Lawyers for a group of Brown University athletes whose sports have been targeted for elimination are accusing the Ivy League school of fraud for working secretly on a plan to cut the programs without telling the players their varsity careers were in jeopardy.
In a letter to Brown President Christina Paxson, attorney Jeffrey Kessler said the school made a “purposeful choice to conceal critical information" that cost the athletes the chance to enroll at or transfer to a different school.
“It’s very clear that Brown knew at least in January and probably much earlier that it was going to be cutting a significant number of teams, and it deliberately concealed that information from the students and their families,” Kessler told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “By doing so, it betrayed a duty to these athletes and their families. We believe it’s unlawful, and we’re hoping that the university will rethink this and restore the teams.”
Brown announced last month that as part of a plan to redirect resources to its more successful programs it would eliminate 11 varsity sports and promote coed and women's sailing to varsity status, bringing the school’s total from 38 teams to 29. The plan would scuttle the men's and women's fencing, golf and squash teams and women’s skiing and equestrian.
After a backlash over the disparate effect the cuts would have on minority students, the school backed down and agreed to keep men’s track and cross-country.
Unlike the schools that are cutting teams to save money because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brown’s reshuffling of the athletic department has been in the works since 2018. According to the letter, the school completed its review during the 2018-19 academic year and kept it secret from the athletes and their coaches.
“They say that this has nothing to do with money and it has nothing to do with the COVID epidemic,” Kessler said. “It is solely because ... they think cutting teams will somehow make Brown more competitive overall.”
The letter claims the school’s actions constitute fraud, citing nearly a dozen Rhode Island court cases as precedent. It warns the school of “significant legal exposure,” asks the school to reconsider the decision and proposes settlement discussions that would avoid a court case.
“We’ll give them a few days, but we can’t wait that long. Players need to make their future plans," Kessler said, adding that the coalition he represents includes players from each of the canceled teams. “Our objective would be to have all those teams restored.”
Brown spokesman Brian Clark said the school was “aware of the June 18 letter and will respond as appropriate.”
“We understood that there would be disappointment among members of the teams transitioning to club status, which is why support for student-athletes has been our top priority since the initiative’s launch,” Clark said in an email to the AP.
According to the letter, the school has known it would be cutting sports at least since it formed “the ironically named ‘Committee on Excellence in Athletics’ in January 2020 with the specific charge of ‘developing a plan to reduce the number of varsity teams at Brown.’”
“It intentionally withheld that information from the Student-Athletes, knowing full well that it was highly material to their academic, athletic and financial decision-making processes—i.e., whether to remain at Brown or accept admission to another University,” the letter said, adding that the decision to cut the sports was announced in May on a Zoom call that the athletes were given less than an hour's notice for.
“When the University finally revealed this devastating news to the Student-Athletes, it knew that it was too late, as a practical matter, for any of them to transfer to comparable schools and resume (or for recruits, begin) their varsity careers.”
Athletes who transfer schools typically have to wait a year before returning to competition. Skier Maddie McCarthy, who made the Academic All-American team as a freshman this year, told the AP that by the time the decision was announced, few other schools had spots remaining for recruited athletes in non-revenue sports.
“I love Brown, but I feel like my teammates and I were deceived,” said McCarthy, who said she plans to stay at Brown and give up skiing. “I fought hard to be admitted to Brown, to make the team and to contribute to our success. To not receive the same honesty that is expected of us is more than devastating.”