Days after Towson University's athletic director recommended cutting two men's sports to make the remaining programs more competitive and comply with federal law requiring athletics opportunities for women, parents of the baseball team's players raised thousands of dollars to launch a public relations blitz.
They paid $1,600 for a plane to fly over a Ravens game trailing a banner that read, "HELP SAVE TOWSON BASEBALL," and planted fans holding #saveTUbaseball signs behind home plate — where they could be seen by television viewers — during the Orioles-Yankees series. The money also will fund a barrage of radio ads asking the university task force studying the issue to reject the plan.
The baseball parents — most of them local residents — have created a website and planted yard signs. Their sons and other Towson students have rallied, also offering support for men's soccer, the other team in jeopardy.
"It's not that we're simply upset about what our kids are losing," said Matt Butler, whose son, Brendan, was drafted by the Orioles before he decided instead to enroll at Towson. "We just don't see that it's justified. This isn't the way it has to go."
Athletic director Mike Waddell's recommendations thrust Towson into a debate about the soul of its athletic program. Parents and alumni from the baseball and soccer programs are convinced that Waddell wants to shift resources to the university's football and men's basketball programs in a vain attempt to raise Towson's athletic profile. Waddell says budget constraints have forced these options and defends his plan as the best way to elevate sports and meet federal law.
But in the process, critics say, he's robbing local athletes and students of scarce opportunities to play Division I sports in Maryland.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, chaired by University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan, has urged schools not to harm other programs in a quest for basketball and football glory.
As part of the baseball team's effort to spread its message, outfielder Dominic Fratantuono wrote to Kirwan, prompting the chancellor to write back and praise the Linthicum sophomore's "effort and commitment" to maintaining the program. Kirwan declined to comment to The Baltimore Sun about the Towson situation.
Teammate Zack Fisher met with the university president, Maravene Loeschke, and the task force, presenting several spreadsheets questioning Waddell's spending and offering suggestions for saving the programs. Baseball coach Mike Gottlieb pleaded for his team to be saved during a two-hour special on WBAL radio that featured two of the program's most decorated alumni: John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, and Seattle Mariners outfielder Casper Wells.
Parents, alumni and community members appeared before task force members last week, resoundingly decrying plans to cut the teams. About 300 people crowded the Minnegan Room — named for Doc Minnegan, the longtime men's soccer coach — with dozens of speakers exceeding their two-minute time limit.
The climax came when Danny Skelton, a former soccer player and the current coach at St. Paul's School, ended his remarks by turning to Loeschke, sitting at a table to his right. "Is this the vision of Towson University," asked Skelton, referring to Waddell's plan, "or is this the ambition of one man?"
The task force is expected to turn over its findings to Loeschke by the middle of this month. She hopes to make a decision quickly, in part to allow players time to transfer if the teams are cut.
Until then, two teams and 60 athletes will be in limbo, and an athletic department scuffling to make money and improve its reputation will remain fractured over priorities and spending.
Like most schools that don't benefit from Bowl Championship Series football money, Towson depends heavily on student fees to fund its athletic department.
When Waddell took over Towson athletics two years ago, part of his charge was to make the school's revenue-producing programs — football, men's and women's basketball, and men's and women's lacrosse — more competitive. That meant increased spending on coaching salaries, facilities, support staff and recruiting.
Towson officials hoped to cover the expense with increased fee revenue from projected enrollment increases. But with the stagnant state budgets of recent years, the university's enrollment growth has stalled. And that has contributed to the projected financial shortfalls in athletics.
Detractors of Waddell's plan say the cost of continuing men's soccer and baseball could be made up with a series of modest increases to the annual student athletic fee, which according to the university website is $798. If the university increased the fee 2 percent a year (about $16) for five years, the revenue could cover existing programs and allow for the creation of another low-cost women's program to comply with Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunities for women on campus.
But Loeschke has been reluctant to consider a fee increase. Waddell said raising the fee has "never been an option given to me."
"The university needs to invest in athletics," said Mike Gill, an alumnus and former chairman of Towson's Board of Visitors. "It needs to continue to raise modestly the student athletic fees. We're talking pennies, really, and it's the simplest way to get there."
The current fee is about twice that at the University of Maryland, College Park — which generates significant athletics revenue through ticket sales and television contracts — but comparable to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A USA Today study of student athletic fees published in 2010 found that Towson and UMBC's fees were among the 20 highest in the nation; James Madison, like Towson a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, already was charging more than $1,000 at that time, though.