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Behind the administration’s suspension of the women’s basketball program

October 15th marked the beginning of the 2016-2017 basketball season at Principia. Practice commenced bright and early in Crafton Center, with players traversing every square inch of the court. The scene was normal enough, save for the empty adjacent court where the women’s team once played.

In one of the most significant student athletics decisions made in recent years, Principia College last month announced the suspension of the women’s basketball program for the 2016-2017 season. The decision brought a halt to all organized team activities governed under the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) – the athletic conference Principia competes in – and the NCAA.

Prior to the completion of the 2015-2016 season, coach Nicole “Colie” Bushong announced that the season would be her last as head coach of the program. This announcement served as the start of the formal evaluation process each Principia sports team is required to go through once a coach announces their departure.

The process included evaluating statistics of the program, discussing viability and gathering internal opinions on whether to continue funding the program. A formal recommendation was then created and presented to the Board of Trustees, who made the final decision.

“When you’re making changes, you have to look at all of the factors,” said Principia’s Director of Athletics, Dr. Lee Ellis. “The idea of discontinuing or suspending basketball is more about moving the program to a competitive platform more appropriate to the level of investment and commitment students are willing to make with the aim to enhance the experience for folks interesting in participating.”

Following the announcement, players from the women’s basketball team expressed frustration and a sense of hopelessness for the program’s future. “At first, of course, I was disappointed,” said junior Megan Selby, who played for the women’s basketball team the last two seasons. “It is hard to hear that the sport [I] have been playing since I could walk is suspended.”
Fellow teammate Sophia Hathaway expressed similar emotions to Selby when she heard the news. “It could have been any other sport and I still would have had a similar sad feeling,” she said. “I know [Ellis] wishes things would have been different, and I agree with that. I understand why the decision was made, I just think there could have been more student input or we could have worked better with the administration in trying to find someone or get a decision sooner.”

In a statement released on the school’s athletics page, which was shared via their official Facebook and Twitter accounts, “The coaching vacancy in women’s basketball, declining level of student interest, and prospects for the program’s success,” were the main factors that led to the suspension of the program.

Student athletes and community members responded to the statement by accusing the Athletic Department of, “dishonesty.” Others felt the statement was an inaccurate representation of the Athletic Director’s opinion. In response to these comments, Ellis said, “I love the players and I love our athletics program. But this issue isn’t whether I like something or not or about me being blind or pushed down a particular path. I made the recommendation because I knew it was the right thing to do. We didn’t execute very well, but the fact we are following through on it is what I feel to be the right thing. Otherwise I wouldn’t have made the recommendation.”

Despite having candidates officially apply for the position, none were deemed qualified enough to replace Bushong as head coach. Under Principia’s hiring process, candidates who are in consideration of being hired meet with a search committee to determine their potential. Ellis explained this factor of the process is very complex.

“We had candidates,” he said. “The search committee is a  consistent group who has been working together for many years. They look at the qualifications in terms of what the candidate is bringing, and then make an independent determination and recommendation to me. If there is disagreement between their assessment and mine, then we hash it out and decide what we should do going forward. Our decisions are always collaborative.”

Members of the team believed too much of the burden of finding a new coach fell onto their shoulders. “As players, most of us recruited. Meaning, we tried to talk to as many people as we could and get ahold of any connections that we might have had,” Selby said. “It was hard for us to come together with our busy summer schedules and little notice to try and recruit a coach.”

Hiring a new coach wasn’t the only concern for the program. Ever since its induction in 1980, the women’s basketball team has never maintained a roster with more than 13 players. The past two seasons, the average number of players on the roster was 8.7. “Roster size matters,” said Ellis. “Our roster numbers are significantly lower than those of team in our conference in a number of sport. The average number of sport programs for schools with 400-500 students is 13, we have 18. I think the combination of low roster numbers and the number of sports we sponsor is problematic.”

“In order for [Principia] to field teams the way that we do, we need people to be participants in multiple sports,” Ellis said. Of the 8 players on the roster for the 2015-2016 season, only three played basketball as her single sport. This year the number was expected to be two.  “We are seeing an increased amount of single sport, specialist athletes all-around the country,” Ellis said. “This is because of the specialization that is taking place in youth and the high school sports they participate in.”

Despite the players’ devotion to multiple sports, there was not enough interest to warrant the official continuation of the program.

The increasing trend of multi-sport athletes at Principia has contributed to the more difficult effect of maintaining and sustaining athletic programs like the women’s basketball team. According to internal records from the Athletic Department, there were 157 individuals who played a single varsity sport in 2004, 50 who played two sports and 1 who played three. In 2015, this ratio shifted to 104 playing in one sport, 38 in two and 16 in three.

While this trend is beefing athletic teams at other NCAA programs with year-round focus and specific training platforms, Ellis believes Principia athletes and sports programs are not as sustainable due to the 16 varsity athletic teams the school carries.

Asked whether being a multi-sport athlete may have hindered the women’s basketball team’s sustainability, Hathaway (who played indoor volleyball, basketball, track and field and beach volleyball her freshman year) said, “Each culture of the team is different. Being a multi-sport athlete doesn’t hinder my overall experience. Playing multiple sports isn’t a hindrance, it’s an advancement.”

Though the program was only suspended for the upcoming basketball season running from October to February, it is unclear whether the program will be reinstated for the 2017-2018 season.

To prove their dedication, the women were hopeful that they would be able to participate in a club league this upcoming winter. Most members are ineligible, though, due to a rule stating anyone who has played in the NCAA within the last two years cannot play in the league.

Despite the drawback, the athletic department is continuing its exploration of a three week season with a culminating tournament or some individual contests with local club teams. Fourteen women are interested in this juncture.