CSU grapples with the threat of losing wrestling program
College Contributor Network
When Cleveland State University head coach Ben Stehura traveled with two of his athletes to the 2015 Division I NCAA Wrestling Championships on March 19, his mind was on the upcoming matches, rather than the future of his team.
However, three days later, Stehura learned that a new challenge lay ahead of him and his team.
Cleveland State Athletic Director John Parry announced on March 30th that the school plans to replace the 52-year old wrestling program with a men's lacrosse team to improve the school's recruiting and enrollment. The University moved forward publicly with adding a varsity lacrosse team after a Board of Trustees meeting in November 2014.
"The University has been reviewing enrollment strategies to focus on attracting a different kind of student," Parry said via email. "Cleveland State is not so diverse when it comes to local surrounding private schools."
The students at Cleveland State have rallied behind the wrestling team, and the student government issued a referendum to assess campus support of Parry's decision, Stehura said. Cleveland State's wrestling team has also received an outpour of support from other college coaches across the country via email.
On April 10, the student referendum passed with a majority approval from the student body, but the university does not have to act on the results on the vote.
Before serving as the athletic director at Cleveland State, Parry worked as the AD at Butler University, where he instated a men's lacrosse program that was later cut after his tenure. Butler justified their decision to cut lacrosse as a way to help balance funding amongst the other 19 varsity sports at the University. Parry hopes that adding lacrosse to Cleveland State will enhance the University's ability to increase campus diversity and develop a new image.
For Stehura, the decision to cut the program comes as a shock and a disappointment.
"This is absolutely a surprise," Stehura said. "Three weeks prior, they talked about lacrosse, and we were assured that no programs would be cut if funding fell through for lacrosse. He's [Parry] been pushing for lacrosse but assured people that programs would not be cut. We've had two years of reassurance."
Stehura said that the university will honor the scholarships of the current wrestlers though their careers at Cleveland State, but athletes will not be eligible to compete as NCAA wrestlers for the school after the 2016 season. He has met with his wrestlers individually to discuss their future in the sport, and all of his team members expressed a desire to stay at Cleveland State.
"No one has asked for a release," Sterhura said. "They all remain committed to working with us, reinstating the program."
Wrestling and other non-revenue sports across the country face funding threats every year at the collegiate level. In November 2014, the College of Charleston announced plans to discontinue its swim team. University of North Carolina-Wilmington called for the cancellation of men's and women's track and field and cross country one month later.
Lennie Bernstein, the president of the Wresters in Business Network Triangle chapter in North Carolina, worries that the consequences of these decisions will transcend the college sphere.
"It's going to be a slippery slope," Bernstein said. "If you look at the Olympic level in a lot of sports, they [the athletes] do come from the college level. The USA Olympic governing body, 60 percent of their athletes come from college."
The Wrestlers in Business Network works as a non-profit organization to promote wrestling in the community and connect former collegiate wrestlers with one another to improve business relations.
The group has rallied behind Cleveland State in an effort to raise awareness about the potential elimination of the program and spur fundraising efforts.
"It's a national organization, organized by highly successful people with a lifelong love for the sport and their local community," Stehura, who remains an active member of the Cleveland WIBN chapter, said. "Wrestlers are intensely loyal."
The National Wrestling Coaches Association and the Wrestlers in Business Network donate money each year to the school that hosts the NCAA Championship, and the tournament is set to be held at Cleveland State in 2018, pending the decision of the program's survival, Stehura said.
John Licata, the executive director and founder of Wrestlers in Business Network, explained that Cleveland State will grant the wrestling program two additional years of competition if the team can raise $800,000 by 2016. Although, Licata acknowledged that this goal may be lofty, he urges the school to reconsider the decision to cut the program based on the interests and needs of their student body.
"In Ohio, wrestling is very important, it's part of their culture" Licata said. "If you're a state school getting state funds from taxes, and the largest part from your athletic budget is coming from taxes and student fees, you have an obligation to meet the needs and wants of your community."
Stehura hopes the program will be able to raise enough money through fundraising efforts to sustain the program, and he plans to continue to seek financial support, regardless of the university's final decision.
"There is going to be a need to fundraise regardless of what happens," Stehura said. "Even if we get the decision reversed, we are on our way to endowing the program, and now it becomes important for the future."
Shannon Scovel is a sophomore journalism student at American University where she serves as the sports editor of her student newspaper, The Eagle. Originally from Cary, North Carolina, Shannon has a passion for sports and previously worked as a correspondent for the Raleigh News and Observer covering high school athletics.