Why Track and Field Matters
As someone who has been involved in the sports of cross-country and track and field for over 40 years, as both an athlete and coach, I feel it is necessary to express my concerns for the sport and why it is so important and must be a part of our American society on all levels. In my 27 years of coaching, I have seen college track and field programs being cut just about every year. During the pandemic, we have seen Brown, Minnesota, William & Mary and recently Clemson cut Track and Field programs. Some of the schools have since reversed these decisions. I hope that Clemson, a Power 5 school with a 134 million dollar budget, will reverse their decision also. But I still feel the need to write about why I think these decisions are bad, not only for our sport but for society in general.
Track and Field's Diversity
Track and Field is the most diverse sport from both a physiological and socioeconomic standpoint in our country. In track and field, you find athletes of all shapes and sizes: large muscle-bound throwers, well-built sprinters, and thin distance runners (of which I once was). You will find track athletes from every walk of life, all religions, and races. It is a sport that is extremely popular all over the globe. It is also a sport that you don't have to be wealthy to participate in. Many of the top countries in the sport of track and field are considered third world countries economically. This is also true with some of the best high school programs in the state of Georgia and the country. I have coached kids that have come from all economic backgrounds. Some of these athletes I had to purchase shoes, pick up and take home, and pay entry fees for special meets. I am not alone, almost every coach I know has done the same. Sports like Golf, Tennis, Soccer (In America), Baseball, Lacrosse, and Volleyball require parents to spend thousands of dollars yearly for their child to participate. In our sport, if you have a pair of shoes and are willing to work hard you can become successful. Even though I mentioned track is a diverse sport, in our country, it is a predominantly African-American sport. I don't know exact percentages, but I would say it is probably 60-80 percent African-American. The top 3 sports that African Americans participate in are Football, Basketball, and Track and Field. But only in track and field will you find athletes of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. The sport of Track and field bridges the gap between rich and poor, black and white. We learn we are not much different and our love of the sport brings us together. I have many lifelong friends that are African American, Hispanic, and Asian because of Track And Field. I see this with the athletes I coach. Kids of different races become friends because of the common theme of track and field.
Track and Field is needed at the college level
I have had several athletes that if it were not for track scholarships they would not have been able to go to college. Only about 15 percent of all college students in this country are African American, of which 64 percent are African American women. The cost of college has increased 8 times faster than wages since the 1980s. Many people can't afford to go to college unless they have some assistance. This is true with all races, but it is more prevalent with minorities. When Clemson decided to eliminate its men's track and field program it eliminated 20 percent of its African American student-athlete population. That is going to have generational negative effects on many African American Students. When these colleges cut track and field programs they are eliminating thousands of opportunities for future generations of young men from all races, but especially African American. In the state of Georgia many colleges don't have a men's track program: Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Mercer, West Georgia to name a few. Why is this alarming? Track and Field is the 2nd most participated sport at the high school level behind football. This statistic has been true for the last 25 years. In the last 10 years, over half a million males participated in track and field. If you add cross-country, that number is over 750,000. When schools like Clemson cut its men's program it eliminates the opportunity of a young man that can run, jump, or throw from going to a great school such as Clemson. I know because I have coached that young man and I have seen how important that opportunity was in shaping their lives. I currently have 22 kids competing at the college level that I coached at Alexander, of which 9 are male athletes. About half are African American. Many of these athletes would have been unable to attend college without the assistance of a track scholarship.
As we have seen this year in our country, America has a lot to do when it comes to race relations. We have seen protests all summer. We see athletes, athletic conferences, and professional leagues all expressing their concerns about race relations. What angers me more than anything is when a school like Clemson has rallies and sells t-shirts that say "Unity", participates in commercials about making a difference in race relations, but then turns around and cuts men's track and field. I am not going to call this racism, but I am going to call it hypocrisy. Clemson is a school that is only six percent African-American in a state that is 33 percent African-American. They are cutting 3 percent of its African-American male student population. This is not a good look when it comes to helping minorities. Or for any race for that matter. These are decisions that make an impact on lives. These are the decisions that we need to protest. It is one thing to say you care about race relations on social media, but when you are silent when schools make these decisions, it hinders the process of bringing us together.
Popularity and Cost
When a track and field program is cut you always hear these two arguments: Track and Field does not make money or it's not popular. In college athletics, only football is profitable in most schools. Many basketball programs, including Clemson's, run a deficit every year. If it wasn't for football, booster clubs, endowments, and student fees, you would not have college athletics. Colleges today are facing a budget crisis, but cutting sports is not the answer, cutting costs is! When Clemson spends $70,000 every home game to stay in a hotel and has a slide in its indoor football facility, it has the money to support sports. College ADs and presidents may need to stop paying football coaches to not coach at their school. Auburn, South Carolina, and Texas are paying out over $50 million for fired football coaches. That is a management problem, not a funding problem.
As far as popular, track and field is very popular at the grassroots level. It is also the signature sport for the Olympics and it is a sport where you can participate for a lifetime. Even though our track and field community could still do more to promote it, our sport is still an immensely popular sport.
My hope is that these schools that have cut track and field this year and in the past will reinstate the sport. It will make a lasting impact on everyone involved, but especially minority athletes in our country.