A big thank you to Declan Dahlberg (a distance runner University of Minnesota) and Dawson LaRance (a middle distance runner at the University of Minnesota) for speaking about the recent news of Minnesota cutting their men's indoor and outdoor track teams.
To support the men's track teams at Minnesota,
you can sign their petition which can be found here.
What were your initial reactions and emotions when you heard the news that men’s indoor and outdoor track would be discontinued at the University of Minnesota?
Declan Dahlberg: The news that the men’s indoor and outdoor track programs were to be discontinued was absolutely shocking for us. With no prior warning, the administration dropped this on us 30-minutes before a scheduled practice on Thursday afternoon. Even our coaches, who have given so much to this university and us athletes, were not involved in the situation and found out just moments before we did. Naturally I was in shock. It still feels absolutely surreal that a university would cut one of its most diverse, inclusive, and successful programs that has been a pillar of Minnesota sports for over 100 years.
Dawson LaRance: My whole track career and the bonds that I have made since coming to Minnesota flashed before me as I heard the news that my track program would be discontinued. I stared blankly, in shock at my two roommates/teammates who stood with me in our kitchen as we heard the news for the first time. I simply could not believe it. I do not know what this means for me and my future. In the moment, I couldn’t speak, my head was spinning. Panicking, my immediate reaction was to call my dad who resides in my home state, Montana. When I began to describe to him the news, my emotions overtook me, and I could hardly speak. I began to reflect on my incredible time and experiences in Minnesota with teammates, friends, and the community.
Was there any sense that this was coming, either as a direct warning from university leaders or shifts in attitude from the athletic department?
Declan: I did not see this coming. Obviously with COVID-19 we all were aware that financial situations would present a challenge to the university and athletic department, but there was no warning that this was a potential outcome. We received an email from our head coaches 30 minutes before the Zoom meeting saying that an urgent meeting with the administration was set for 2:00 and they didn’t have any more information. It is truly shocking that an athletic department could invest so much money in the last few years in two brand new tracks, a brand new locker room, and many other things only to cut one of the teams that uses all of those things a year later.
What is most troubling here is that the administration is so set on controlling the message and outcome that they don’t give the people who their decisions affect any prior warning or input. We saw this in 2018 with the merging of the men's and women's programs when the university, without any prior notice, informed numerous coaches a week before school started that they no longer had jobs.
What we see here is a pattern of disrespect and disregard for the livelihoods of the staff and student-athletes who make this university great. We were not told at any point in the last six months that if conditions X or Y weren’t met that these steps may need to be taken. It is shocking to me that Marc Coyle thinks that it is reasonable to give our coach, Steve Plasencia, who has given 25 years of his life as a coach (more as an athlete) to this school, absolutely no input or notice of this decision. When we as athletes face adversity, we are taught and trained to persevere, dig our heels in, find solutions, and act with respect and integrity. It is heartbreaking that the administration which is supposed to serve and protect its athletes doesn’t share those values.
Dawson: We had no warning from the university. When I would see news and articles about track and field programs that were being discontinued around the country, I never thought that Minnesota would be one of those programs. We heard of smaller programs being cut, but it did not create a sense of urgency or fear. As a Power 5 conference, I felt safe that our program would endure. Minnesota is the only Power 5 conference school that has discontinued their men’s indoor and outdoor track programs. I knew times were tough and that we would experience budget cuts, but there was no sense that the program would be dissolved entirely.
Was there any sense of urgency about the status of Minnesota’s men’s track teams after seeing cuts from schools like Akron, UConn, William & Mary and others?
Declan: I didn’t feel an urgency about our team's status after seeing those cuts. While budget reductions, changes in meet schedule/travel, and roster management were things that we all knew were likely to play a factor this year, I never felt a sense that our program itself were at risk. In the last five years alone, Minnesota track has produced Olympians, national champions, All-Americans and athletes who have continued on professionally. Our program has been here for over 100 years. It is a program rich in history, with a level of success that is rivaled by few other schools. As our coach says, this is a sport that is all about inclusion. It is a sport unique from others, in that it is free to start. This creates the diversity and opportunity for a broad range of young men that we see on the team today. We always read that the University prides itself in maintaining diversity, but its actions have often contradicted that.
The university’s official statement cites that Minnesota “considered community impact” when making their decision.
In light of the recent push for racial equality -- as well as Brown University’s decision to reinstate their men’s track and cross country teams on the basis of maintaining diversity -- could you touch on the socioeconomic impacts that stem from these cuts?
Declan: There are many socioeconomic impacts that will stem from these cuts. First of which are the opportunities for students who were able to use their athletic talents in order to attend a school like this and earn their degrees. Without the opportunities that men’s track and field provides, these dreams that many high school students have for going to college would be left empty because of all the barriers that students face in today's day and age, particularly for students of color.
Dawson: When it comes to maintaining diversity, I question whether the full community impact was considered. Track and field prides itself on bringing diverse communities together. Track and field, unlike many other sports, offers every person of any background wishing to compete in a sport the opportunity to do so. I do not know of a more diverse sport in terms of race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Cutting men’s track and field is a huge loss for the athletic department in terms of what our sport brings to the University of Minnesota.
The Minnesota men’s track and field program has been racially and socio-economically diverse for many years. I have witnessed and participated in the giant steps the program has made in terms of inclusion and acceptance of athletes of the LGBTQ+ community. I have tremendous pride in my team for this growth and diversity. I know of other programs across the country, as well as other sports at the U, that are not as openly welcoming or embracing of LGBTQ+ athletes. In fact, two years ago, an openly bi-sexual track thrower and I started an LGBTQAI+ advocacy and support group within our athletic department. Our group has created awareness and visibility within our athletic department as well as educated the staff within the department on LGBTQAI+ issues and needs. This group, started by two openly queer track and field athletes, has created a welcoming community within athletics that accepts everyone. Our program is a leader in the promotion of inclusivity. The decision to cut men’s track and field does a huge disservice to the athletic department and to the entire University of Minnesota.
In addition to the diversity consideration, there will be many other impacts on the community. Dissolving the Minnesota track and field program will have a negative impact on the men’s cross country team. Cross country runners also participate in track. The decision to end track and field is likely to decimate the cross country program as well. Minneapolis has a strong running community and tradition. The University of Minnesota track and field athletes are a big part of the Minneapolis community. We participate, volunteer, and promote the life-long health benefits of fitness and running. The entire state of Minnesota will be impacted by student-athletes no longer having a Division One, Big Ten option to strive for in their home state.
Minnesota has produced some of the best individual talents in the country every year, including 2016 Olympians Ben Blankenship and Hassan Mead, as well as 2018 NCAA Champion Obsa Ali. Do you feel like the success of this program was taken into consideration at all prior to the cuts being made?
Declan: I don’t think our history of consistent success and excellence was evaluated at all in this decision. While listening to a board meeting the day after the announcement came out, it struck me how out of touch both members of the board and the athletic administration often are with the programs they oversee. I don’t think the names mentioned above would even be recognized by most members of the board. The successes of non-revenue sports like ours often go unnoticed, particularly in a world where the administration has its intentions set on spending twice as much for a single coach’s salary as they do for the entire operation of our program.
In summary, I don’t think a second thought was given to our history or our successes. The administration saw that they had made a mistake, relying on revenue streams that never materialized after spending $166 million on athletes village, and in their panic they chose to hide behind Title IX and convince the board that a $2 million cut in their partially self-inflicted $75 million deficit is a good decision.
Dawson: Not at all. Given the tremendous success and history of this program, Minnesota has cut a program that means so much to the running community and the Minnesota community at large. John Simons’ recently posted on Instagram that this department is throwing away a program with a history that includes: “an NCAA Outdoor Team Title, 11 Conference Championship Titles, 14 Olympians, 12 NCAA individual Champions, 231 Big Ten Champions, and 260+ All-Americans.”
Minnesota men’s track and field has a long and rich tradition of success and exemplary representation of the university. Track and field is a sport that does not need much to compete besides grit, resiliency, heart, determination, and a lot of hard work yet produces such great talent and success. I am extremely disappointed with the decision to cut our track program.
If you were able to speak directly to the university leaders making the decisions to cut these programs, what would you say?
Declan: We are incredibly proud to represent the University of Minnesota. Growing up here myself, it is an honor and a dream to represent my state at its highest level. This is why it breaks my heart to see our administration turn its back on us. When the seas got rough, rather than find a comprehensive solution, they took the easy way out and uprooted the livelihoods of 58 young men who have sacrificed so much to represent this school. I would tell the administration, the board, and those involved that you don’t get to just tell us through Zoom that these cuts were absolutely necessary and you know how we feel. You don’t. You don’t understand that every athlete on this team has his own unique story and has sacrificed more than you could ever know to represent this university. We sacrifice our social circles because of the time we dedicate to being the best we can be on the track. We sacrifice our academic performance for the same reasons. We put our mental and physical health on the line every day because you told us the ‘M’ never comes off, and we gladly accept those challenges because we believed in your message. We cannot believe you are trying to take it off of us.
Dawson: As a queer cross country and track and field athlete, I know what it feels like to experience adversity in many different forms. This adversity has shaped me to be the person that I am today, and I would not change my experiences in my life. I worked my ass off for many years to become a great runner in order to:
1) Be good at something that generates respect and ends the hardship of bullying and social exclusion;
2) Move to a place where I could experience queer life/culture as well as pursue my athletic and academic dreams; and
3) Compete and actively represent the University of Minnesota in the best way possible as this track program gave me an amazing opportunity to fulfill my dreams.
Coming to Minnesota, I was committed to becoming the best runner possible, but I also made my decision because I wanted to grow as an openly queer student-athlete as there are many facets to me besides being a runner. Running for Minnesota was the best decision I had ever made because, for once in my life, I felt as though I could live a life in which I was my complete, authentic self and I could grow as the person I wanted to become. There are so many kids out there that are in the same or similar positions. Cutting this program is cutting a program that took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to grow into a person that I am proud to be today. This decision denies so many kids the opportunity to fulfill similar dreams and aspirations.
Any final thoughts or comments?
Declan: I have wanted to be a Gopher since I started running in 8th grade. I have molded the last seven years of my life around achieving that dream. The thought of not having that opportunity anymore terrifies me because it is all I have known for my entire college career. If this decision is not reversed, many of my closest friends will leave or transfer. 100+ years of history will be wiped away because the administration dug themselves a hole and tried to pull a quick-fix. The remaining cross country program will be devastated through transfers out of the University of Minnesota as well as an inability to compete on the national recruitment stage. The work of Steve Plasencia and the late Roy Griak will come to an end after both worked tirelessly to give back to the university and build a program and culture of excellence that prepared its alumni for success in whatever post-collegiate endeavors they chose.
It is our plea to you to join us in not sitting down and taking this quietly as the administration would like us. Please call the board of regents, sign our petitions and spread the word to friends and family because the power we have together is the only thing that can reverse this. We appreciate all of your support.
To support the men's track teams at Minnesota,
you can sign their petition which can be found here.