Club Tennis Struggles For Time

Athletic department denies team free courts at Murr

The Men’s Club Tennis Team and the athletic department have been volleying furiously back and forth over court time, and club tennis players say the athletic department refuses to play between the lines.

According to team members, the team wants regular court time at the state-of-the-art Murr Center—the same facility where the varsity team plays—which they say they need in order to practice effectively.

But court time in the Murr can only be reserved for a fee that the club team says it can’t afford.

The athletic department has offered to rent the courts to the team for $12.50 per hour per court, which team members estimate would cost $2,700 per year—a figure they say is far more than they can afford with an annual allocation of $821 from the Undergraduate Council.

Athletic officials say their department depends on the revenue it gains from renting courts to the public to earn back the Murr’s 1998 multi-million dollar construction costs.

They also say there are too many groups competing for too little space to give the club team a block of time at the Murr.

Officials within the athletic department could not be reached to disclose the revenue the Murr generates in court fees.

Club tennis captains Harold M. Birnbaum ’04 and Justin D. Gest ’04 claim the athletic department is pursuing a money-making strategy at the expense of undergraduates—and have taken their request for court space to University President Lawrence H. Summers.

But the athletic department says the travails of the club team are symptoms of a space crunch that must inevitably put club sports below varsity and junior varsity teams on the priority ladder.

“I’m trying to do a lot of things for a lot of people,” said Director of Club Sports John Wentzell. “Very few are 100 percent happy with all they get all the time.”

A Matter of Money

Birnbaum and Gest, who is also a Crimson editor, say their goal at the outset of the year was to reserve time at the Murr Center.

Birnbaum says the club tennis team only wanted to use the courts at “low traffic” times such as late at night once during the week and on Sunday afternoons.

But Geoff Spies, the athletic operations coordinator, told the two that use of the Murr was not a possibility on a regular basis.

The athletic department later agreed to a $12.50 per hour, per court rental charge.

“All these facilities cost money to maintain,” Wentzell says. “There’s nothing sinister about it, its just real world economics.”

He says earning money by renting the courts has been part of athletic department philosophy for “ten or fifteen years.”

“A Privilege and Not a Right”

Friction between the athletic department and the club tennis team has a precedent.

Robert C. Higgins ’03, who captained the team before Birbaum and Gest, says the athletic department would often cancel the team’s practices at short notice and would tell him that the space was needed for various varsity uses.

Higgins says the athletic department made no effort to find a make-up time for the team.

“A number of times during our scheduled practice they told us that there was another event happening in Gordon and they really made no effort to provide us with other court space,” Higgins says.

In October of 2000, the men’s and women’s club teams divided their regular 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. practice time in the Gordon Indoor Track and Tennis facility on Sunday mornings.

According to Birnbaum, since so many people have religious conflicts on Sunday mornings, it is difficult to run a team when the Sunday morning slot is the only one available all week.

Last year, Andrea L. Tsai ’03, a former captain of the women’s team, sent an e-mail message to David Fish, the men’s varsity tennis coach, asking for a different time.

Fish, however, wrote back to Tsai that he was “disturbed” to hear that the club teams were not willing to practice at 10 a.m. on Sundays. He wrote that “it doesn’t portray Harvard club tennis players in a very good light if they aren’t willing to get up for the opportunity to get free indoor court time.”

Fish encouraged the club teams to accept the 10 a.m. time, writing that he regarded “indoor tennis in the northeast as a privilege and not a right.”

Fish could not be reached for comment for this story.

When Birnbaum and Gest assumed the club team’s captaincy last spring, they say their first priority was to overcome the problem of court time, and they arranged a meeting with Jeremy L. Gibson, the athletic department’s assistant director of athletics for operations.

In that meeting, the two asked for better options than the two hours on Sunday mornings in Gordon.

They said at the meeting that the two courts there are unsuitable to run a team practice—because of a long-jump pit immediately behind the baseline and a surface designed for track and not tennis.

But Birnbaum says Gibson offered little assistance.

“He basically just blew us off,” Birnbaum says.

Gibson says the athletic department was trying as hard as it could to allot court time to many different groups.

“We can’t accommodate every request,” Gibson says. “We’ve been trying to make the best of the situation.”

A “Useless” Option

Spies also informed Birnbaum and Gest that the club team could no longer use Gordon during the fall of 2001, because renovations originally scheduled for the summer had not yet been completed.

Spies offered to allow the club team to use the Murr during the fall as long as inclement weather did not force the varsity team indoors. The decision to move the varsity inside would be reserved for the coaches, Spies wrote in an e-mail to Birnbaum.

But because the team could not depend on this time, Birnbaum says holding practices was difficult.

“For people housed in the far river houses, the Quad, and parts of the Yard, this option is totally useless—quite reasonably, no one will risk the trip to the Murr unless guaranteed court time,” Birnbaum says.

Spies also denied the team access to the Murr on weeknights because he said three of the courts had to remain open for walk-ons and the other three were already contracted out.

Gibson says he suggested that the team “could go down as individuals and play like any Harvard student” during walk-on time at the Murr.

Presidential Power

Frustrated with their inability to schedule court time, Birnbaum and Gest say they decided to take their case to University President Lawrence H. Summers in late October. After an office hours visit, Summers instructed Birnbaum and Gest to send him an e-mail message explaining the problem.

In their e-mail to Summers, the captains wrote that “we have never received treatment that befits an equal…Shouldn’t we get as much time on the top-quality Murr Center courts as recreational players who have made impromptu or casual reservations there?”

Summers forwarded the e-mail to Athletic Director Robert Scalise, adding “Bob, I hope you will refer it to your people and try to make a fair decision given the needs and desires of club tennis and the other things you have to balance.”

According to Birnbaum, Summers’ e-mail had no immediate effect, but he says Summers’ influence might have helped them win time at the Palmer-Dixon courts four months later.

The Last Straw

Birnbaum and Gest say that even though they failed to secure court time at the Murr over the winter, their relationship with the athletic department remained cordial until February, when the club team returned to Gordon after its renovation to find the courts worse than ever.

Birnbaum says he again complained to Gibson about not being allowed to block time in the Murr. When Gibson asserted that the courts in question were already being used, Birnbaum said he asked for evidence, at which point he says Gibson “interrupted” him and accused him of “presenting a court case” to the athletic department.

“He basically tried to lay a guilt trip on me,” Birnbaum said of the meeting.

Gibson also says he was surprised that the two captains had gone to Summers because “I felt that we were working with them to resolve the situation and its been a very open line of communication.”

After the meeting, Birnbaum says the athletic department granted some of his wishes. The team was moved to the Palmer Dixon courts, which Birnbaum said he initially considered a slight upgrade.

He says he was unpleasantly surprised, however, when the team arrived at Palmer Dixon to find that one of the three courts was being used by the baseball team as a batting cage and nets on the other courts were sagging below their proper levels and couldn’t be fixed.

“Now we’ve got two courts instead of the three we expected and they are defective,” he says.

Gibson says he disagrees with Birnbaum’s characterization of the courts.

“Over the winter, we’ve had intercollegiate tennis competitions going on at Palmer Dixon,” he says. “We certainly don’t hold the same view that they are not quality tennis courts; we think they are.”

Wentzell says the athletic department is trying to do all it can for the club team, but is constrained by “through the roof” demand for space. He said that the team should be content with less than the best.

“Is it a world class facility? No. Is it a place to hit a tennis ball? Yes,” Wentzell says.

But Birnbaum says the team won’t be content until it books regular time in the Murr.

“This fight isn’t over,” Birnbaum says.

—Staff writer William M. Rasmussen can be reached at wrasmuss@fas.harvard.edu.