The little Texas town of Brenham is known for two things: Blue Bell ice cream and Blinn College track.
Soon, Blue Bell will have the spotlight to itself.
In a decision school officials say will help them meet federal gender equity laws under Title IX but which critics say was based on racism and spite, Blinn is dropping its men’s track program this year. It will be the end of an era.
Simply put, there probably never has been a better junior college track program.
Since 1987, Blinn has won 19 National Junior College Athletic Association team championships in indoor, outdoor and cross-country.
With a mixture of athletes from the United States and abroad, the Buccaneers have beaten some of the best Division I college programs and some of the best independent clubs, including Carl Lewis’ famed Santa Monica track club. Eleven former Blinn runners competed in the 1992 Olympics, including gold medalist Darnell Hall.
Blinn’s board voted 6-1 in January to eliminate men’s track and add women’s volleyball and softball teams. School officials said the move was a voluntary effort to comply with Title IX, a 1972 law that requires schools to offer equal opportunities for men and women or risk losing public funds.
The decision stunned supporters of the track team, its first-year coach and the 38 freshmen and sophomores who rely on the sport as a means for an education or to hone their athletic skills.
“We became teammates in August and now they’re just left out in the dirt,” Ramon Clay, Blinn’s best runner, said. “A lot of them will just be left out in the cold. Then they have to get a job or be out in the streets somewhere.”
School administrators say athletes on scholarship may continue their educations, but few, if any, plan to remain at Blinn.
Andy Kokhanovskiy, a Ukrainian who holds the national junior college discus record of 210 feet, 8 inches, said he has opportunities at other schools and might even try out for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. He hopes to qualify for Ukraine’s 1996 Olympic team.
Clay, a 400-meter specialist from Nashville, Tenn., said he has received offers to attend other schools next year, but he’s concerned about teammates who haven’t had time to develop.
The reasons given for eliminating track at Blinn depend on who you ask. Blinn president Don Voelter and other school officials cite Title IX and the costs of a team that often must travel out of state to compete. Only two other Texas junior colleges have track teams.
The school says track was allotted $85,000 last year and spent more than $140,000, mostly because of travel and lodging. Former coach Steve Silvey accuses officials of inflating the figures to make him and the team look bad.
New women’s sports being added at Blinn are expected to cost $102,000 their first year. Softball begins this fall and volleyball starts in fall 1996. Then, Blinn will be close to achieving gender equity in athletics, with men’s teams in football, baseball and basketball and women’s teams in basketball, softball and volleyball.
Most members of the track team blame racism for the dismantling of track. They offer no proof and have filed no grievances, but say they have never felt welcome or appreciated at Blinn.
Eighty-five percent of the track team is black; all seven Blinn board members and the president are white; there is only one black teacher and two black administrators on the campus.
“It really has to be something to do with that,” said Lawrence Johnson, a 19-year-old freshman who grew up wanting to run for Blinn.
Voelter called the accusation ridiculous, suggesting that the runners alleged racism only after reading the fierce comments of Silvey, who coached Blinn track from 1987 through last year and is now an assistant coach at Arkansas.
“If there was 30 white guys on the team, I don’t think there would be any problem there,” said Silvey, who admits being “very bitter about the situation.”
Blinn athletic director Don Wilhelm called Silvey, who is white, a “disgruntled former employee.” He said that if racism were the motivation, he might have canceled the football program, which has 57 black players and only 18 whites.
“That was the furthest thing from anybody’s thoughts,” Wilhelm said. “We were looking at budget constraints and gender equity.”
For team members, the worry is not economics or legalities but what to do next. Track scholarships will be hard to come by for all but the most talented.
Johnson grew up about 40 miles down Highway 6 and said he passed up other schools last year to run at Blinn. Now he doesn’t know what he’ll do.
“I heard more about Blinn College than I heard about Division I schools,” Johnson said. “I said if Blinn offers me something, I’m going to jump on it. That’s where the best come from.”
Clay said he fears some teammates will give up on college altogether.
“A lot of them will because to a lot of them it’s almost like they just took out their fire,” Clay said. “They’ll just say forget it, I can do something else, stay at home instead of going to another school.”
Kenny McDaniel, a 20-year-old freshman hurdler from Longview, said he will attend Kansas City Community College this fall. He won’t be sad to leave Brenham for good.
“I was hurt for a while. Now I’ve just put it all behind me,” McDaniel said.