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Could UC Riverside athletics be on the brink of extinction?

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Campaign, petition launched to save Highlander athletics

As the COVID-19 pandemic has waged on during the 2020 calendar year, a number of universities across the country have made budget cuts in various forms. A number of schools have eliminated certain sports from their athletic slates, and one Division I school – Wright State – saw the departure of their softball program. To date, though, no major university has disappeared from the athletics scene entirely.

That could soon change, however, following recent developments from the Budget Advisory Committee at the University of California, Riverside. An early August recommendation from the same committee recommended a “focus on elimination” of the school’s athletics program.

An August 10 meeting of the Budget Advisory Committee made a number of recommendations, including the need to address financial challenges in both the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years. The BAC is a 10-member committee that includes four permanent members and six rotating members, all of whom come from among the school’s executives and faculty.

In a 3-page report, the BAC recommended planning for budget reductions between 10-15% across the board for university “units.” Under a heading described as identifying “specific strategic areas of focus for targeted permanent reductions,” the first item listed was a major one: “Athletics. Support for a focus on elimination, with perhaps saving some funds for a more robust intramural program for the campus,” read the bullet-pointed item, along with a parenthetical addition.

A recent article in The Press-Enterprise noted the UC Riverside budget deficit to be in the $50 million range. A public school in the University of California system, the amount of financial support from the state of California to universities, including UC Riverside, is expected to see a significant decrease given the current climate. A USA Today survey of the 2018-19 year – notably, the last full year that every athletic season was played – listed the UC Riverside athletics budget at more than $24 million.

It’s worthy of note that even the most extreme option – doing away with Highlander athletics entirely – would not automatically save the school the full amount of the athletics budget. Existing scholarships would have to be honored, as would coaching contracts.

UC Riverside athletic director Tamica Smith Jones released a letter on September 4th in response to the BAC recommendation. In her letter, Smith Jones noted the “tremendous value” that the athletics program brings to the university, as well as the support received by the athletics program from “some of [the]most prominent alumni and former leaders.”

Following the recent developments, and with a final decision expected by the end of September, a petition has begun circulating. The petition, entitled “Keep UCR Athletics,” had more than 5,800 signatures as of Thursday morning.

In a statement published on the UC Riverside softball Twitter account, head softball coach Nikki Palmer said, “It is with a proud and strong heart that I ask you all to stand with us to #keepUCRathletics. This team and many other teams within our department holds [sic]so much value and identity within Highlander sports and it would be a complete disaster to remove something so special for so many. I am proud to be the leader of a program full of strong, talented, passionate and powerful women and I welcome the opportunity to slow our relevance and resilience through this challenge to #keepUCFathletics!”

In late August, the New York Institute of Technology – a Division II school – made one of the most drastic athletics-related decisions due to the current situation: Owing directly to the costs associated with and due to the pandemic, NYIT suspended their entire athletics program for at least two years, according to a school release at that time.

While a full elimination of the UCR athletics program is reportedly seen as unlikely according to sources close to the school, budget discussions starting at such a drastic point could be a sign that far more than simple belt-tightening is on the way for Highlander players and coaches.

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