Facility, equity drown college swimming

Tony Lange

Star Olympic swimmers captivated spectators this August, boosting their sport to an American fan favorite, but they did not restore the interest of Kent State’s athletic department.

“The big concern is the facility – we don’t have one,” said Laing Kennedy, Kent State director of athletics. “That would be a major capital expenditure.”

Kent State’s Student Recreation and Wellness Center natatorium features a 25-yard, six-lane lap pool. The facility lacks starting blocks and backstroke flags, and it is positioned underneath a ceiling with beams that run diagonal to the pool’s lanes.

Doug Mason, senior computer science major, said Kent State needs a bigger and better pool. Michael Phelps’ performance in Beijing expanded the awareness of the sport and more people are swimming laps because of it, he said.

“The Rec’s pool is too warm, and it’s aimed at old folks,” Mason said.

The last time Kent State supported a varsity swim program was 1988. The men’s and women’s teams practiced in an official competition-size pool, once located in the front entrance of the M.A.C. Center.

“It was a competitive site,” Kennedy said.

Wally Lutkus, Kent State’s coach when the men’s and women’s programs were cut, said Kennedy’s predecessor didn’t want to keep the pool in the M.A.C. Center.

“The previous athletic director wanted to make the gym more of a showcase basketball arena,” Lutkus said.

Michael Schwartz, Kent State’s president at the time, told Lutkus the university planned to build a 50-meter pool. Those plans were never enacted.

Title IX also played a role in the cutting of the swimming programs, Lutkus said.

Title IX, an educational amendment of 1972, focuses on equality in college sports, banning any discrimination on the basis of sex, including athletic participation and benefits.

In other words, the number of male and female college athletes must be proportional to the total number of male and female students and scholarship availability for any university receiving federal funds. For example, if a university’s student population is 60 percent female and 40 percent male, then 60 percent of the scholarships and athletes must be female.

Ellen Staurowsky, an author of Title IX issues, told the New York Times in 2006 that if college athletic departments had been incrementally responding to women’s sports opportunities over the years, they wouldn’t find themselves in the situation they’re in.

Since Title IX, Division I colleges have made major cuts of lower-profile sports such as swimming, said Tod Boyle, Kent State’s swim coach when the amendment was enacted in 1972.

“There is not as much support for swimming,” Boyle said. “It’s one of the easier sports to pick on . it doesn’t come down to dollars and cents as much as equity.”

Kennedy, who has added two female programs to the athletic department since coming to Kent State in 1994, said Title IX indirectly constricts him from adding male sports.

“There is more interest in bringing in women’s sports,” he said.

Boyle’s teams won five Mid-American Conference titles during his seven seasons at Kent State, and he said the program had a great deal of support from the school and within the community.

“We were very active in recruiting,” he said.

Mason, who swam two seasons at Division III Wheaton College before transferring to Kent State, said the difference between Division I programs and Division III is scholarships.

“If you want to get swimmers who can compete with other Division I programs, you need the scholarship money to bring them in,” Mason said.

Lutkus, who now coaches at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, said the major difference between lower-division colleges and Division I is in what teams seek.

“The basic concept behind Division III schools is they’re looking for well-rounded athletes, whereas Division I schools tend to be more worried about W’s and L’s,” Lutkus said.

Currently, the number of Mid-American Conference schools with male swim programs has dwindled to four, while women’s programs have increased to eight.

“If you have a women’s team, I don’t know why you wouldn’t have a men’s team,” Mason said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Last year, the four remaining MAC schools with men’s programs, Ball State, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Miami, held its championship meet in conjunction with the Sun Belt Conference.

“The future of college swimming doesn’t look real good right now,” said Boyle, the current coach at Orange High School in Cleveland. “You can walk in one day and find your program is dropped.”

“It’s becoming narrower for men,” Lutkus said. “It’s not going to get any better unless they put more college programs back in the water. Most of our Olympians come from major Division I programs.”

These Division I schools need to give males a better chance to compete in order for our Olympic swimmers to remain on top, Lutkus said.

Contact sports correspondent Tony Lange at [email protected].