Sun's request, the university provided an updated 2012-2013 estimate, which shows a 55-45 ratio.

Clearly, the roster numbers for any particular sport are not static. If the goal is to provide proportional opportunity for women athletes with as little disruption to existing sports as possible, it could be accomplished by shifting about three dozen slots from men's teams to women's teams. Cutting either baseball or soccer would also get the university close to equity. But neither of those options saves the kind of money the university would need to get its athletic budget back in balance, at least not if it intends to keep spending what it takes to field winning football and basketball teams.

But couching the decision to cut baseball and soccer in those terms is much less sympathetic than simply saying that doing so is necessary to comply with Title IX. And in this case, the publicly stated reason for the change matters. Title IX is one of the most important laws in the promotion of gender equity that the nation has passed, but it is also prone to backlash. Citing Title IX as the rationale for cutting men's sports when other significant factors are also at work only diminishes public support for the law and, ultimately, puts opportunities for women athletes at risk.

The notion that immediate Title IX compliance is not the driving factor here is only confirmed by fact that the governor was able to save baseball for the price of a mere $300,000. After all, if cutting the sport was necessary to achieve the proper gender ratio, how does that money solve the problem?

The governor's plan

The plan Mr. O'Malley brokered with President Loeschke in a private meeting last week calls for the state to provide $300,000 in both the fiscal 2014 and 2015 budgets. Ms. Loeschke says she will also have to raise athletics fees by 1 percent, and the athletic department will have to raise $100,000 a year to fund the baseball team. President Loeschke said in an interview that cutting soccer would allow the university to make progress toward Title IX compliance while it spends the next two years monitoring gender ratios and evaluating whether it can or should add another women's sport. The only way baseball survives past the 2014-2015 school year is if boosters can raise the money to make it self-sufficient and if the university can afford another women's sport, if that's necessary, Ms. Loeschke said.

On balance, that's a reasonable outcome to a muddled situation. Next year, the university is slated to open a new, $75 million, 5,200 seat arena with private suites and club seats. Given the newfound competitiveness of the men's basketball team — and the prospect that it could become eligible again for post-season play based on improved academic performance — the stadium should help boost department revenues. It would be wise for the university to put off permanent changes to its athletic program until the budgetary effects of the new stadium play out.

And of the two sports on the chopping block, saving baseball rather than soccer makes some sense. Both are sports with a long history at Towson, and both the governor and comptroller had sought to save both. However, if soccer is eliminated, it would be relatively easy to restore at some point because the men's and women's teams share the same facilities. If baseball is eliminated, however, the university would likely move the softball team from its relatively shabby field to the baseball stadium, making it harder to bring the men's team back someday. Moreover, the baseball team may be somewhat more likely to raise the money necessary to become self-sustaining.

But the university should have been able to come to that solution without the governor creating the damaging precedent of dedicating taxpayer dollars to operating expenses for the athletic department. The $300,000 the governor is proffering amounts to 1.6 percent of the department's budget. Surely there is a way to find that amount of money within existing revenues. Alternatively, raising the athletic fee by 3 percent rather than 1 percent would more or less do the trick. Doing so would increase the total cost of attending Towson by about $16 a year, or 0.2 percent for an in-state student. The General Assembly might want to consider that as it decides whether to grant the governor's supplemental budget request.

Meanwhile, President Loeschke needs to find a way to get beyond this controversy. The long-time Towson professor and administrator returned to the university as its president just over a year ago, and none of the mess in the athletic department was of her making. However, her handling of it has frayed relationships with some (though not all) campus boosters, not a welcome development so early in her presidency. More importantly, it has distracted from her larger mission of leading an institution that is growing both in size and academic stature. The sooner she can re-focus public attention on Towson's rise as major public university in this state, the better.