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Last November, Spelman College shocked the world of college sports by announcing that they were leaving the NCAA and dropping the school’s athletics department entirely. The administration of the traditionally black women’s college noted that out of their $100 million budget, $900,000 was allocated for the school’s athletics department, which was composed of only 80 athletes.

“I was startled,” said Spelman President Beverly Tatum. “It seemed like a lot of money for 80 students.”

While other colleges are still unable to resist the potential profit that membership in the NCAA offers, despite an ever-growing litany of scandals within the inter-collegiate sports organization, Spelman’s hand was forced when a number of other colleges had announced plans to leave the Great South, making the conference too small for Spelman to remain.

Dr. Tatum and Spelman’s board of trustees would then be faced with a score of new problems for the athletics department, all of which could only cost the college more and more money. Moving to a new conference would mean longer distances to travel, introducing new sports programs into the department, and upgrading the campus’s outdated athletic facilities.

As Dr. Tatum was weighing the options available to Spelman’s athletics department, she also become increasingly aware of the statistics surrounding the startlingly high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues that black women face in greater numbers than most other demographics. Dr. Tatum soon discovered that studies had shown how this was largely due to the fact that black women were “the least physically active demographic in the U.S.” 

Faced with this information, Dr. Tatum had to reexamine whether the athletics department’s money could be spent better elsewhere.

“All of us have to look at everything we are doing — what’s the value being added to the university and at what cost?” Dr. Tatum said.

To Dr. Tatum, the solution seemed both obvious and altogether necessary: withdraw from the NCAA, eliminate their athletics department, and use its budget to launch a new fitness and wellness program designed to help Spelman’s students establish life-long healthy living practices.

The decision to exit the NCAA was announced last year to a stunned audience of student athletes who responded with a chorus of gasps. After finishing, Dr. Tatum emphasized that she understood how they must feel about the decision, saying:  “I know you’re not happy. It is not necessary to clap.”

But despite the initial shock felt by the students at Spelman, Germaine McAuley, Spelman’s Director of Athletics and chair of the Physical Education department, understood that the move to end the athletics department was the best option for the school, despite having coached at the school for over 25 years.

“It truly makes sense,” said McAuley.

With the athletics department done away with, Spelman’s “Wellness Revolution” is in full swing, inaugurated by a five kilometer race around Spelman’s campus that saw approximately 800 students in attendance, many of whom “had never done anything like that before,” according to Dr. Tatum.

As the college’s gym undergoes extensive renovation to include new fitness and exercise facilities, new physical education credit courses and intramural programs have been introduced to the campus, all based on activities that promote continuous exercise after graduation, such as yoga, tennis, Pilates, and swimming. While attendance is not mandatory, Spelman’s administration is doing everything possible to make as many students want to attend as possible.

“We want our students to become what I call ‘soldiers in the wellness revolution,’” Dr. Tatum said.

While risky, Spelman’s decision to put athletics aside in favor of fitness has elicited praise from the heads of other colleges, with Dr. Tatum reporting that she has been approached by numerous athletics directors who were now weighing whether an end to intercollegiate sports and withdrawal from the NCAA could benefit their institutions as well.

Although it remains to be seen whether other colleges will follow Spelman’s lead, the program is already netting results. One student, Danyelle Carter, told SBNation that after weighing 340 pounds last year, Spelman’s fitness programs had helped her lose over 25 pounds since the start of 2013. Now weighing in at 220 pounds, Carter recognizes that while the burden of staying healthy remains on her shoulders, programs like Spelman’s fitness bootcamp and the Founder’s Day 5K have shown her that at Spelman, she doesn’t have to go through the struggle on her own.

“I held myself accountable, and said ‘I have to fix it,’” said Carter, who received a congratulatory tweet from Dr. Tatum herself for her accomplishment. ” What Spelman taught me was I didn’t have to fix it by myself. You have a community that’s cheering for you.”