Some parents of Kansas State University’s equestrian athletes say there were no compromises discussed during a Nov. 9 meeting between parents and the university’s athletic department.
Parents also voiced concerns about the way the meeting was conducted and expressed fear for retaliation if they express opinions about the university’s decision to drop the equestrian program.
K-State announced plans Oct. 13 to replace the program with women’s soccer after the end of the 2016 equestrian season.
Athletic director John Currie agreed to meet with parents for 30 minutes at 7:30 a.m. Nov. 9, a Sunday morning, and asked the parents to submit questions in advance. He also told parents via email “we will not be discussing alternative scenarios.”
Only parental guardians were allowed to attend the meeting, said parent Valerie Lombardi, of Illinois. Lombardi’s daughter is a sophomore on the equestrian team.
Jan Ehrenhaft, the grandmother of Lombardi’s daughter, helps with tuition. Lombardi’s husband couldn’t attend the meeting, and Ehrenhaft wanted to attend in his place. Ehrenhaft wasn’t allowed in, so she stood outside with a sign that said: “Warning! Scary Grandmother. Danger to ADs.”
Parents had to be signed in and wear a name badge to attend, several parents said. The meeting took place at 7:30 a.m. in a conference room overlooking the K-State football stadium.
“I thought, ‘How dare you bring us in and then cry wolf,’ ” Lombardi said.
Lombardi, and other parents who didn’t want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation against their daughters, said officials made inappropriate comments during the meeting.
As with previous reports about the program’s fate, athletic department officials have declined to answer questions or respond to parents’ concerns. The department in an email said it considers the meeting “a private dialogue between John and our student-athletes’ parents, and we prefer to maintain that privacy.”
Kenny Lannou, athletics department spokesman, complained after an earlier Topeka Capital-Journal story that requests to speak to Currie should be made through him. The Capital-Journal made formal requests through Lannou on the phone and by email to speak with Currie for this story.
“Thanks for reaching out,” Lannou said. “John is unavailable.”
Concerns about retaliation for voicing an opinion on the program extend beyond the athleticsdepartment. A university professor who wrote a letter in support of the equestrian team asked not to be named in this story.
“The current board of regents policy would make it unwise for me to comment publicly on the situation,” the professor said in an email. “That policy, in my judgment, represents an abridgement of our First Amendment rights. However, I really do not want to become the test case.”
Lombardi said K-State’s decision to cut the equestrian team is hurtful. Parents said their children had been recruited with an understanding that scholarships would increase during the course of their time at K-State. However, a letter says the school will lock the scholarships in at their 2015 percentages.
“She wanted to make K-State her home,” Lombardi said. “My daughter may have to come home and go to junior college. (Currie) has no idea what any of our girls have had to endure to get here.”
When Currie announced plans to drop the equestrian team, the news release said K-State had worked to support the team with a current annual operating budget of $1.2 million. He also said there have been facility expenditures and improvements of $700,000 during the past five years.
The school also cited a recent recommendation by an NCAA committee that the NCAA cut equestrian from its list of emerging sports for women. The NCAA’s Division I and Division II governing bodies could decide the matter next spring or later, according to recent Capital-Journal articles.
On Monday, the University of Tennessee at Martin officials announced the 2015-2016 academic year would be the last for the Skyhawk equestrian team.
“This was a very difficult decision for our university but upcoming changes within the NCAA necessitated this move,” UT-Martin athletics director Julio Freire said in a statement on the school’s website. “We have to be proactive in protecting our Division-I status within the NCAA. Moving forward, we will honor the scholarship of each equestrian student-athlete through their fourth academic year.”
UT-Martin officially added equestrian in 2005 as an NCAA-recognized emerging sport, which means the sport has 10 years to accumulate 40 school-sponsored teams, a news release said.
Southern Methodist in 2009 and Baylor in 2006 officially added equestrian since the Skyhawks joined, bringing the current list of teams to 21, according to the UT-Martin website.
Equestrian had 10 years to reach a goal of 40 participating schools or show steady progress toward that mark, according to the NCAA. That period expired in 2012.
“In anticipation of the Committee on Women’s Athletics’ recommended legislation, we believe that at this time it is in our university’s best interest to discontinue equestrian from our list of sponsored sports after the 2015-2016 academic year,” Freire said of the UT-Martin decision. “This move has been resisted for over a half a year but unfortunately it is time to act. We just do not believe that there is a realistic path to add enough schools to achieve sustainability as a fully recognized NCAA championship sport.”
This article was republished with permission from the author, Ann Bush. The original article was published in the Topeka Capital-Journal.