(The Root) — When Spelman College basketball player Amber Banks first learned that the school planned to drop its intercollegiate sports program after this school year, she admits that thoughts of transferring to another institution crossed her mind.
"I initially was hurt about it," the 19-year-old sophomore told The Root. "But I like where I am, so I don't think I'll be transferring now. A lot of girls are thinking about it."
Last week, the Atlanta-based, historically black women's college officially announced that it would end its competitive sports program to focus more on its wellness initiative. The move has been touted as bold and innovative by many higher education experts, but student athletes like Banks are wondering if the competitive sports program had to be a casualty.
Banks' frustration is understandable, but school administrators see a bigger risk at stake: the health and wellness of the entire student body. While finances were considered in Spelman's decision to eliminate the athletic program, the primary reason was the desire to free up funds to help students improve and maintain their overall fitness, says Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum.
"It's really about increasing the benefit. The money we were spending [on intercollegiate sports] was benefiting 80 students. The money we will spend in the future will benefit 2,100. Rather than increase the spending for a small number of people, we decided to reallocate those dollars," Tatum told The Root. Of the 80 student athletes, 20 or so of its athletes graduated last May, while another 20 will graduate in May 2013, when the athletic program will end.
"The number of disappointed students is those in the class of 2014 and 2015," Tatum said. "Those are about 40 students."
On the other hand, Spelman's wellness program draws more student participation. The wellness program is a free resource for students created more than three years ago, where students can meet privately with the wellness coordinator, set up a personal fitness program and take classes. "Yet the wellness program was suffering because there was limited space," she said. "You know you can't use the gym when the athletes are practicing, you can't use the weight room when the athletes are training."
To help solve that issue, along with ditching competitive sports, funds are being raised to renovate Read Hall, the campus gym that was built in the 1950s when the student population was around 500. Though still in the planning stages, the updated Read Hall would have an expand locker room, weight room and cardio room for exercise machines, and possibly an indoor track and 24-hour access, according to Tatum. The renovation will begin next year and is expected to be completed in 2014.
"Think bigger and more space so those who choose to work out will have access to that," Tatum said. The hope is that the expanded wellness program will address some of the health problems that plague black women — including some of Spelman's students.
All first-year students at Spelman are required to have a physical and submit a health form — a state requirement — which the school's director of health services receives and uses to analyze the health needs of the community. "Based on that information we know that we have students who are already struggling with hypertension, already struggling with Type 2 diabetes, et cetera," Tatum said.
The Health and Human Service Department's stats show that four in five African-American women are overweight or obese, while the American Diabetes Association reports that 3.7 million, or 14.7 percent of African Americans 20 years or older, have diabetes. Tatum declined to share specific details about the percentage of Spelman students suffering from hypertension and other ailments, but she did say, "Our student body reflects those national trends."
She said many afflictions like hypertension and Type 2 diabetes are linked to being overweight and physically inactive, a reason the college wants to help its students develop wellness and fitness habits. The school is also steadily making changes to its cafeteria offerings, including vegetarian and vegan alternatives and smaller dessert portions along with traditional Southern cuisine. The school is also re-evaluating its physical education offerings (two PE courses are required for graduation) to ensure that they focus on improving personal fitness. For example, archery will be replaced with a class that's more physically active.
"I think Spelman is calling dramatic attention to this. It is an issue which I would hope HBCUs and all American colleges and universities would pay more attention to," said Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, which is involved with 38 of the 105 HBCUs, of which Spelman is one. "This is certainly an issue which is significant in the African-American community, but preventive wellness undertakings is something that is a national crisis."
The idea to withdraw from the Great South Athletic Conference occurred last winter when Spelman learned that it was losing members. The NCAA requires a minimum of seven institutions to form a conference, and two or three of the co-ed schools in the Great South decided to leave and join a league that offered more opportunities for football. As a result, Spelman considered joining another conference, but that would mean that its teams would have to travel further away and the athletics program would have to add two more sports.
It currently costs Spelman approximately $1 million to run the athletic program, and it would have cost more to join another conference that's farther away — meaning students would miss more classes. To Tatum, it just didn't add up. Also, the sports program consistently averaged less than five percent of students while the wellness program was popular but underfunded.
In addition to basketball, Spelman currently offers six other intercollegiate sports — cross-country, tennis, soccer, softball, volleyball and golf — that make up its NCAA Division III athletics program. New York City College of Technology, which withdrew from NCAA membership in 2011, is the only other institution of which the NCAA is aware to drop intercollegiate athletics in the past decade, according to the college sports organization's spokesman, Cameron Schuh.
"It is important to note that schools add or drop sports every year, and these decisions are made for a variety of reasons," Schuh said. "Each institution must continue to make the fiscal decisions that it believes best equips it to support the student-athletes and core mission."
Morehouse President Robert M. Franklin applauds the new direction and hopes the "wellness theme becomes contagious" but doesn't envision many HBCUs removing themselves from intercollegiate athletics.
"That's been an important part of the college culture for many of our coed institutions, and certainly for an all-male college, that's essential to our campus culture and our brand identity. But the wellness theme is certainly transferable, and I hope it catches on everywhere," Franklin said.
Morehouse's wellness initiative has been in place for the past 15 years and emphasizes nutrition and preventative health. Of its 2,300 students, Morehouse, a Division ll school with seven varsity sports, has 212 varsity and 377 intramural athletes. One of its well-known sports alums is Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses, who shares fitness and wellness tips during his campus visits.
As for Spelman's remaining student athletes, things may look bleak now, but all isn't lost, said Tatum. There will still be an opportunity for competitive sports, but on an intramural basis — something that hasn't been an option because of lack of space.
Still unconvinced, Banks questions whether the intramural offering will be as competitive as the NCAA.
"I'm happy they're providing this opportunity for more girls to become more active," Banks said, "but I'd still like to see an athletics program. It's sad."