Track & Solidarity

Track & Solidarity

The women of William & Mary Track and Field stage a boycott.

Track & Solidarity
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 028, November 2020

Words and illustrations by Liam Boylan-Pett 

On September 3, Lauren Finikiotis sat in front of her computer—discussing environmental justice with an on-screen collage of her anthropology classmates—when the email hit her inbox. It was a message from the William & Mary University athletic department. She was on the cross-country and track and field teams, but she did not get emails from the department often. She told the breakout room of her classmates she needed a second to read something.

Scanning through, Finikiotis, a senior finance and mathematics major, was taken aback if not surprised. William & Mary was cutting seven varsity sports. According to the email, men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, women’s volleyball, and men’s indoor and outdoor track and field were getting the axe at the end of the 2020-21 academic year due to department costs and projected budget deficits. Finikiotis had seen Olympic sports cut at other universities throughout the summer and knew the William & Mary athletic department was not some money-making machine, so she was not surprised. Still, she could not believe the men’s track and field team was on the list. These were her teammates, her friends. 

Her mind returned to class and she looked at the rest of the Zoom room. “They just cut men’s track,” Finikiotis told her classmates. The faces on the screen turned soft. They all said how sorry they were and a few asked if there was anything they could do.

Prospects looked grim for the seven sports. The statement from the athletic department left little room for hope: “The decision to reduce our varsity sports offerings is final.”

Still in class, Finikiotis’ phone started buzzing with messages about the news. She texted her roommates, who were also distance runners on the women’s team. A GroupMe chat filled with notes and questions from the entire women’s team. She reached out to some of her friends on the men’s team, a few of whom said they learned about the fate of their team in the mass email to the athletic community. They all tried to make sense of the news. 

The mood in the messages circulating in Finikiotis’ community, however, did not seem too deterred by the athletic department’s claim that the decision was “final.” In 2020, Finikiotis and her teammates had watched their outdoor track and field and cross-country seasons get canceled, a pandemic rage around the globe, and a summer filled with civil and racial injustices. They were not going to let this piece of bad news pile atop an already awful year. 

Finikiotis was barely out of her anthropology class and she and her teammates were already scheming. The question, they asked, was what they were going to do about the men’s team, and how far would they have to go to make a difference?

“We accepted that this whole thing sucked,” she would later tell me, “but we did not wallow or get upset.” 

One thing was certain: They were willing to do whatever it took. 

“We decided,” Finikiotis said, “we were ready to fight to bring this team back.”

William & Mary Logo without the M

In March, Finikiotis sat at the beach with a handful of her fellow junior-year teammates on the women’s and men’s teams in Charleston, South Carolina, enjoying spring break. 

The week before, the men’s and women’s teams had one of the best weekends in the history of the program. The women’s team set eight indoor school records at the Eastern Conference Athletic Championships in Boston, including six on the final day of the meet. The men’s team won a school-record six events at the meet to finish second of 37 teams. Program director Alex Heacock could barely believe it. “As far as a collective team effort for both men and women, this one takes the cake, no question about it,” he told the William & Mary sports information department. “A phenomenal weekend. I couldn’t have scripted it any better than how it came out, to be honest.”

Down in Charleston, Finikiotis and the other juniors on the team were eager to build on the great end to the season and were excited to race on an outdoor track soon. 

Having already run that morning, Finikiotis sat on the beach, relaxing and chatting with her closest friends. Then, their phones started buzzing. COVID-19 was showing no signs of slowing. The outdoor season was canceled.

No one really knew what to do. Finikiotis went back to the place they were staying at, laced up her shoes, and went out for another run. She did not go far, only a mile that ended with her sprinting out of frustration, regret, and, as she later told me, who knows what else. She knew there were bigger problems in the world, but, like most of the other athletes in the N.C.A.A. and around the country, she just wanted to run. 

It was not going to happen that spring, though. The group returned to campus, and after a few days, most of them packed up and went home. Finikiotis returned to Gibson, Pennsylvania, a northern suburb of Pittsburgh, and focused on training for cross-country, with hopes that the pandemic might calm by the fall. 

She stayed in touch with her teammates through text, Snapchat, and GroupMe, and would join team Zoom meetings held by the coaching staff. It was hard, but she felt close to the team. 

She felt a sense of community with the larger track and field community, too. “We had this sense of connection with our team and the rest of the athletes in the N.C.A.A.,” she said. “We weren’t doing it alone. Everyone was in the same boat from pros to college to high school athletes. We were upset, but we saw it as a time to grow as people and as runners.” 

That connection, however, would run out for a handful of teams around the country. In mid-May, Akron University cut its men’s track and field team. Less than a week later, Central Michigan University followed suit. Stanford University cut 11 varsity sports (not track and field) in June. Brown University cut track (only to have it reinstated thanks to activism), same went for the University of Minnesota (in the end, only indoor track and field was let go at Minnesota).

Finikiotis could not believe how many programs were making cuts. All summer, she hoped William & Mary would not join the list.

William & Mary Logo without the M

The September 3 announcement to cut seven sports faced immediate backlash. Alumni and supporter groups formed. Within five days, the track team created a social media campaign called Save Tribe Track & Field that encouraged everyone to sign petitions and make calls to the university. The Instagram feed featured the voices of past and current track and field athletes, each given a chance to say what the team and the sport meant to them.

To make matters worse for the administration, a William & Mary professor noticed that the announcement to cut the sports matched the announcement made by Stanford in April—the department had plagiarized parts of the note, athletic director Samantha Huge admitted. 

The groups demanding the seven sports being reinstated cited a lack of transparency. They had not seen any detailed rationale—simply that the athletic department’s budget was in disarray. They wanted a voice at the table. 

The university’s Board of Visitors and William & Mary President Katherine Rowe heard the calls, and on September 23 invited members of the community to a special listening meeting. 

William & Mary Logo without the M

Less than three weeks after William & Mary cut seven varsity sports, Lauren Finikiotis stood in front of a microphone in one of the conference rooms of William & Mary’s Alumni House. There were about 70 others in the room with her, including about a dozen members of the university’s Board of Visitors, who were seated behind desks facing the crowd. 

Members of the William & Mary community were being given a chance to speak in two-minute increments, and many were laying out the case that the administration was making a mistake in cutting the seven sports. 

After 40 minutes into the meeting, Finikitios walked up to one of the microphones. Wearing a mask and her 2018 Colonial Athletic Association cross-country conference champion shirt, she began by explaining why she had chosen William & Mary. “This was the place for me,” she said in a strong, confident voice that cut through her mask, “not because of the glamour associated with collegiate athletics, but because of the sense of the pride, the sense of community, the sense of family. Today, wearing William & Mary across my chest doesn’t feel right.”

She told the room that using Title IX as an excuse to cut the men’s team was short-sighted. She cited a statistic that of the N.C.A.A. schools that support only a women’s program, many, if not all, finished in the bottom 40 percent of their conferences. “The mission of Title IX is to create equal opportunities for women,” she said, her voice steady. “Using that law to cut the men’s team knowing that it will negatively impact the women’s team is contradictory and deplorable. William & Mary track and field is not separated by gender.”

“Through this decision,” Finikiotis said, “William & Mary is telling their female athletes that they are only a number and a tick on a balance sheet.” 

She picked up the pace and spoke with more confidence as she continued, imploring the Board of Visitors to consider her plea. “William & Mary advertises how liberal arts enables students to think outside the box,” she said. “Well, there is an obvious problem with the business model that the athletic department is currently running. I challenge the Board of Visitors and President Rowe to embrace the values William & Mary preaches and to create a solution that brings the community together, rather than alienating over 5,000 members of the William & Mary family.”  

Those in the crowd clapped as Finikiotis walked back to her seat. She was one of 72 who spoke, joining fellow student athletes, parents, alumni, and faculty who wanted an explanation about the state of the athletic department.

The appeals worked. The next day, Rowe announced that Huge, the athletic director, would open a dialogue with representatives. 

The alumni groups were not counting on discussions with Huge to change everything, however. In fact, on September 25, a law firm representing William & Mary’s women’s swimmers, gymnasts, and volleyball players announced its intention to sue William & Mary for “depriving women athletes and potential athletes of equal opportunities, financial aid and treatment in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972,” according to Marty O’Brien of the Virginian-Pilot.

From there, things moved quickly and in sometimes chaotic fashion. 

On October 6, Huge resigned under mounting pressure. “Director Huge and I have mutually agreed that it is best to part ways so the university can focus on the critical questions facing William & Mary Athletics,” President Rowe said in a statement. “I accept this step with a heavy heart and with great respect for Samantha Huge and her leadership.” Jeremy Martin, Rowe’s chief of staff, took over in an interim role. 

Martin was proactive, speaking with the campus community and team representatives almost immediately.  On October 19, the three women’s sports involved in the Title IX lawsuit were reinstated. It was a small win for the athletic community.

Not for men’s track and field, though. 

Finikiotis was excited for her fellow William & Mary athletes who were coming back, but she felt the reason for bringing them back did not bring confidence in the system. “The message from the athletic department,” she told me, “was ‘We’re keeping your team so we don’t get another lawsuit.’” 

Bringing those three teams back was not going to stop the fight from the track community, though. They were still writing letters and making calls. Randy Hawthorne, a 1967 William & Mary graduate who helped raise millions of dollars in donations for the program throughout the years, threatened to give back alumni medals, and he claimed that $16 million of pledged donations would be canceled if men’s track remained on the chopping block.

Nothing, it seemed, was getting the attention of the administration. 

It had been about six weeks, and the way Finikiotis saw it, the athletic department figured the community would be mad for a month or two, but then they would get over it. “We wanted to make it clear,” she said, “that we weren’t gonna give in or give up.” 

One more thing was becoming clear: Because the calls and emails were not working, they needed to do something more drastic.

William & Mary Logo without the M

On September 18, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Like many young women and men, Finikiotis looked up to Ginsburg. When she was thinking about all the ways she might be able to help the men’s track and field team at William & Mary, Finikiotis often thought of Ginsburg. One of Ginsburg’s landmark trials—the one that is central to the plot of the biopic On the Basis of Sex—stated that any law which discriminates on the basis of sex is unjust. While the precedent would impact women all over the country, Ginsburg defended a man in the case. He was a caregiver for his aging mother, but the law in the 1960s would not recognize him as a caregiver. 

Finikiotis knew fighting for the men’s team would impact the women’s team. They had the same coaches, used the same facilities, often practiced at the same time. Without a men’s team, the coaches would likely get paid less. The women would have less resources, too. With Ginsburg in the back of her mind, Finikiotis led a fight for female equality and gender equity by fighting for men’s rights. “We weren’t just fighting to get our friends back on the track,” Finikiotis said, “we were fighting because the cut of the men’s team directly impacts the future of female success.”

And in the days after the athletic department announced the three women’s sports were coming back, Finikiotis and her teammates made one of the toughest decisions of their lives.

(In our discussions and text messages, Finikiotis continually claimed “we” when discussing the team’s actions throughout this fall, Taylor Jones, a pole vaulter on the team told me Finikiotis was the leader of the women’s team and its protest.)

On October 24, members of the William & Mary women’s track and field team taped a piece of paper to the door of President Rowe’s door. They also looped a yellow William & Mary track and field jersey through the knocker. The note was an “Open Letter to the Administration and Board of Visitors.” It expressed the disappointment in the decision to cut men’s track and field. 

“We will begin a campaign of passive resistance to the unfair practices and policies of the College’s administration,” the letter read. “As such, you can expect to see us front and center … you can expect us to take our argument to our student body, to our faculty, and to our alumni.” The letter was posted online as well. 

The front page ended with a plan of action beyond the harshly worded letter. “… what you should not expect,” it read, “is for us to show up in uniform, representing this institution, until this matter is resolved.”

They were going to boycott. If the men’s team was being cut, the women were not going to compete, either. When, at the Board of Visitors meeting in September, Finikiotis said she did not feel good wearing “William & Mary” across her chest, she meant it. 

In all, 26 athletes signed the letter. Twenty-six William & Mary women decided to put their own athletic careers on hold to stand up for the men’s team—to stand up for men’s rights for their own.

It was hard to convince all 26 women to sign the letter and commit to the boycott. Some felt it was the only thing they could do to help the men’s team. Many of the athletes were on scholarship, however, and even though the coaching staff was supportive, those athletes were scared they would lose the one thing keeping them in school. On top of that, they were dealing with going to college during a pandemic. Many were worried about getting jobs or summer internships. They were also already protesting. Many members of the team participated in racial justice rallies throughout the fall. It was all difficult, mature work.

But through Zoom meetings and text messages and difficult conversations, the decision was clear to 26 women on the team. 

They signed the letter and readied themselves for the boycott. 

William & Mary Logo without the M

The week of the presidential election, Finikiotis and her teammates talked about how they really needed a win. It had been a long fall, they thought. They were feeling beaten down. Wouldn’t it be nice, they half-joked, if something good happened?

That Tuesday they watched election results pour in, then kept on watching through the rest of the week as more and more votes were counted. 

Then on Thursday, Finikiotis and her friends and teammates finally got a win. 

Finikiotis does not remember exactly where she was when she heard the news—“It’s funny how you remember the bad things more than the good things sometimes,” she told me—but she simply remembers hearing that the men’s track and field team was being reinstated. She remembers the relief and she remembers thinking, “Something we all did worked. We won.” 

The administration announced that all seven sports that were cut in early September were being reinstated. 

In the cases of programs being cut across the country, an onslaught of emails, phone calls, and social media campaigns to raise awareness and either raise money or cut off funding seemed like the only thing a track and field program could do to give itself a fighting chance. The William & Mary women went one step further. (The administration did not respond to a Løpe Magazine email asking for comment on just how much impact the boycott had on the decision to reinstate the seven sports.) Sure, one could argue that because of the pandemic they might not have gotten a chance to compete anyways—so of course it was easy to sign up for a boycott. 

As of mid-November, however, the N.C.A.A. is still planning to host an indoor and cross-country season this winter. The William & Mary women were ready to run without their school’s support. In cutting the men’s team, the administration was losing the women’s team, too. 

William & Mary Logo without the M

The fight is not over. In the excitement that the men’s team was being reinstated, lost in the fine print was that the teams were being brought back through at least the 2021-22 school year. The budget still needs to be fixed. As Finikiotis said at the Board of Visitors meeting, she is hopeful the administration will learn to think outside the box to make the accounting work for the 23 varsity sports that make up the athletic department. 

This is Finikiotis’ last year on the team. Once she graduates this spring, she will move to Washington, D.C., to begin a career in finance. She is hopeful that she will be able to compete, pandemic willing, but knows the work she and her teammates did this fall will make any success on the track a bonus. 

For now, she is celebrating the win and the fact that the men’s team is breathing easier. Slowly, she is going to start getting ready for cross-country season. She is excited to put the William & Mary singlet on for one more year. 

William & Mary Logo without the M

“I hope we set a precedent,” Finikiotis told me. “We are an example of how a women’s team can fight for gender equity. Our team really hopes that we can be role models and inspiration for the next team that gets cut.”

Only days after fans of track and field rejoiced thanks to the news about William & Mary, the University of Clemson, the school with the $131.9 million athletic department budget, announced it was cutting men’s track and field.

Alumni groups and supporters were lining up immediately to offer help. This fight may be harder. The money and power in the athletic department at a Power Five conference could make for an interesting battle. It would be even more interesting, however, if the women’s team threatened to boycott.

William & Mary Logo without the M

Editor’s note: We changed the illustration for this story because originally we had illustrated an image based off a photo of five William & Mary women’s track and field athletes who are white. We substituted two of the athletes for two Black athletes in the image. For that, we are sorry. We also removed an anecdote based on a story from a local CBS affiliate.

Buy a copy of Hurry Slowly