This past December, after a 10-month battle with the University of Michigan both the Office of Risk Management and Recreational Sports, the historic Michigan Boxing Club was at last stripped of its club-status after losing its appeal.
Just as the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to go online in March, the University decided to remove the club-status from both the Michigan Boxing and Taekwondo teams due to the possible risk of student-athletes incurring head injuries in both sports.
Once the shocking news arrived to the boxing team, club members, coaches and alumni began organizing their appeal of the decision. Granted an extension of the original deadline on Apr. 1, they had more time to prepare their defense.
On Oct. 1, a 60-page report was submitted to the University, featuring countless studies about the sport, a long list of health and safety rules and guidelines already in place and arguments about the community impact of the club. The report also included dozens of pages of testimonials from the team members, coaches, professors, alumni and competitor teams — including two from the coach of the rival Ohio State boxing club and its president.
Coach and team-appointed spiritual advisor Rama Mwenesi is a Ph.D. student and has been working at Michigan Medicine since the COVID-19 outbreak. Along with other coaches who are often working or studying as graduate students, there were the actual members of the team — students — who were dealing with the effect of the pandemic and their own educational duties.
“This was, without a doubt, one of the most tumultuous times that we could have received this news,” Mwenesi said last April.
Despite the circumstances, the team attempted to thoroughly combat every claim made by the Office of Risk Management and Recreational Sports. They even took the time to reach out to dozens of alumni and compiled those with the letters of support.
A few weeks ago, the University announced that it would grant Taekwondo reinstatement to club-status but not boxing — a crushing blow to months of work.
Multiple interview requests were ignored by Recreational Sports officials, with director Mike Widen instead sharing a statement over email defending his department’s decision. Widen cited four main reasons for their decision:
“The sport of boxing does not allow the purposeful contact to a participant’s head to be appropriately controlled or eliminated.”
“The contact to the head that occurs in boxing, even at the amateur level, cannot be reasonably or appropriately controlled to the point where the institution is comfortable in continuing to sponsor this activity.”
“An inherent part of the sport of boxing is awarding points to the designated contact area.”
“The uncontrolled and purposeful contact that occurs in this activity … is not appropriate for the University.”
While the boxing team had their request denied, Recreational Sports justified their reinstatement of Taekwondo despite similar concerns, due to “some inherent differences in the nature of that sport.”
The boxing team felt cheated again, just as it had in March.
“This idea of comfortability, where did that come from?” Mwenesi said. “We’ve had a history here for the past 45 years. Now people are saying that they’re not comfortable.
“How is it that we are being put in these undue situations given the circumstances? It makes us wonder if there is something else motivating this decision. … It makes absolutely no sense that U of M Boxing would not be reinstated, especially because we have the same protections (as Taekwondo).”
Mwenesi, team president Maya Irigoyen and other team leadership officials pursued further explanation, including FOIA requests, but the University did not offer further explanation than partial responses.
“They were pretty much just dragging us around,” Mwenesi said — who was weeks later awarded 2020 coach of the year by Recreational Sports.
The team’s present and future lie in limbo. Although they are allowed and encouraged by Michigan Recreational Sports to continue as a Voluntary Student Organization, multiple hurdles lay in the way, such as the task of finding places to store equipment and practice.
Most notably, the team would no longer be allowed to use the iconic ‘Block M’ — unless they get approval from the University of Michigan Licensing Department.
“It is just a very frustrating thing when it feels like the school, who is supposed to be sponsoring a team who has won them many championships and who represents the school very well … (is) just coming after us to get rid of us,” Irigoyen said.
Whether it was the culture of the team, the relationships made, life-lessons learned, championships won or respect from competitors, the 45 pages of submitted testimonials all highlighted one thing — how important the community of Michigan Boxing is to them, even for those decades removed.
On Jan. 16 — three days before classes — the team was rushed out of their home in the Michigan Sports Coliseum. Signs, boxing rings, trophies, equipment shelves and punching bags were all stripped away and loaded onto moving trucks.
Forty-five years of traditions thrown out in just one afternoon.
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