Death of athletics?

Aaron Walling / Sun Star

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen was poised at the Strategic Pathways forum Sept. 1, as individuals with questions about the future of athletics in the UA system poured in. Veterans of UAF athletics were in attendance, as well as the entire hockey and rifle teams. Though Johnsen didn’t evade answering, the issue remains at the center of a heated debate in the state.

“I think whenever you try cut any kind of program it is a big deal,” District Three Representative Tammie Wilson said. “Some of the conversations that we had this last year were [making other cuts] versus cutting the sports.”

UAA and UAF’s athletics budget totals over $16 million, with about $8.5 million coming from the state budget. Both programs overspend this amount, resulting in a shortfall of about $189 thousand. Some or all athletics programs could be facing their end under proposed cuts, leaving student athletes like Martha Hood uncertain about the future of their programs.

“There are solid statistics behind the graduation success of student athletes and their contributions to the communities where they attend college,” Hood said.

UAF Athletics has had three straight years of budget cuts, with another $400 thousand being cut this year. These reductions have begun to affect sporting events; the yearly Flint Hills Resources Alaska Nanook Classic was cut this year in favor of a less expensive volleyball event not hosted in the state.

“We also learned that, for some of the teams, we actually pay their bills to fly up here,” Wilson said. “Which I found that interesting cause I don’t think anyone pays ours going down that direction. How much can we expect students, who don’t participate in sports to pay to keep them going?”

The word “community” appeared frequently in the questions and answers at the forum. Student athletes routinely visit schools and other events where they interact with kids in the Fairbanks community. These activities might be gone if the UA system and state legislature enact the cuts currently under consideration.

“Any sport program cuts will create a brain drain from our state as students athletes will be forced to leave Alaska,” Hood said. “I for one am excited about earning my degree in the community I plan on working, however, my goals for swimming would mean I would need to attend a university outside of Alaska with a strong swim program.”

One proposal calls for golf and soccer being added to UAF, replacing rifle and hockey, and bringing the UA system’s programs closer to those of other Great Northwest Athletic Conference schools. In a school where ice and snow dominate majority of the school year, it begs the question of whether these sports are viable in Fairbanks. UAF Athletic Director Gary Gray gave some ideas on how it could work scheduling wise.

“Soccer would need to play most of its home games early in the season and finish the last few weekends on the road,” Gray said. “Golf would likely play all but one or two of its competitions on the road.”

The Board of Regents and Johnsen will continue to meet over the coming months to discuss Strategic Pathways changes. While a recommendation is expected from Johnsen in September, the regents may choose a later timetable to enact cuts.

“The big question for the state is, [is it] our responsibility of the state to put money in to educate students to offset their tuition. Versus into sports, which is something that for some that is really important, but for me it is about making sure that our students are educated and are able to go into the workforce and stay in Alaska,” Wilson said.

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