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Open Letter to NCAA: We aren’t “non-revenue” sports (1 of 4)

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn in an effort to help save Olympic Sports at the NCAA level. This is Part I of a four part series.


In the midst of this pandemic, it is hard to find anything to look forward to or much to be proud of. However, being born and raised in Indianapolis, it is with immense civic pride that I see my beloved city take on the challenge of hosting the entirety of the NCAA Men’s tournament. No city is better equipped to handle this than Indianapolis.

I am a proud graduate of two Big Ten schools. I competed as a walk-on in Men’s swimming at Michigan State University with a bachelor of arts in Accounting and I obtained my MBA from Northwestern University. My father took me to my first Final Four in 1991 in Indianapolis where Duke beat UNLV and I have been hooked ever since. I went to the 1997 Final Four and saw University of Arizona led by Bibby & Simon defeat the University of Kentucky in an epic battle. In total, I have been to 11 Final Fours including the Michigan State national championship in 2000.

With vaccinations increasing at a significant rate there appears to be a “light at the end of the tunnel” for the pandemic. That “light,” however, has been a freight train to many of the 480,000 NCAA student athletes nationwide. Michigan State University has made the short-sighted decision to cut the Men’s & Women’s swimming & diving programs after the 2021 season. The Men have competed for 99 years and the women 51. This decision was made despite the Women’s team holding the number 1 team GPA in the country in the fall of 2020 with a 3.87 and the men were 6th overall with a 3.71 team GPA (combined 3.79 and #1 overall team GPA).

Since the pandemic began over 350 NCAA sports have been cut including Power Five Schools Clemson, Iowa, Minnesota and Stanford.

The NCAA and Universities like to refer to many of these sports as “non-revenue sports,” but this is a false portrayal of these programs. Myopically, these universities look at only the athletic department income including ticket, television, and advertising revenue generated to determine what is “revenue” and “non-revenue.” However, in the case of Michigan State and many other programs, the tuition paid by the walk-on and partial scholarship athletes cover the cost of the program and these scholarships.

In fact, 38 of the 61 swimmers and divers are walk-ons at MSU paying in $1.9 million in tuition vs $1.2 million in scholarships. Those scholarships are revenue to the university once they run through the athletic department laundering mechanism to convert those “revenue sport” dollars into clean tuition & fees. All this decision has done is “save” the athletic department $1.9 M while costing the university $3.2M. Brilliant myopic decision making. It’s almost like they forgot we have a business school.

Furthermore, application volumes, acceptances rates, and enrollment figures are so volatile that there is no way they administration can predict with certainty they can replace 15 swimmers at year with paid tuition (and certainly not students that will get a 3.79 GPA!) Some universities like Dartmouth, William & Mary, and Brown have reversed course likely arriving at the same conclusion. Iowa is the only Power 5 school that has reversed course and added back Women’s Swimming (the Men’s program remains cut) due to Title IX legal pressure. For Power 5 schools with massive student bodies and athletic departments awash in cash, these decisions are ridiculous. In fact, while athletes only make up 5% of the student body in Division I, they comprise 18% at Division II schools and 27% at Division III schools. Why? Because these students are a guaranteed source of tuition.

To President Mark Emmert and the NCAA I ask this: What is the mission for 2021 and beyond for intercollegiate athletics? You used to advertise regularly and proudly that “just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.” You have also said “if you have the talent and dedication to succeed in school and in sports, we’ll provide the opportunity.” A hybrid scholarship model could combine both outright athletic scholarships for performance and an allotment for academics above say a 3.5 or 3.75 GPA reducing the impact to athletic departments while still offering students the opportunity to compete. There are ways to solve this problem if we work together. Maybe Mitch Daniels at Purdue can help because he seems to be the only university president making headway in necessary changes to the higher education model.

As we Spartans sit back and watch our billionaire mortgage tycoons battle over the love and affection for Tom Izzo, we fight on. Title IX lawsuit should not be the only way to solve these problems. That is all student athletes across the country want. Let them compete at the highest level while achieving great things in the classroom and beyond. For the sake of the remaining 480,000, I hope your university presidents and athletic directors show more transparency and are not as myopic as President Stanley and Bill Beekman have been at Michigan State University.

Best of luck to Indianapolis and the NCAA this week. I know we can pull this off. Mark Emmert – I am in town – let’s have lunch. It’s on me.

James A. Thurston

Resident of Westfield, IN

Graduate of Michigan State University, Northwestern University

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