The heartbreaking reality -- and staggering numbers -- of NCAA teams cut during the pandemic

From left, Stanford volleyball player Jaylen Jasper, William & Mary gymnast Katie Waldman and Minnesota runner Khalid Hussein. Photo Credits: Mike Rasay; Jamie Holt Photography; Gopher Sports

Stanford junior Justin Lui had a plan: He was going to get a five-year integrated bachelor's and master's degree in management science and engineering -- all the while playing volleyball. Then, represent Canada at the Olympics in 2024.

That was before Stanford cut 11 sports, including volleyball, on July 8.

"For most prospective Olympic hopefuls, we have a small window -- miss it and you'll miss the entire road to the Olympics. This year -- with the virus and the program cut -- could very well be that window of opportunity I am missing, but I am doing everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen," Lui said.

About 2,000 miles away, Eli Hoeft dreamed of running for the Minnesota track team just like his father and brother once did. Hoeft had a tradition as a kid: Ever since he could remember, he woke up early in the morning to accompany his family to track meets, wearing his dad's old jerseys and cheering as loudly as he could. In 2019, his dream came true when he received a scholarship to represent Minnesota. But, a little over a year later, on Sept. 10, the school announced it was cutting the gymnastics, tennis and track teams.

"I saw Minnesota athletes win NCAA championships, go on to win national and Olympic glory," Hoeft said. "I would not be where I am today without this team -- and now it's all gone," he said.

Since March, a staggering number -- 352 -- of NCAA sports programs have been cut, and the vast majority have been Olympic sports. The most common reason cited: budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It's hard to know what these sudden sports cuts might do to the Olympic pipeline: At Stanford, the 11 sports that were cut in July are responsible for at least 25 Olympic medals since 1912. Nearly 80% of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team competed in collegiate athletics at varsity and club levels.

"This is the time to think outside of the box," said Sarah Wilhelmi, director of collegiate partnerships for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, to ESPN last week, "and find innovative ways to make sure these athletes still get the necessary training and the ability to keep dreaming to compete at the Olympics."

In an earlier interview with NBC News, Wilhelmi called the NCAA system "an absolute lifeline for our Olympic development teams."

While the lasting impact is tough to determine immediately, the heartbreak these athletes feel now is immediate. In some rare cases, athletes, alumni and community supporters have been able to save their programs. William & Mary president Katherine Rowe announced on Thursday that all seven of the sports that had been cut in September would be reinstated, at least through the 2021-22 season. But, for other athletes, the program cuts have upended something they've worked for and dreamed about since they were kids. We talked to five athletes who have been affected. These are their stories:

Khalid Hussein, track and field, University of Minnesota

Khalid Hussein is the first in his family to get a scholarship to a U.S. university. His parents, refugees from Somalia, settled down in Minneapolis, where there's a large Somali American population, and gave Khalid and his brother everything in their power to help them graduate from high school and then get a college degree.

When Hussein -- and then his brother, Shuayb -- received scholarships to compete on the renowned track and field team at the University of Minnesota, whose 130-year program history has produced 14 Olympians (including Hassan Mead and Ben Blankenship at the 2016 Olympics) and 12 national championships, the family was ecstatic. They told everybody in their community that their son would be a runner at Minnesota.

Minnesota's track team is diverse -- according to data the team compiled, 50% of the scholarships are earned by people of color -- so the alumni, athletes and parents emphasized the lost opportunity, particularly for athletes of color, when they appealed to the board of regents before the final vote on Oct. 8.

On that date, it was announced that gymnastics, tennis and indoor track and field would still be cut, while outdoor track and field would be retained.

"I didn't think the [original] proposal could 100% go through -- they would virtually be cutting close to 90% of Black athletes that don't generate revenue for the university," Khalid Hussein said. "So, the AD changed the proposal the very morning of the meeting in order to get enough votes, to include outdoor track, but also cutting indoor track, culminating in savings of $1.6 million dollars over [three] years. It kills the track program, too, because no good recruit will go to a school with only outdoor track."

For Hussein, the pain of losing the indoor season isn't small, and he feels as though something has disappeared that can't be replaced.

"The diversity of this program -- it gave so many African American kids, and kids of refugees like me, a chance, an important step to make something of ourselves, and that's all randomly being taken away," Hussein said.

Katie Waldman, gymnastics, William & Mary

Just before the coronavirus pandemic put college sports on pause in March, Katie Waldman scored a 9.925 on bars to break a 19-year-old William & Mary individual record in that event.

As a freshman, Waldman had won the Eastern College Athletic Conference all-around title, then spent the next two years amassing other titles and accolades. Now a senior captain, Waldman was shocked when on Sept. 3, just two weeks after classes started, then-athletic director Samantha Huge announced that seven of the 23 varsity sports -- men's and women's swimming, men's and women's gymnastics, men's indoor and outdoor track and field, and women's volleyball -- would be cut after the 2020-21 academic year.

Waldman said she'd heard that the athletic director had been considering the cuts for a while, and that COVID-19 was the last straw. But that didn't make sense to her -- it almost felt like a cop-out, Waldman said. "There was a lot of anger within me that day, a lot of disappointment and a lot of confusion," Waldman said.

The roller-coaster ride continued. On Oct. 6, Huge resigned abruptly amid widespread criticism, following the submission of thousands of letters of outrage and several community and faculty protests, not to mention an impending Title IX lawsuit alleging gender inequity in the athletic department offerings.

When the interim AD, Jeremy Martin, took over, Waldman felt optimistic. She said that Martin reached out to the athletes from the cut sports, expressing regret with the way the team cuts had been handled and promising to have honest conversations about the future. On Oct. 19, he announced that to comply with Title IX, women's gymnastics, swimming and volleyball would be reinstated.

Waldman could not believe her ears -- she hadn't allowed herself to hope this could happen. She ran to practice after the announcement, wanting nothing more than to be with her teammates. "You could see the shift of energy -- everybody was present and truly there to give their best now that their sport was back," Waldman said.

But she also had another immediate feeling: guilt. The men's teams were still fighting to get their sports back. The compassion shown by the new AD had given those teams a fresh bout of hope, though. And then, on Thursday, it was announced that all seven of the cut teams would be reinstated, at least for two years, while the school took another look at its gender-equity and budget issues.

"We are so grateful to the school for allowing open communication and listening to our concerns over the decision to cut these programs," Waldman said after she heard the news. "We are incredibly happy to have our family back and to be together as one team."

Jaylen Jasper, volleyball, Stanford

Senior All-American Jaylen Jasper had been coaching girls' volleyball in Annapolis, Maryland, during his summer away from Stanford because of the pandemic. While his volleyball training had taken a hit because it didn't have the same rigor as training on the West Coast, he told himself things could be so much worse whenever he felt sorry for his situation. Then, in early July, he got the news that Stanford was cutting his sport.

When the volleyball team went to the athletic department with the idea to raise money, members were told it was all or nothing -- that bringing back all of the teams would require close to $600 million. "A sum only [Amazon's] Jeff Bezos would probably have lying around -- but why would Bezos care about Stanford men's volleyball?" Jasper said half-jokingly.

Still, the community had to do something to convince the school that the team was worth keeping. They raised $7 million in pledges in two weeks. If nothing else, it has brought the entire volleyball community together, Jasper thought. "I'll take that with me to the next school I play for," he added.

Jasper had planned to play his two more years of eligibility at Stanford, but he is now thinking he'll finish his degree while redshirting this year, and then move to another institution to play for two years before hopefully going pro.

"Stanford has a 4% acceptance rate -- I picked Stanford because, on top of a good volleyball career, I wanted a good education -- and that's completely plucked away from future students," Jasper said. "So incoming freshmen have to now deal with the fact that the main channel that takes them to the Olympics is completely cut off, so they either have to train full time, or go through the admissions process all over again with a new school. Wow."

Susannah Laster, swimming, Dartmouth

When sophomore swimmer Susannah Laster found out in July that Dartmouth had cut her sport, along with four others, she wrote a scathing column for the school's paper, The Dartmouth:

"This decision will make Dartmouth the only Ivy League institution without a swim and dive team. Two pools with new state-of-the-art starting blocks and a new scoreboard will sit unused by a Dartmouth varsity team. The standard college championship meet is raced over eight lanes -- our lack of a presence will be made very clear when only seven teams walk up to the blocks. This should be an embarrassment to the College."

But, what's even more egregious, Laster said, is that the administration has not had a single conversation with the cut teams -- sending them "the same cut-and-paste emails of why the decision was made" whenever an athlete tried to reach out for clarification. "And of course they decided this when we were home during the pandemic, so we couldn't band together and fight for justice," she said.

The athletes have also pointed out that there might be bias in the decisions made. In August, 13 Asian student-athletes signed a letter asking for a board of trustees investigation into which sports were dropped, stating that the cuts affect half of all Asian student-athletes at the school. "My main goal is to have formal research done on the decision that was made," men's swimming captain Brandon Liao told the The Dartmouth in August.

The alumni support for reinstatement has also been stalwart. In September, Jim Bayles, a 68-year-old swimmer from the Class of '74, swam 15 miles in the Connecticut River to protest and raise awareness about the dropped sports.

Unlike at other schools, the Dartmouth cuts became effective immediately, so as classes resumed this fall, it hit Laster with stunning clarity that she was not an NCAA athlete anymore. She has decided to stay at the school, because transferring out during a pandemic year when she was halfway done with a degree seemed too daunting.

"My question is: Why will future student-athletes believe a word of what the admissions folks say? They said those words to me -- they said I'd have an unparalleled student-athlete experience, I'd be a great swimmer and a great student, but look what happened? Two years in and I am no longer a swimmer, so what is to say that will not happen to another student-athlete in the future?"

Will Davies, tennis, University of Iowa

Throughout his time at home in Norwich, England, during the pandemic, Will Davies didn't know when he'd be able to return to the U.S. or play tennis for Iowa again. Finally, in the beginning of August, weeks after he would have originally flown back to school, planes started flying intermittently between the two countries, and after permission from the U.K. and U.S. governments, he flew back to Iowa City, self-quarantining in a hotel for two weeks as soon as he arrived.

Then, as he slowly got into his rhythm in the city, he received an email asking him to appear for an emergency in-person meeting on Aug. 21. The men's tennis team -- as well as men's gymnastics and men's and women's swimming and diving -- would be cut at the end of the 2020-21 school year, athletic director Gary Barta said. He spoke for no more than five minutes, like he was relaying the schedule for the year, Davies said.

"We couldn't even ask any questions, or have a one-on-one session to talk about the bombshell that was just dropped on us -- and that's not how you treat your student-athletes," Davies said.

For international students such as Davies, the United States has provided elite competition and training at the college level -- a level that's rarely matched in most other countries in producing top tennis players.

But now? Davies, who is academically a senior, is piling on classes this semester so he can graduate early and then pick up his tennis career while earning his master's degree at another university. He'll have to go through the added burden of getting his student visa transferred to the new university he picks -- and when the U.S. consulates open up, he'll have to leave the country to get his visa stamped again.

Would he have stayed at Iowa for his graduate studies if the tennis program hadn't been cut?

"Absolutely -- 100 percent," Davies said. "This was my tennis family, this was my career, but I can't stay on at a place that doesn't want me anymore."