Editorial: Eastern Michigan Endgame

By Britt Malinsky:

On Tuesday, March 20th, three days after the conclusion of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, we all woke up to the news that Eastern Michigan University’s wrestling program would be shut down at the conclusion of the season, alongside men’s swimming and diving, and women’s softball and tennis. Almost immediately, the wrestling community went to work in solidarity to try to save the program, some by simply showing support, some by raising money, some by doing other things. I immediately thought to ask to make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of the university, asking for a copy of Athletic Director Scott Wetherbee’s contract, and three days later, I had a copy of said contract in my e-mail inbox, which was promptly posted on this website’s Twitter account, @wrestlingbypir8, and also can be found at Scott Wetherbee’s contract. As this piece goes forward, follow the money.

Originally, the idea was to see what incentives the contract had for non-revenue sports, in hopes of being able to work with Wetherbee to give him reasons to reinstate the program. What I found, on the other hand, was clause 8.3.1, which was the clause re-opening his buyout if he dropped any sports in the meantime. The sentence before stated, “The University has no present intention to eliminate any of its current varsity sports.” Given that the contract was signed on December 12th, 2017, exactly 98 days before the program was, in fact, disbanded, this told me that that clause was negotiated in bad faith. I can’t imagine that much would have changed in fewer than 100 days that would have caused Wetherbee to can four sports. Also, remember the December 12th date, that’ll be important in the next paragraph.

Number two, New facilities press release. Check the date on that…look familiar? Oh, yes, THREE DAYS after the signing of the contract. And, further, look at clause 4.1.2 in Wetherbee’s contract, combined with the memorandum on the last page of the contract PDF. If he raises two million dollars in the 2017-18 fiscal year (ending June 30th), he gets a $2,000 bonus. If he raises five million dollars, a $10,000 bonus. Well, it’s a heck of a lot easier to raise money for a capital project than it is to, say, keep an athletic department simply running. Get people excited about a $75,000,000 project, it’s much easier to raise money for that than to, oh, raise money so the donor gets better seats at a usually-empty Rynearson Stadium, where their football team plays. Again, looking at the contract, follow the money.

Number three, and this was just released today, the books being cooked. Eastern Michigan sent in to the NCAA (as required by every university, for every sport, in the 2018 NCAA Management Report) that they spent $292,662 on (home) game expenses for their wrestling team. By comparison, that was more than they spent on that line item for every single women’s sport combined. As was reported by MLive today, they were off by $280,300. $131,250 of that was for football “bowl assessments” (assuming these are 2016-17 figures, which is unclear, my best guess for that is game tickets that the university was forced to buy as a condition off going to the bowl game that were left unsold), $87,600 for men’s basketball game officials, and $61,450 for women’s basketball game officials. Why any of those would be under wrestling numbers is beyond my comprehension, for all of these means there has to be some sort of agenda here that they unsuccessfully hoped nobody would FOIA.

So, what’s the endgame here? My hope, initially, was that we could get Wetherbee and University President James Smith to come around to us, and allow us to fundraise to save the sport. After all, Smith has a history here, having tried to drop the program at Northern State in South Dakota prior to his arriving in Ypsilanti, and having a community forcing him to reverse course. Having said that, and having gone through the numbers here, that doesn’t appear likely to happen. That being said, with all of the red flags here, and with the caveat that I’m no lawyer, there does seem to be a case here, and the only endgame that ends up with the Eastern Michigan wrestling program continuing to compete also ends up with Wetherbee and Smith in handcuffs.

Britt Malinsky is the Editor-in-Chief of WrestlingByPirate. He can be found on Twitter at @wrestlingbypir8.