The decision, announced Thursday, comes after a swell of support from alumni, parents and activists, including a group that threatened legal action under Title IX, a rare instance where the gender equity law has been cited to criticize a school for offering too few opportunities to its male students.
In its official announcement, the school said the decision came after it reassessed the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which “did not harm the university in as drastic a way as anticipated.” It also announced it would be adding “one or more” women’s varsity sports in the future.
Clemson’s November announcement drew attention because of what it said about the business of college sports during the pandemic. As COVID-19 canceled seasons and stressed academic budgets, hundreds of smaller sports were eliminated by colleges across the country. The most jarring of those announcements came from schools with massive endowments (like Stanford), and cash-cow football teams (like Clemson): If those schools didn’t feel the need to keep offering sports like cross country or gymnastics, would the smaller ones be able to?
Many of those eliminated sports were met by legal activism, particularly around Title IX, to overturn the decisions. The University of Iowa reinstated its women’s swimming and diving program in the face of a Title IX lawsuit; Ivy League schools Brown and Dartmouth, plus William & Mary, also brought back programs for similar reasons.
Clemson’s situation is unique in that it only involves men’s teams. The Title IX law, in its simplest form, requires that a school provide opportunity to male and female athletes proportionate to the gender ratio of its overall student body. According to ESPN, the group fighting to save the Clemson programs argued that while the make-up of Clemson’s student body is almost exactly 50-50, the Tigers athletic department after the cuts would be roughly 58% female.
On Thursday, the school reiterated that its original decision was made with gender equity in mind. It said it would meet with attorneys to create a new “gender equity plan” which will be completed by July 2022.
In November Sportico broke down the budget for the Clemson men’s track and field program, which dates back to 1953 and has produced 22 Olympians and won 16 individual NCAA titles. It found that by the school’s accounting, the program was running a deficit of about $1.67 million per year. Those numbers don’t include the tuition paid by non-scholarship members of the team and also includes expenses that likely won’t disappear without the program (the team, for example, shares coaches with the women’s programs, and those positions likely wouldn’t be cut in half).
Though Clemson’s football team has been among the most dominant in the country over the past decade, the school’s overall athletics budget pales in comparison to the largest in the NCAA. In fiscal 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Clemson spent $132 million on athletics, not even Top 15 among public universities. Ohio State spent $212 million; Texas, $202 million.