By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Friday May 8, 2020
After men’s and women’s tennis was cut at St. Edwards, the players fought to bring the university to the table in an attempt to keep it alive.
Photo Source: Chase Bartlett
Not much derailed the momentum of St. Edwards University men’s and women’s tennis over the last half-decade. Rising to national prominence was just part of the story for a juggernaut program that excelled due to its commitment to development on and off the court as well as a steadfast dedication to the concept of team unity.
St. Edwards tennis players have been taught that no individual matters more than the team, and they lived by that tenet zealously as they trained to deal with adversity and rally around one another when times get tough. But nothing could have prepared these student athletes for the shock that occurred in mid-April, when funding for men’s and women’s tennis was cut by university executives without warning.
Not only had their season vanished a month earlier due to Coronavirus, now the entire legacy of St. Edwards tennis was suddenly in danger of extinction.
“It’s been a couple of weeks, but it’s still just as heartbreaking as the first day,” women’s tennis Head Coach Kendall Brooks told Tennis Now, aptly summing up the collective mindset of a tennis program that was delivered the worst possible news in the worst possible way.
In the decision’s aftermath, the team is still employing the warrior mentality that brought them to historically high national rankings this season (the men are ranked 6 and the women are ranked 22 in the NCAA’s Division II rankings). With the odds stacked firmly against them they are still digging in and hoping for what may just prove to be their finest moment.
Enter Chase Bartlett, one of four All-Americans on the men’s team. The Texas native is leading an eleventh-hour fight that has kept the program alive, at least for now.
— Chase Bartlett (@chaser707) May 6, 2020
Bartlett has been relentless in his pursuit of a more creative solution to what he perceives to be a cop-out by the school, and he has made impressive progress thus far. But the task remains daunting, as Bartlett and his teammates find themselves scrambling to raise a king’s ransom by the end of May due to the university’s lofty demands (St. Edwards wants $2 million by the end of May and another $16.2 million over the next five years to reinstate the program).Pushed to the brink by an administration with a lame duck president (He’ll be gone at the end of next year) and an apparent blind spot when it comes to recognizing the true value that student athletes add to a campus, the reality is bleak at best.
“We have been given a reinstatement plan that is probably heftier than any other reinstatement plan in NCAA history,” a dejected Bartlett told Tennis Now on Tuesday after a he had just finished a half hour Zoom meeting with several key members of the University’s administration. “Basically they’re asking around $18.2 million dollars over the next five years just for tennis, and the same is true for every other sport that they’ve cut which totals around over $60 million dollars in total ask.”
Bartlett says the exorbitant ask is almost as difficult to stomach as the university’s original knee-jerk reaction to cut the program.
“They gave us one month to do it,” he says with a sigh. “That’s a lot of money, especially right now in a time of a world crisis.”
It’s remarkable that Bartlett, a theology major with minors in German and English who is also the President of the school’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, has been able to accomplish so much in such a short time. His efforts speak to the resolve of the program, their problem-solving skills and overall earnestness. After posting an initial video on Facebook and helping spark an online petition that has garnered nearly 20,000 signatures, Bartlett has opened dialogs with key decision makers, rallied deep-pocketed alumni and forced his way into several meetings with university higher-ups.
So far the tennis team alone has raised $500,000—no small task in these turbulent times, and it’s no surprise that these kids have been able to push back this hard. Tennis Now spoke to men’s coach Estevam Strecker and could instantly see why the team had no problem going to war for each other off the court.
In an animated phone conversation Strecker told us that he once showed his team a video of Tom Brady and Julian Edelman’s viral hug after their Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams and made an ultimatum: “Until you guys feel for each other the way they feel for each other, we can talk about winning national championships, but it’s never going to happen,” he told his team.
Those words stuck, a sign that the lessons learned at St. Edwards and the impact that the tennis program was having on the kids’ lives went way beyond tennis.
“The last two seasons, for the first time, I saw that,” Strecker told Tennis Now, excitedly. “We were going to war for each other. And as a coach, what else can you ask? No one was more important than the overall success.”
Sadly, after many battles won, and so much personal growth and development, this war may be lost.
The latest demands from the university are puzzling. Tennis is considered a break-even sport (Bartlett cites a leaked report from 2018 that shows tennis netting $52 for the school while big programs like men’s and women’s basketball each were $600,000 in the red). Whatever the financial figures, St. Edwards’s latest offer feels like a hollow gesture to student-athletes who have sacrificed years of blood, sweat and tears for the school.
“It’s closer to a ransom note than a reinstatement plan,” Bartlett told me of the University’s latest demands. “It’s absurd that they would even ask us to do that.”
It makes one wonder: Does the school have any interest in helping these kids or are they just throwing out an arbitrary dollar figure that will break their spirits and make this whole thing go away once and for all?
Tennis Now spoke with Tim Russell, the CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, and learned that he has reached out to St. Edwards’ administration and not heard back from a single administrator (we got a canned response from an assistant athletic director but nothing more). Russell says the disappointment is deep, and he fears that more tennis teams will get the same rude treatment across the nation as America slips into a deep recession due to the Coronavirus.
“My basic feelings are that college athletics provide opportunities to a lot of different people, and so obviously I’m very disappointed when any program is cut; I’m particularly disappointed when one that’s as fine as this one is cut and my triple level of disappointment is when it literally comes with no forewarning,” he said. “I just think that’s irresponsible in terms of a way of doing business.”
It’s a difficult time for St. Edwards and the over 100 athletes who are being directly affected by these cuts (88 currently enrolled and 25 future enrollees) who are now faced to put all their energy into fundraising efforts to get the program reinstated while they could be out searching for a spot on another school’s roster (and taking finals).
Bartlett understands that the Coronavirus has caused dire consequences and he’s aware that there are many Americans are suffering more than he and his teammates, but he is motivated by the sense of injustice he feels. The lack of communication from the university and the haphazard way in which the cuts were initially handled has left the tennis teams feeling abandoned.
“The tradition that tennis holds from back in the day is just tremendous,” said Coach Brooks. “For one, the school is losing that rich tradition and all of the alumni support that came behind that.”
Brooks, who played at Texas Tech and took her first head coaching job seven years ago at St. Edwards, says that the school stands to lose some truly valuable assets.
“These are not your average student athletes that we’re bringing to campus,” she said, singling out Bartlett and Paolo Carpio, who won the 2019 Intercollegiate Tennis Association Arthur Ashe Jr. Leadership and Sportsmanship Award, from the group as examples. “These are amazing young adults that are really paving the path and representing their university like they should. So I think they are losing a group of kids that you would think any university would want.”
As the school desperately searches for its bottom line, it is choosing to ignore the fact that part of the St. Edwards’ prestige has been built on the backs of the very men and women that now find themselves without a program. Isn’t there value in that? The short-sighted decision to ignore that question might save a few pennies, but does St. Edwards expect these cuts do anything other than make the school less appealing to future generations?
Then there is the notion that the money the university is asking for reinstatement is just ludicrous.
Coach Strecker told Tennis Now that the school calculated expenses of $44,000 annually for facility maintenance in their presentation to the team in a recent meeting. He says they have only resurfaced the courts once during his seven-year tenure and added that the only other work that gets done is cutting the grass around the court and picking up the trash.
“If that’s 44,000 dollars a year I’ll cut the grass,” he said. “I’ll be making more money cutting the grass than coaching the team.”
Strecker: “I’ll just be a hypocrite and everything I’ve ever said to them just doesn’t mean anything. I will die before that happens.”
Both mens’ and womens’ tennis may find themselves down a set and a double break in this fight but it is impossible to overlook the 100 percent commitment of Bartlett and company as they push back against what they feel is an unfair decision.
It certainly motivated the team even more when recently the University tweeted out a congratulatory message for Bartlett and the school’s other three All-American tennis players, despite the fact that the program had already been cut (Strecker proudly told me that all four All-Americans were from Texas when we talked).
Congratulations to @SEUMTennis‘ Chase Bartlett (singles & doubles), Abhi Ramireddy (doubles), Anish Sriniketh (singles & doubles) and Jesse Wikso (doubles) on achieving All-America honors for the 2019-20 season! 👏 pic.twitter.com/2ymGUrLLHd
— St. Edward’s Hilltoppers (@SEUAthletics) April 28, 2020
Not great to see your school exploiting the successes of kids that it had recently canned with no warning.
“They’ve made plenty of mistakes in this,” Bartlett says of University leadership. “At the very least it seems like they are demanding way too much. I think we have a chance to bring those demands down, but the big problem is that we have committed maybe another week and a half before we give up on it. Because our athletes are kind of in limbo right now—and they need to find places to go.”
These are desperate times, but the tennis players of St. Edwards University are still digging in, employing those tried and true tools of mental toughness and self-belief that will make them not just better players, but better people going forward. They are doing it for each other and they are fully aware that their efforts could make a difference when the next athletic department considers cutting tennis as a simple fix to a complicated problem.
Whether it is their last true test at St. Edwards or not, this will be one that the team will always remember. When they look back they’ll be able to say that they never quit, not on themselves and most important: not on each other.
“I would say we’ve got a little bit of hope, but not a whole lot,” Bartlett said in our last conversation. “It’s looking pretty grim. I don’t know if the university is willing to compromise.”