Column: With the pandemic waning, GW should restore sailing’s varsity status

GW’s decision to shift classes online, shutter dorms and close its campus in spring 2020 marked the end of student life as we knew it. But for student-athletes, the University’s decision to cut seven varsity sports over pandemic-related financial concerns was truly the straw that broke the camel’s back. Continuing to compete as club teams, some of the athletes who lost their varsity status haven’t just survived – they’ve thrived, seizing victory on the national stage even as they support themselves without GW’s help. With the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, restoring varsity status to standout programs, like the highly competitive co-ed sailing team, would demonstrate GW’s faith in athletics and reinvigorate school spirit among fans.

Alongside men’s rowing, men’s and women’s squash, men’s indoor track, men’s tennis and women’s water polo, sailing lost its varsity status after the 2020-2021 season. But the sailing program – now a club team – is a prime example of how non-varsity teams are still succeeding. In its final varsity season in the spring of 2021, GW’s sailing team finished 10th in the nation. Despite competing without the University’s support, sailing has only continued its dominance on the water.

During its first season as a club in 2022, the Inter-collegiate Sailing Association allowed the team to compete at the varsity level while athletes juggled their own management and finances as University funding dried up. That left the sailing team responsible for filling the financial gap with alumni donations and newly-created membership fees to make up some of the difference. While their competitors enjoyed the guidance of experienced, paid professionals all year, GW’s sailors relied on the expertise of current and former team members. Without sufficient financial support from GW to pay a coach or other staff, tasks like buying equipment, scheduling practices and arranging travel fell to student leaders on the team.

And yet, they qualified for the 2022 College National Sailing Championship in New Orleans after finishing first in the regional tournament in the fall of 2021. While GW’s sailors scrambled for resources to fund their expenses, their predominantly varsity competition had focused solely on sailing all season – their colleges would completely compensate them for their trips to the championship.

To say that the Colonials were operating at a competitive disadvantage that weekend – and that their disadvantage stemmed directly from GW’s decision to cut their funding – would be an understatement. As proven in the story of “Moneyball,” if scoreboards read teams’ budgets rather than their abbreviations, then the outcome should have been obvious. But GW finished the season ranked 12th in the nation among all competing schools in the Intercollegiate Sailing Association, earning their position as the best club team in the country.

Other former varsity teams haven’t been as lucky. Despite finishing 13th at the International Rowing Association National Championship in its final season, ranking seventh overall in the country and receiving funding from alumni, GW’s men’s rowing team was also terminated in 2020. Unable to compete as a club team, the men’s rowing’s reinstatement is riding on the outcome of a lawsuit that the team’s former captain filed against the University. GW’s decision to sacrifice this prestigious team has jeopardized the careers of student-athletes who were excited to compete for GW.

It’s time the University rethinks the future of its prestigious former varsity teams. While sailing may not have generated the $6.2 million that men’s and women’s basketball combined to bring home in 2021, the co-ed team’s expenses were equal to its revenue by the end of the same season. The team even maintained zero athletic scholarships compared to the 195 University athletes who received nearly $12 million worth of student aid from GW in 2021.

But officials shouldn’t evaluate these programs just on whether they make a profit or offsets their costs. GW should also recognize the value of its highly successful athletics programs on campus and fund them accordingly. Restoring some of the nation’s most talented sailors to the varsity level would be a golden opportunity to unite the student body over the shared success of their classmates. A winning team can rally its supporting community, but stripping teams of their varsity status sets a poor example for potential fans. It takes support from the top down to build a sense of community around athletics. The University should seize the opportunity to reinstate the sailing team’s varsity status and celebrate its success.

GW only has to look as far as the Potomac River to find members of a powerhouse program practicing to play at the sport’s highest level – and winning. Building a winning culture on campus is not an easy task, but GW’s sailing team shows that dedicated student-athletes deserve the support of the University and their community.

Matthew Donnell, a rising junior majoring in political communication and English, is an opinions writer.

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