Micah Rice: Hopefully, Clark track stays around for the long run

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

Could the finish line be near for the Clark College track and field program?

Clark College has suspended recruiting for the men's track and field team for the 2014-15 season.

While current scholarships will be honored, beyond that the future of the entire track program is murky.

The program's fate will be up to whoever fills the vacant athletic director job, according to vice president of student affairs William Belden.

That scenario doesn't sit well with Mike Hickey, who coached Clark's track teams the past two seasons but recently resigned to pursue another opportunity.

"I know what track and field did for me," Hickey said. "I grew up poor. Without athletics, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree or a master's."

Belden said the issue boils down to two factors: Budgetary restrictions and Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in all publicly funded educational programs.

Title IX is understandably a sensitive issue for Clark College, which faced a Title IX non-compliance lawsuit in 2011.

The law requires the gender split of a school's athletic participation mirror that of the student body as a whole. For Clark, that's 54 percent female.

Despite a three-year effort to boost female athletic participation, Belden said the school is closer to a 50-50 split, barely within 5-percent of wiggle room allowed for by Title IX.

Track, which has traditionally had more men than women in the program, has found itself under the microscope.

"It's a delicate conversation," Belden said. "We know there are citizens who are very concerned."

Clark College, meanwhile, has seen its state funding fall from 63 percent of its budget in 2008-09 to 38 percent in the past school year.

Last year, the school changed how it distributes money to various athletic teams, partly in response to its Title IX goals. Instead of each sport having its own allotment, the money is pooled simply into four categories: women's athletics, men's athletics, coaches and athletics administration.

In 2012-13, women's athletics received $90,664, the men got $78,499, coaches received $83,057 and administration received $122,525.

"There may be times when the softball team gets 25 student athletes and the cross-country team only has five," Former athletic director Charles Guthrie told the Clark College Independent in March. "We can't just give cross-country $18,000 for five student athletes. It does not make sense. We need to be able to move that money around and say we need to support softball because they have more women."

Hickey, the former track coach, expressed frustration at what resources have been devoted to track. While facility improvements have been made to Clark's basketball, baseball and softball venues, the track team practices across the street at Hudson's Bay High School. Belden said there has been talk of upgrading Clark's soccer field to an artificial surface and installing a track around that, but where the money will come from is part of "a larger conversation about our future and what we may need to invest in."

I hope Clark track and field, a program that dates back to the 1940s, continues into the future. Track, while not the most glamorous, popular or high-profile sport, offers all the benefits of hard work and teamwork.

That hope may be naive. For years, the combination of strict Title IX requirements and tight budgets makes it too easy for colleges to put low-profile athletics on the chopping block.

Let's hope with regards to its track program, Clark shows the will and perseverance of a distance runner during the last lap of a race.