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SportsMonday Column: Smaller sports deserve respect

BY NATE SANDALS
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 5, 2008

The Michigan women’s soccer team will take the field at the university's new soccer complex on South State Street this Friday, and for the first time this season, the Wolverines will play a real home game.

The new U-M Varsity Soccer Complex, with practice and competition fields for both the men's and women's teams, was supposed to be ready before the season began. Now that the complex is about ready, some might say it's “better late than never.” But that’s not the whole story here.

The captain of the women’s soccer team, Katie Miler, wrote a viewpoint last month (A team without its field, 10/22/2008), which raised troubling questions about the Athletic Department’s priorities.

Miler was right to express her displeasure with the way the Athletic Department has handled both soccer teams this year.

The old varsity soccer field disappeared last spring when construction began on a new indoor football practice facility next to Schembechler Hall. The Athletic Department planned to simultaneously build a new soccer complex with competition and practice fields, complete with lights for night games, west of the tennis complex.

The new fields were supposed to be ready for both team’s home openers. But when that time came, both the men’s and women’s teams were forced to host games at local high schools — some more than 20 miles away — and at Eastern Michigan University.

Even worse, the teams are practicing on Mitchell Field and the outfield of Ray Fisher Stadium. Neither of those fields comes close to reaching the standards needed to train successfully and safely at a Division-I level (Miler wrote that the women's team suffered seven ankle injuries in just two days of practice at Mitchell Field).

The Athletic Department said construction on the new fields was delayed because of unforeseen problems obtaining construction permits, including issues with wetlands. Early last month, the Athletic Department told The Michigan Daily that the new fields would be completed by last week.

That estimate was only a few days off, but the situation is still quite troubling and indicates a pattern might be emerging.

Last year, the baseball and softball teams weren’t able to hold their home openers as scheduled because the facilities weren’t in playable condition. The weather played a role, but it didn't cause a huge hole in the outfield of the softball field.

Of course, it’s hard to control construction delays, obtain permits and deal with all the bureaucratic difficulties of working through issues with the Board of Regents and the city.

What’s worrisome is the Athletic Department’s choice to improve its revenue programs at the expense of its non-revenue sports.

While football, basketball and hockey bring in the money, the Athletic Department has to realize that the smaller sports are the heart of Michigan athletics. The majority of Michigan's athletic accolades have been for smaller sports. The last two national championship teams on this campus were softball (2005) and field hockey (2001).

Few students on this campus have ever gone to a women’s soccer game or a men’s gymnastics meet, but they’ve probably interacted much more with the athletes from those and other non-revenue teams than from the big three, whether in residence halls, in class or walking across campus.

Hundreds of small-sport athletes come to Michigan for an education and the chance to represent this university on the playing field. The least the Athletic Department can do is make sure that all those athletes have the facilities and opportunities they deserve.

That can start by keeping promises to all the teams, not just the ones that fill the coffers.

— Sandals can be reached at nsandals@umich.edu.


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