Russell Dinkins – Meet the Runner Saving College Track Programs


When Brown University announced last spring that it was cutting its men’s cross-country and track and field teams, along with 10 other sports, Russell Dinkins penned an editorial on Medium, titled “Brown University, If You Were Actually Serious About Racial Justice You Would Not Be Cutting the Men’s Track Team.”

The track roster, Dinkins pointed out, was one of the most diverse teams on Brown’s campus. “Elite institutions such as Brown offer opportunities for upward mobility for low-income individuals, and sports, in particular, provide a distinct pathway to an elite education,” he wrote. “However, affluent sports are overrepresented at elite universities and 65 percent of Ivy League athletes are white.”

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The piece went viral—and a week later, Brown restored its men’s running programs to varsity status. But that victory for track was short lived. Soon thereafter, William & Mary announced it was cutting programs—including men’s indoor and outdoor track—as did the University of Minnesota. Last November, perennial football power Clemson announced it was doing away with men’s cross country and track.

Dinkins, 31—who graduated in 2013 from Princeton, where he had been a 400- and 800-meter runner and a five-time Ivy League individual champion—got involved with mobilizing forces to fight the universities’ decisions. In the end, William & Mary restored all the teams it was threatening to cut, Minnesota brought back outdoor track while cutting indoor (as well as men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis), and on April 22, Clemson reversed its decision on men’s track and cross-country, while agreeing, as part of a settlement with students, to add at least one more women’s program.

Dinkins spoke to Runner’s World on April 25 and May 20 about why men’s running programs are an easy target for cuts, how he helped get alumni and students organized, and what he sees next.

This interview has been edited.

How did you feel when you learned Clemson was bringing back men’s track and cross country?

It was huge to see that be reinstated, not only because of the opportunities that were going to be taken away, but also the racial implications of what they were doing.

Clemson’s track and field team is majority Black, 53 percent, that was from the 2019–20 roster.

There are only a few teams on Clemson’s campus that have any sort of racial diversity. All their other Olympic sports are very, very white. Almost exclusively white. You’re taking away one of your few sports that has a high degree of diversity and your only sport that has a lot of Black students on it that isn’t a money maker for you. Football and basketball have a lot of Black athletes on them, but those programs are money-producing for the university.

Another reason this was big for me was I knew that this was precedent-setting. If Clemson got away with this, I knew that other schools would be looking to follow suit.

Someone told me, “You’re not going to win Clemson.” In my head, I was thinking, “No, we are. We’re going to win this.” I didn’t think it was going to take 170 days. Maybe it’s the athlete in me. People tell you you can’t do something, you dig down.

Why is track so important in the college sports landscape?

Track and field is unique in the way it provides opportunity along racial and socioeconomic lines. All those other sports facing cuts in college tend to be pretty homogenous. They also tend to be pretty affluent and pretty niche. They’re not offered at a lot of high schools.

Track and field is the largest sport in high school. It’s the cheapest sport [for athletes to participate in]. It’s one of the few that offers great racial diversity. It’s what we imagine sport to be in college—an opportunity provider. It fulfills that mission. For a considerable portion of track and field athletes, recruitment offers an opportunity that otherwise may not be available.

I’m not belittling or discounting how painful or frustrating cuts to, for instance, squash programs or sailing teams might be for a lot of people. My fight is a little different; my fight is about sport as a vehicle for access for populations that might not have those opportunities.

Track and field opens doors for kids who might not otherwise go to college or might not get into those kinds of colleges. Someone on the [sailing team], yeah, they might not get into Stanford, but they’re going to go to college.

2021 ncaa division i men's and women's indoor track and field championship

Ackera Nugent of Baylor, far right, wins the 60 meter hurdles during the 2021 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship.

Andy Hancock/NCAA PhotosGetty Images

Why has track and field been targeted lately?

In the Power 5 conferences [the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the SEC], it is clear they are trying to get the NCAA to reduce the number of non-revenue sports they have to support. They already tried to get a waiver due to COVID-19 to reduce the number from 16 to 12. It got rejected. But from that move, we can see that there’s an interest in that.

A lot of the Power 5 schools see the non-revenues as a nuisance. And men’s track and field is one of the more expensive ones, because it’s three seasons [cross country, indoor, and outdoor track]—collapsed into one line item. It has a large roster. If colleges have to reduce programs, track and field is the easy place to go.

When the school is out of Title IX compliance disadvantaging the women, instead of adding more women’s opportunities, it’s easier to take away men’s opportunities. And track and field, because it has a large roster and the athletes are duplicate/triplicate counted [if a distance runner competes in all three seasons, that counts as three roster spots, even though it is the same person]. You can just cut track and field and get a whole bunch of spots, and that helps your ratio on behalf of the women.

Instead of the spirit of Title IX being applied, which is offering more opportunity for the underrepresented gender, it ends up being used as a device to restrict or reduce opportunity for men who are in non-revenue sports. The non-revenue sport that is often targeted is track and field, which happens to be the one that is diverse.

How did you get to be the point person in these fights?

Back in the summer of 2020, after Brown University cut their track and field program, I wrote an op-ed on Medium, and it went viral. Brown reversed their decision within a week of it appearing. And when William & Mary got cut, people were tweeting at me, “Can you help them?” I was reluctant until Minnesota got cut. And then I was like, “Oh s***, this is a problem.” I saw the writing on the wall. This is going to go all over the NCAA.

I met with the Brown alumni and said, “Hey, let’s build a toolkit so that those schools can use it.” We recorded a video walking through all the steps that the Brown organizers took. We gave it to William & Mary and University of Minnesota’s organizers. At that point, they only had one or two people.

I said, “Okay, you get your core five and come back to me and we’ll do a Zoom and go over everything.” From there, I started helping them organize and structure their fights, modeling their fights off the Brown fight.

The Brown fight, they organized themselves. But the other schools, I actually was involved with helping build their organizational structures and telling them, “Hey, you need to be aggressive. You need to have a very robust social media strategy. You have to have a clear message. You need to inundate them with emails. You need to do all these things and these steps in order to be effective.”

russell dinkins

Dinkins, who graduated in 2013 from Princeton, was a 400- and 800-meter runner.

Beverly Schaefer

How many had lawsuits? What’s the mechanism by which pressure is applied?

Clemson was the only one we went legal. Brown and University of Minnesota were clear public pressure. William & Mary’s was a little different. The athletic director stepped down. The female athletes on the track team threatened to boycott if the men’s team wasn’t brought back. Once one cookie started crumbling, everything started crumbling. And then they restored all the programs. I wasn’t a part of all of those moves.

To hear others who have been involved in these fights talk about it, saving a program becomes a full-time job.

Oh yeah. It was work. There was a parent and an alum who were the main fighters in the Clemson fight. They have full-time jobs, they have kids. And the hours they put in to this—multiple weekly meetings, emails, phone calls. A lot of effort. They certainly deserve kudos for that.

I actually turned down some pretty great career advancement options in order to continue to pursue these fights. I knew that I wouldn’t have the time or bandwidth to help multiple schools continue their fights as well as build my career in a time-consuming job.

How are you paying your bills?

I was working at Mathematical Policy Research. I got laid off during the pandemic. I had a remote part-time job that was remote before the world went remote. I figured if I got rid of my car and only went to the grocery store once a month, I can live off of my part-time job. That’s what I did, before I started to get involved in these track and field fights. I did get to a point in the fall where I was like, ugh. My heart is in the right place, but I can’t keep doing this. I’m going to have to pivot and get a job. Then Tracksmith came along and gave me a stipend for several months in order to do this work. I’ve had some other opportunities since then—giving workshops and talks. I’ve been doing college essay and SAT tutoring.

How do you celebrate when you get a program back?

First I field a whole bunch of interviews from the media. And then I go to sleep.

Do you think Clemson and the other universities’ very public backtracking will make other athletic directors think twice before touching track and field in the future? Or is this a temporary reprieve?

Here’s the thing—this is significant. This is the first time that we know of, at Clemson in particular, a Title IX effort has worked on behalf of men. And the reason why—you had the men threatening to sue the university, pursuing Title IX and a legal case for participation, but we also had women, the female track and field athletes, also a few rowers, suing the university for lack of parity in terms of financial aid and treatment. But a part of their lawsuit was: We are not going to settle unless you bring back the men’s track and field program. It was the strength of those together.

This was the first time Title IX has been used to expand opportunities for Black men. The way Title IX has been applied, unfortunately, has oftentimes pitted male non-revenue sports against female non-revenue sports. This is the first time where you had track and field athletes but also female rowers come on and say, “No, we’re not going to allow this to happen. We’re not going to be used as an excuse to cut away opportunities for other people.”

The spirit of Title IX is that it’s supposed to expand opportunity, but often it’s been used to pit one historically underserved population against another historically underserved population. This is the first time we know of that it’s been subverted.

2021 ncaa division i men's and women's indoor track and field championship

Micah Williams of Oregon, second from left, wins the 60 meter final during the 2021 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship.

Andy Hancock/NCAA PhotosGetty Images

But do you think the message has been sent, or will this be happening again elsewhere?

I do think saving Clemson is going to be something that will prevent schools from doing this again in the short term. In the long term, there needs to be some sort of protection for sports that give opportunities that are distinct from the other sports. Track and field offers opportunities to Black students and to lower-income students in a way that other sports simply do not. And so there needs to be a recognition of that at the NCAA level. The NCAA tomorrow could put out a rule that member institutions cannot cut teams that have a certain diversity threshold or a certain low-income accessibility metric. That would effectively protect track and field at the collegiate level. That is something that will have to be worked on in the coming years.

But at least in the short term, Clemson was either going to make or break it. If Clemson was successful in cutting track and field, we were going to see other big schools follow suit. I think this has given us some temporary breathing room. But I think we would be remiss if we would think that schools wouldn’t try this again within the next five years.

Is football untouchable?

Football is king. I’m not against football. And I’m certainly not against those students who are generating so much wealth for the university being able to benefit from what they generate. I think they deserve to get paid.

They use a lot of the revenue generated from the labor of these student athletes to build these palatial, opulent stadiums and locker rooms and practice fields. They have bloated staffing. Ultimately, the football players are getting the short end of the stick, and a lot of other student athletes are not being treated the way that they should, because you have schools running professional leagues within their walls.

Football and men’s basketball—they function differently than the other sports. I do think more of the Ivy League model would be great. The universities don’t expect sports to pay for themselves. Sport is viewed as a valuable part of a college experience, just like the arts, just as music programs aren’t expected to pay for themselves. The only sports that pay for themselves are men’s football and men’s basketball. This idea that sports have to pay for themselves sets you up for a bad situation.

If football and basketball players do start getting paychecks, does that spell trouble for non-revenue sports again?

Athletes who are earning so much for schools, they need to get a slice of the pie, they need to be able to monetize themselves. But track and field may once again be on the chopping block. We need to be more vocal and show more collective strength.

At Clemson and Minnesota, baseball teams lose more money than track and field. Those teams made more money, but they also spent more money.

But baseball has a strong alumni presence, they had big donors, and cultural relevance within the community. People have a connection to the teams, people come to the games. Even though the universities lost a lot more money on those teams, those teams do not face the threat that track and field faced. There would be a headache if they went after those programs. Universities looked at track and field as an easy target. If the schools don’t see any sort of value in sports programs, they’re going to go after it.

In track and field, the alumni structure was not in place initially—it had to be built for us to win the teams back. Within some of the teams, we hardly know each other. At some teams I worked with, if you’re a distance runner, you don’t know half the students on your team. You don’t know the hurdlers or the throwers. That is not a unique occurrence, it’s a larger issue across college track, it puts the sport in a weak position.

We need to stop being so segmented. We have so much hyper-segmentation of a sport that should be team-oriented. The first time distance athletes, sprinters, and throwers are coming together is when they’re trying to save their team. That is more common than people want to believe.

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