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Spelman College in Atlanta has decided to drop its NCAA athletics program. The move will save the historically black women's college a million dollars a year. School officials say just four percent of its students participate in sports, so it will instead focus on a campus-wide wellness program.
NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: For the past decade, Spelman fielded NCAA teams in basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and other sports. But when their small Division 3 conference started dwindling, college president Beverly Tatum says the school decided to change its focus.
BEVERLY TATUM: We had to ask ourselves: what is the cost of the program and who is benefitting? How many people are benefitting? Is the benefit worth the cost?
LOHR: Tatum says about 80 students play sports and she'd rather spend the $1 million on a program to reach the entire student body. She says addressing health problems of African-American women is part of the institution's social responsibility.
TATUM: We know that four out of five women of African descent is overweight or obese. We know that black women are twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes. We know that black women over the age of 20, something like 40 percent or higher, already have hypertension, high blood pressure.
LOHR: So Spelman announced the decision to move to a campus-wide health and fitness program. Officials plan to renovate Read Hall, the building that now houses its gymnasium and current wellness program. The school already requires all students to take two P.E. classes, and it will add staff to work with students on long-term health goals.
CHAVONNE SHORTER: All right. You want to know the number or don't want to know the number?
DANIELLE WINFREY: I want to know.
LOHR: Spelman's wellness coordinator, Chavonne Shorter, asks one of the students, Danielle Winfrey, to step on the scale. She's a senior who's trying to lose 100 pounds.
SHORTER: Good number.
WINFREY: It is?
SHORTER: Not bad for the holiday. I think we did good. No weight gain. Great, great job.
LOHR: Shorter assesses students' overall health, designs an exercise program for them, and outlines goals. And the school is also trying to find ways to attract students who might not want to come to a regular exercise class.
SHORTER: So we look at maybe offering a dance class. Like right now, we have a Zumba class that's going on. So a person may not look at that class as fitness-based. They look at it as more dance activity. But, in actuality, in a Zumba class, you can burn anywhere between 500 and 700 calories.
LOHR: Shorter says some 300 students participate in activities here every day. Students like Danielle Winfrey, who is running stairs as part of her workout. Winfrey, who's lost about 50 pounds, says she sees the need to expand the health initiative.
WINFREY: Everybody loves the athletics program here, but I think that there's more students here that have their own personal fitness goals than we have actual athletes. So I think this program is more inclusive for the entire Spelman community.
LOHR: But there are some who don't like the idea of dropping sports, including the basketball coach.
TERLYNN OLDS: We shot 42.2 percent from the field last night. We gotta keep it up.
LOHR: Terlynn Olds watches closely as her players practice layups in the small gym that is their home for now. She moved from Florida about a year ago to coach basketball at Spelman.
OLDS: Athletics is more than just putting a ball in a hoop, or hitting a ball the hardest or running the fastest.
LOHR: Olds says it teaches teamwork, leadership and life skills. She won't have a basketball team to coach next spring, so she's already looking for another job. Olds doesn't understand why sports and the wellness program can't coexist.
OLDS: It teach you a level of sacrifice that is so hard to explain. Unless you are an athlete or a former athlete, you don't understand what tools and gifts and things that you learn and that carry you throughout your entire life.
LOHR: Olds says her players are upset, but didn't want to be interviewed. They love basketball, and some wonder if they'll be able to transfer to another school. But Spelman president Beverly Tatum says it's the best decision for everyone.
TATUM: You know, anytime you make a change, something's lost. But I think more will be gained. We all have to think about how we are better addressing the health needs of this generation.
LOHR: Spelman is the first college in years to announce it will drop NCAA sports. Tatum says she doesn't think big schools will follow suit, but she predicts many smaller schools will consider the option. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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