Alexa Jacobs is a rising senior at Brown University. She was chosen to be co-captain of the school’s varsity women’s squash team, much like her mother, a Brown alumna, years before.
Gabrielle Shieh, a soon-to-be freshman at the Ivy League university, was recruited and committed in spring 2019 to play on the varsity women’s golf team – turning down other schools for the chance to play at Brown.
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The women are years apart and have dedicated their lives to much different sports. But they share an unexpected, unfortunate commonality: Brown University has effectively canceled their respective athletic programs.
Jacobs, a 20-year-old from Boston, and Shieh, 18, from Carlisle, Massachusetts, were two of the more than 150 student-athletes who received an unusual email shortly after noon on May 28, 2020, with the subject line: “IMPORTANT: Email on Behalf of Jack Hayes, Director of Athletics re: 1:00 PM EST Zoom Call.”
“Dear Student-Athletes,” states the email, which was obtained by FOX Business, “This email is to invite you to join me for a webinar scheduled for today (5/28/20) at 1:00 P.M. EST, regarding the athletics department. Below you will find the necessary login information. We encourage you to join.”
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The email, signed by the university’s director of athletics, Jack Hayes, provided log-in instructions, but no further information about the reason for the call.
“I thought it would just be like an update regarding COVID to talk about what the year would look like,” Jacobs said, “but I had absolutely zero clue what is going to be about.”
The call lasted “less than ten minutes,” Jacobs estimated.
“He said, basically, something along the lines of, ‘Brown has too many sports, we’re not competitive, so we have to cut the following programs,’” she continued. After listing the programs that the school would be eliminating – 11 at the time – Hayes apologized and said the school would be following up with additional information in the coming days, Jacobs said.
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Shieh said school officials did not take questions from attendees after making the sudden announcement.
“The next correspondence we got was a Zoom call about how to transfer,” Jacobs said. “That was the only follow-up they provided … It was the day after.”
Brown University officials later announced they would be reinstating cross-country, and track and field, despite initial intentions to do so, according to the Providence Journal.
But Brown still plans to scrap the following teams: women’s equestrian; women’s fencing; men’s fencing; women’s golf; men’s golf; women’s skiing; men’s squash; and women’s squash, according to a letter sent to university officials earlier this month by Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney tapped by the coalition of student-athletes looking for answers and a resolution. The teams that will be eliminated will instead be given club status.
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Brown’s student-athletes, old and new, were left completely in the dark about what Kessler described in the letter as a “years-long covert initiative to reduce the number of varsity teams at Brown.” This “secret review” was conducted by the university during the 2018-2019 schoolyear, he said.
In January 2020, when the review was complete, the university created a “Committee on Excellence in Athletics,” “with the specific charge of “developing a plan to reduce the number of varsity teams at Brown,” Kessler wrote.
“This is a very unusual situation [in] my experience with higher education, how they treat teams,” Kessler told FOX Business. “This is not a situation where the school has run out of money and they need to cut back on sports because of financial considerations.”
Kessler said the university lied to its students, misrepresented its intentions and withheld information, in turn committing a fraud.
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The school’s plan was executed “in secret, in order to prevent the students from having the option to decide – maybe being varsity athletes is very important to them, so they want to transfer or not accept an admission if they have another choice. By depriving the athlete of the ability, what the university has done through their own omissions is commit a fraud,” Kessler said. “I’ve never seen this done this way by higher education ever.”
Kessler is no stranger to representing athletes and sports agencies in often high-profile legal battles. He worked with then New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the NFL Players Association in 2015 in what became known as the “Deflategate” scandal.
He was also one of the attorneys in a high-profile case in 2018 against the NCAA surrounding student-athlete compensation. Kessler and his team won the landmark case.
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“There’s no this dispute about what happened here because at his conference the president of Brown stated, as did the athletic director, well, they needed to keep it secret because otherwise the athletes may have not joined the teams or left the school,” Kessler continued. “Well, that’s an admission of a fraud.”
A Brown University spokesperson did not respond to FOX Business’ request for comment on Friday, but said earlier in the week that school officials are aware of Kessler’s letter, which was sent on June 18, and plan to 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,” the spokesperson, Brian Clark, said at the time.
And in an open letter dated June 6, titled, “Addressing Brown varsity sports decisions,” Paxson said the decision was part of steps Brown was taking “to improve the overall competitiveness of our varsity athletics program, enhance the strength of our club sports and build stronger affinity with athletics across the entirety of our community.”
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After learning of the fate of their sports teams, Jacobs and Shieh found themselves rethinking why they had decided to attend Brown University.
For Shieh, who hasn’t even officially begun her college career at Brown, it’s a lost opportunity to play golf during her freshman year. The announcement was made too late for her to transfer to another Ivy League or Division I school.
“I also looked into other schools in case I wanted to take a gap year. Most of the recruiting spots for 2021 are also filled up,” she said. “My only option would really be to transfer out of Brown after my first year at Brown, which I think I’m considering at the moment.”
Shieh has been planning to play golf at Brown since the spring of 2019 and even declined other recruitment offers, but said she was completely left in the dark about the school’s review and the potential for these circumstances.
“This was never mentioned to me at all,” she told FOX Business.
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Shieh said she has played golf since she was 7.
“I put my trust in Brown to be able to compete on that team … Playing at this competitive level, it’s honestly a very big part of who I am,” she continued. “I definitely would have chosen a different university to play for if I knew that this was a possibility.”
For Jacobs, an economics major nearing the end of her college career, options are limited.
“If I were younger, I would definitely consider transferring. If I were an incoming freshman, I would not go to Brown,” Jacobs said. “But just because I’m going to be a senior – I’ve had three great years, I have great friends and everything – I definitely wouldn’t transfer at this point.”
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In his June 18 letter, Kessler urged Paxson and the school to begin a dialogue with the students and ultimately reconsider the decision.
“No one wants a legal battle if it can be avoided. To that end, we invite the university to engage in immediate settlement discussions with the coalition so that the parties can attempt to resolve this matter amicably and without legal proceedings,” Kessler wrote. “However, time is of the essence.”