Athletes the real collateral damage

The headlines are routine now -- a baseball team cut, a track program drastically reduced -- all black-ink proof that not even the perceived purity of opportunity personified in college athletics is immune to this country's financial pinch.

Like the news of any big business searching for ways to trim the fat, the headlines don't always tell the whole story.

There are more than revenue and expense lines being balanced with these red-pen decisions. There are people, kids really, whose college experiences are being rewritten or ruined altogether to pinch a penny. They are the faceless collateral damage, the athletes who usually compete far from the bright television lights and adoration of the masses. They are in school because a long time ago they fell in love with a sport and they viewed college as a way to extend that love affair.

And now they've been unceremoniously dumped, eliminated by administrators who promise they've agonized over their choices.

No doubt they have.

And no doubt they haven't agonized nearly as much as the athletes who have been left to pick up the pieces.

Ally Rich is terrified of the water.

A competitive swimmer since she was 7, the 20-year-old hasn't gone near a swimming pool since May 1.

No cannonballs for summer fun, no leisurely laps, not even a game of Marco Polo.

"I'm really scared of what it's going to evoke in me," Rich said. "I'm afraid if I swim in a pool, I'll have an emotional breakdown."

On May 1, Washington athletic director Scott Woodward walked into a crowded room full of swimmers and told them their sports were being discontinued, effective immediately. The university needed to slash $2.8 million from its athletics budget, and eliminating the men's and women's teams, Woodward explained, was a painful but necessary step to get there.

According to the Department of Education's Equity in Athletics statistics, the teams' operating budgets for 2007 and 2008 combined were $363,671.

Or roughly a third of the $1 million buyout fired football coach Ty Willingham received.

"Maybe if we weren't paying two football coaches, that would help," said (now) former swim coach Whitney Hite, who insists he isn't bitter but understandably has a well of frustration to call upon.

Just one month earlier, the swim program was soaring. Hite, in his third year, had led the two programs to new heights. In March, the men's swim team finished 16th at the NCAA championships, its best performance in more than 30 years; the women took 15th. Coupled with a 12th-place finish the year before, it marked the first time since 1985 and 1986 that the women had placed at NCAAs in back-to-back seasons.

And then it was over, the stunned silence in the room quickly changing to the sound of racking sobs.

Next came the phone calls and e-mails from other swim coaches eager to poach the Huskies squads.

Rich, just a sophomore, easily could have transferred.

But she is a biology major with designs on medical school and decided that future was more important than her swimming career.

She's still not sure it was the right decision.

Jennifer Gong had less of a choice. There isn't a huge market for swimmers with just one year of eligibility left. Transferring was even less appealing to Gong, anyway. She's on target to graduate and figured transferring would defer her finish.

So Gong, a senior-to-be who set the school record in the 400 IM as a sophomore, hung up her swimsuit for good and remained at UW.

The big question: Will her sister do the same? Danielle Gong came to Washington this past season as a freshman, and the extremely close sisters were delighted to swim together and room together.

Now Danielle has to choose -- continue swimming or continue college with her sister.

With Jennifer's urgent prodding, Danielle is reluctantly visiting other schools.

"I would love for her to stay here, selfishly, but I want her to keep swimming," Jennifer Gong said. "I've made that very clear to her."

Unlike Rich, Gong bravely has dived back into the pool. She is teaching a program for post-college swimmers this summer.

But like everything since May 1, it hasn't been easy. Rich and Gong have said goodbye to friends -- Rich's best friend, Hannah Ross, transferred to Arizona. Even harder was quitting cold turkey a routine that had guided their lives for years.

Their body clocks refuse to readjust, waking them every morning at 6 a.m. for training, only to be hit again with the Groundhog Day realization that there is nothing to train for.

"At first, there was the idea of, 'Wow I have all this free time,'" Gong said. "Now I just feel lost."

When school starts in the fall, both expect it to be worse.

Rich hopes to walk on to the track team. Gong plans to live vicariously through her sister.

Neither woman is deluding herself.

"People don't understand it's not just part of your life," Rich said. "It's a way of life."

The scene itself wasn't remarkable. The University of Vermont baseball team, after rallying from a 7-1 deficit, had just lost to Albany, 10-9, in the America East conference tournament, ending the Catamounts' season.

As the bus loaded with the team pulled away from Pete Sylvester Field in Endicott, N.Y., a small gathering of UVM fans waved goodbye.

"It was dead silent," center fielder Mark Micowski said. "We all sort of realized it wasn't our last game of the season. It was our last game."

In February, the Vermont administration gathered the baseball and softball teams in the gym and told the athletes their programs would be cut at season's end. Vermont athletics faced a $1.1 million gap between its expenses and revenues, and discontinuing the two sports would help close the gap.

Two weeks later, the baseball season began, the strangest Micowski can remember. It was more than just the idea that this would be the school's last season; it was the awkward crossroads the players were trying to navigate. This would be Vermont's last baseball season, but individually, it was the Catamounts' chance to audition for a future.

Team goals versus personal survival -- which comes first?

"Everyone was looking at other schools during the season, even going to visit them," Micowski said. "We started out 0-11, and if I said that didn't contribute to it, it would be a lie. We weren't focused on winning all the time because we were also worried about ourselves."

Micowski was one of the lucky ones.

An all-rookie selection as a freshman, he was scooped up early by Georgia State and will enroll at the Atlanta-based school this fall.

Although he's grateful to continue his collegiate career and keep alive his dream of playing professionally, Micowski heads south with mixed emotions. He's from Connecticut, a bearable four-hour drive from the Vermont campus.

He's also two years into his college career, comfortable with his teammates, comfortable with his campus, comfortable with his lot in life.

At Georgia State, he'll feel like a freshman all over again. The transition on the field will be the easy part. Micowski earned second-team all-league honors this year after hitting .362 and setting a school single-season record with 80 hits.

Off the field, though, he'll be in a new part of the country living with strangers. Micowski plans to room with some junior college transfers, figuring they'll be in the same awkward-newbie boat.

"It's going to be a big, big adjustment," said Micowski, who had to scramble at Vermont to get his money back on the apartment he intended to use next semester. "I'm used to going home when I need to, having my family at games. Now I don't know anyone and don't really know much about the South.

"But I figure I'm one of the lucky ones. At least I'm still playing."

The way Antione Drakeford figures it, without Bill Schnier he wouldn't be in college.

Schnier was the only coach to offer Drakeford a track scholarship, allowing the Ohio native to compete for and attend the University of Cincinnati.

Drakeford has rewarded Schnier with All-America honors in the 400 meters this year and a 14th-place finish in the senior nationals at the U.S. championships.

He also has kept his grades up in his ho-hum major of mechanical engineering technology.

"Track is the only reason I'm in college," Drakeford said. "And running track here has changed my life. The people I've met, the experiences I've had, without it, I'm not the same person."

Schnier, in his 27th year at Cincinnati, will have a harder time making such an impressive impact in the future. On April 20, the coach was told he no longer would have any scholarships to give. The university needed to trim its budgetary fat, and getting rid of the men's track team's 12.6 allotted scholarships would put $400,000 back in the athletic department's coffers.

Schnier's program would continue just as planned, he was told.

Except that isn't true. The Bearcats will compete in the Big East and Division I, but once the current players leave and the final scholarship dries up, they essentially will be a Division I school trying to survive with Division III limitations.

"Essentially our entire team will be quality walk-ons," Schnier said. "It puts us out of business as far as the competitive part of it goes."

For Drakeford, who has gained so much thanks to his scholarship, the news has been devastating. He is quick to look at the bright side -- unlike so many other athletes across the country, he still has a team, and because track has more individual pursuits than team goals, he'll be able to continue to grow next year, his final one at Cincinnati.

But Drakeford has the unfortunate bad luck of being a good person. He's not worried just about himself. He's also worried about his team.

Cincinnati track has tradition. Just this year, former Bearcat David Payne -- a 2008 Olympic silver medalist -- won the U.S. championship in the 110m high hurdles.

It also has recent success. The Bearcats finished fourth in the Big East the past two seasons and have regularly finished among the conference's top five programs. When the scholarships are gone, Drakeford figures, his team will be lucky to finish ninth.

"It's going to change dramatically," he said. "You won't have the same spirit you have now, guys going out and killing themselves and willing to just give up everything for their spot."

Like a lot of athletes in his position, Drakeford also is frustrated. His football team, which is the chief moneymaker at the school, will have a new domed facility by the end of 2009 and his football coach just received a $1.8 million salary boost, and Drakeford said he wonders why the hard economic times don't seem to apply to everyone.

"On the one hand, you feel like the university let you down," he said. "But on the other hand, I'm a Bearcat. That will never change."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.