Megan Mastropaolo saw her life change in the course of a five-minute Zoom call.
“Within a minute of the meeting, our athletic director came on and announced the program is cut, we’re not sponsoring your sport anymore, good luck,” she says. “Then the call ended.”
The East Carolina University swimmer from Bristow, Virginia went from preparing to return for her sophomore season in 2021 to desperately scrambling to find a new school to compete at in an already saturated transfer market amidst the global pandemic.
She’s not alone.
Dozens of NCAA programs have been canceled as colleges continue to lose revenue and uncertainty looms about the fall season, leaving local athletes like Mastropaolo to figure out what’s next. Some programs, like men’s hockey at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Bowling Green University’s baseball team, have fundraised enough to survive until next year after announcing their programs would be cut.
Mastropaolo has tried to boost East Carolina to the same fate, but the athletic department hasn’t been so receptive.
“If they needed money, we can raise it,” she says. “We’re fundraising right now to save our program. There’s been no communication. We’ve reached out several times but they have not been open to talking to anybody. A lot of us that still haven’t transferred are trying to stay positive and do the best to bring back our team.”
ECU Athletics did not response to a request for comment from City Paper.
Antonio Agee of Old Dominion University tells a similar tale.
The senior wrestler saw his career cut short when the NCAA national tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. He wasn’t planning on returning next year—being a winter athlete, he does not have an extra year of eligibility granted to spring season athletes—but plenty of his teammates were.
An abrupt Zoom meeting in April effectively ended the athletic careers for some, while forcing others to scramble.
“My heart stopped,” Agee says. “I was extremely disappointed in the actions of our athletic director. I understand budget cuts, but we were one of the best performing teams at the school … It was a little frustrating.”
Agee, a native of Hayfield, Virginia, questioned the school’s athletic director, Camden Wood Selig, about the decision, but hasn’t been given a satisfactory response.
“I don’t feel it was right in the middle of a pandemic to decide we don’t have the money for the wrestling program,” Agee says. “I asked [the athletic director] a question: Why not take a pay cut for some of the other teams as well? So we can keep our wrestling program. He wasn’t able to give me a good answer.”
In South Carolina, Furman University had become a respectable men’s lacrosse program over the course of seven seasons as a Division I team, having recruited several players who went on to play professional lacrosse.
The announcement to cut the program came as a shock.
“I played for a lot of teams with a lot of guys,” says freshman Will Farrell. “But those are the greatest guys I’ve played with. We were a band of brothers with each other. To be told all the hard work we did, everything we put in was for nothing. It’s really upsetting.”
As is the case whenever a program is disbanded, all athletes across the country suddenly finding themselves without an athletic home have the option to transfer, or if they stay, keeping their athletic scholarship.
For many, that’s an impossible choice.
Those who want to continue their careers now face a unique set of challenges. The oversaturation of the transfer portal—currently over 91,000 across every sport—has made it tougher for athletes to stick the landing somewhere.
Add in that so many incoming freshmen have to change course, and for spring sports athletes returning to their teams or trying to transfer, and it’s murkier waters than a typical year.
“I have a handful of schools I’m talking to,” says Farrell. “With the NCAA announcement prior to Furman’s decision, that’s three months of other kids having the opportunity to plan ahead. For me, my list went from 18 to eight in 24 hours. I either didn’t get a response or [was] told by my coach they like me but don’t have room.”
“The transfer portal has 500-plus kids,” he continues. “It’s incredible but it’s so much. It’s tough. I can’t blame the coaches. It makes total sense.”
Plenty of athletes will simply see their careers end, not because they’re not good enough to compete in the NCAA, but because programs being slashed is too much to overcome. There’s only so much scholarship money to go around; many Old Dominion wrestlers have transferred to smaller schools for less money just to compete.
Some don’t bother to transfer at all.
“I have a teammate who redshirted last year but this year he sat under a senior we decided to start,” says Agee. “He’s not transferring because he’s a nursing major and if he leaves he’s so far into his major, transferring would set him off.”
Mastropaolo, who swam competitively for Nation’s Capital Swim Club in D.C., is trying to transfer. She was off scholarship at East Carolina, so transferring is her chance of getting that opportunity.
But picking up and moving won’t be easy for anyone who already committed to a school once.
“Since it’s so late, a lot of rosters are full,” she says. “I’ve been talking to [a school] but it’s a hard decision because I love ECU.”
While trying to find a new path is already difficult, athletes feel the callous approach from some of these schools isn’t appropriate during a pandemic.
“We got an email about three or four weeks ago to be on a mandatory Zoom call,” says Farrell. “You’re always a little worried, because you never get those emails.”
He was vacationing with two teammates in South Carolina and preparing for the meeting when they received a text in a team group chat about the Furman baseball team being cut. Farrell is still coming to terms with the school’s decision.
“We were like there’s no way this is happening,” he says. “Maybe it was a heads up to start winning games, but then we got word our program had been cut … That was terrible.”