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Recent report from NIU opens door to possibly eliminating cheerleading

DeKALB – Holly Vizzaccero called being a part of the Northern Illinois cheerleading team one of the best experiences of her life.

However, a recent report regarding the finances of the university has left the door open to put cheerleading on the chopping block down the road. In the 2015-16 Program Prioritization report, which featured recommendations from a 21-person task force on ways to better use resources of programs at the university, it warned NIU athletics to do a better job at being more self-sustaining – relying less on the 2 percent of funding it gets from the university and the money it gets from student fees.

“If that is not possible,” the report said about athletics being more self-sustaining, “then the department should consider eliminating cheerleading. Unlike some other programs ... in the intercollegiate athletics department, cheerleading is not essential.”

The cheerleading team currently is without a coach after Heather Bennett resigned in April. However, NIU said that the paperwork has been filed to human resources to search for a replacement – which they expect to be accepted. In the meantime, the cheerleading team put on three days of tryouts this past weekend, with Bennett lending a hand in the selection process.

Vizzaccero, who was the captain for the cheerleading’s co-ed team from April to December 2015, had high praise about her days on the squad – citing the ability to travel and competing at the National Cheerleading Association Collegiate Nationals in 2015 as highlights of her days as a Huskie.

“College cheerleading, hands down, has been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” said Vizzaccero, who graduated in December and now is working in Schaumburg. “I can wholeheartedly say my incredible experience at NIU was almost completely because of the cheerleading program.”

However, Northern Illinois is quick to point out that the suggestions from the task force to either tweak or eliminate programs are just that – suggestions.

“Just because they are recommendations doesn’t mean that’s going to happen,” NIU spokesman Joe King said.

Cheerleading wasn’t the only aspect of the Northern Illinois athletic department that had a red flag attached to it in the report. Northern Illinois currently has a combined 17 athletic programs, and schools need at least 16 to keep their Football Bowl Subdivision status, which is something King emphasized that the university wants to maintain.

Cheerleading is not included in the 17 athletic programs; and while they are self-funded in terms of raising money for competitions, they do receive some money from the athletic department for apparel.

Because of Title IX, a federal law which mandates an equal proportion of male and female athletes, any sport that would be disbanded would be a male, nonrevenue program. Each of the men’s nonrevenue sports mentioned in the report – wrestling, golf, soccer, tennis and baseball – are told to have the athletic program become more self-sustaining, and each of them end in the same manner.

“If that is not possible, then the department should consider eliminating a male, nonrevenue sport,” it reads.

Of those five teams, only baseball has been disbanded in recent memory – not fielding a team from 1983 to 1990. Soccer has had a program uninterrupted since 1962; wrestling has had its program since 1969-70; golf has had at least one letterman every year since 1960, except 1961; and tennis has had a least one letterman since 1967, according to records.

Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier addressed the issue of athletics being more self-sustaining in his recent newsletter to fans.

He said that the department’s fundraising event, the Victor E. Ball, raised more than $181,000 last year, and a new agreement with concessions and catering vendor Sodexo at the athletic facilities earned them $710,000 in gross revenue in 2015 – adding that the Huskies already have surpassed that number this year.

He said that Northern Illinois hauled in nondonation revenue of around $1.2 million in 2015 and wants to grow that number. When it comes to money coming in through the Huskie Athletic Fund – which includes regular donations and premium area donations – it has increased 41 percent from last year, bumping up the haul to $2,332,937.

“I am proud of the strides we have made toward financial sustainability, especially given outside factors on our campus, in our state and within college athletics that have affected our financial model over the past several years,” Frazier said in the newsletter.

Frazier would not comment on the matter to the Daily Chronicle.

Although the recommendations from the task force also called for the reduction, transformation and review (candidate to be phased out) of 142 out of the 236 administrative programs – which includes the athletic teams – King said that the group’s work is over and that any decision to ax a program would come from higher-up.

“Such a decision would come from senior leadership, but not until athletics has an opportunity to create and implement plans that they believe can meet the goal of greater self-sufficiency,” said King, who added that there is no timeline for when they would cut the program, if need be.

Cheerleading is not counted toward Title IX, which could leave it more vulnerable than other programs. But for Vizzaccero, it would be tough to see the school disband the program she grew to love.

“Without being a part of cheerleading,” she said, “my NIU experience wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding as it was.”

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