Lawmakers seek review of U of M's 2020 decision to cut sports

University of Minnesota athletics boosters and athletes, who have unsuccessfully tried to get the Board of Regents to reverse its 2020 decision to cut three men's sports programs, have now turned to state lawmakers.

Republicans who control the Senate are advancing legislation that asks the Board of Regents to create a special commission to review the cuts and chart a future for non-revenue sports. Wednesday, the measure passed out of the Senate State Government committee without opposition and heads to another committee.

Lawmakers acknowledged they have no control over the regents' operational decisions, so it's only a request. But state Sen. Jason Rarick, the bill's author, said the Legislature should tie future state funding to the creation of the commission.

"We do understand we have no authority over the university, and we cannot tell them what they can or cannot do," said Rarick, R-Pine City. "I’ll be up front. Ultimately what I want this bill to turn into is that if any new funding goes to the university, that funding would be tied, and we would not allow (Minnesota Management and Budget) to make those appropriations until this commission is established."

The Board of Regents eliminated men's indoor track, tennis, and gymnastics, along with about 40 women's scholarship slots. The vote happened in October 2020, when the athletic department budget fell into deficit with no ticketed attendance allowed during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cuts will save Gopher athletics less than $3 million per year, university officials have said.

This month, the board's chairman and vice-chairman wrote to lawmakers and defended their decision, which they called "necessary" and "well-considered."

"We hope that you will respect our decisions and the great care with which we make them, even if they are not agreeable to everyone," Chair Ken Powell and Vice-Chair Steve Sviggum wrote.

GOP lawmakers said the special commission request will be part of their end-of-session higher education bill.

They heard from several current and former Gopher athletes and boosters earlier this session, who told lawmakers that the cuts were unfair and accused the university of ignoring their attempts to reach a compromise.

"This isn’t just about a gymnastics team, a track team and a tennis team," John Roethlisberger, a former Gopher gymnast and multi-time Olympian, told lawmakers during a February hearing. "This is much bigger than that. I wouldn’t be here right now if it was just about those three teams."