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2011 May 2 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Ala. Community Colleges Cutting Sports Programs as Budgets Shrink

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Some community colleges in Alabama have started ending athletics programs because of shrinking budgets, with administrators saying they need to pay for classrooms before playing fields.

Athletes and fans, however, say eliminating the programs will leave a hole on campuses and in the surrounding communities.

“We think athletics is an important part of any college environment,” said Al Cox, commissioner of the Alabama Community College Conference, which represents 10 sports at 21 schools. “It creates a lot of esprit de corps on campus. And in many of our smaller communities where we have our colleges, that’s the hot ticket in town to go to the juco baseball or basketball game.”

The Birmingham News reports that four community colleges in the state have cut all or some athletics this year. Cox says more may follow.

Jefferson State was the first to ax the programs this year, announcing in January that it would get rid of its softball and baseball teams. In mid-March, Bevill State said it would discontinue its four remaining athletic programs at the end of this school year.

A few days later, Northwest-Shoals Community College said it would eliminate all six of its athletic teams by this fall. Then Gadsden State announced it would cancel cross country, tennis, softball and baseball in 2012, leaving volleyball, basketball and intramural sports.

The schools have lost some state funding while seeing enrollment grow significantly in recent years, and their relatively low tuition rates don’t completely cover the cost of adding more faculty, more classrooms and more maintenance for campus facilities.

Alabama community colleges aren’t alone, as cutting athletics is a nationwide trend.

The National Junior College Athletic Association has watched cutbacks with some concern, said director Mary Ellen Leicht. Most schools haven’t gotten rid of athletics altogether, but many are dealing with less funding.

The Alabama Community College Conference in February put out a position paper urging schools to make changes like playing fewer games, cutting overnight trips and charging admission to games. But it also announced plans to lower dues and insurance premiums and to try to reduce the costs of officials and limit the number of teams qualifying for tournaments.

“Athletics is an important component of the community college which deserves to be continued on behalf of thousands of existing students and thousands who will follow,” the paper says.

Having student athletes boosts full-time enrollment, which helps draw federal funding and brings prospective students to campus, Leicht said.

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