In a reversal of policy, Rowan University will allow female student-athletes to practice in sports bras after an essay by a former women's cross-country runner prompted online outrage.
University president Ali A. Houshmand said in a statement Friday that the athletic department had a long-standing "verbal" protocol requiring that all athletes wear shirts, even during practice, "as a matter of keeping a level of standards throughout its men's and women's programs."
That protocol was questioned this week by Gina Capone, a second-year student and a former member of the women's cross-country team who remains in close contact with some current student-athletes. In the piece, which was posted Thursday on the crowd-sourced website the Odyssey and had apparently amassed more than 110,000 page views by 4 p.m. Friday, Capone wrote that the cross-country team at Rowan — a public university based in Glassboro — is one of the only teams that isn't provided with a daily practice uniform.
She wrote that a meeting was held recently with the cross-country coach and the athletic director, "resulting in the verdict of the women on the team no longer being able to run in sports bras." In addition, she indicated that women on the team were told they were no longer allowed to run on the on-campus track and "were claimed to be distracting to the football players on the field during the same time."
Hundreds of people expressed outrage at the policy — including U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, who tweeted: "Really? This is 2018" — and talked online about a coordinated phone campaign and an online petition.
In an interview Friday, Capone said she believed that the athletic department, in enforcing such a policy, was implying that women running in sports bras were "asking for it," and that the school was perpetuating rape culture.
The team members "are just minding their own business and running and doing what they need to do," said Capone, 21, of Bordentown. "The football players are the last thing on their mind."
Brianna De la Cruz, a sophomore cross-country team member from Hillsborough, N.J., said female runners on the team had heard throughout the season that football program leaders felt their sports bras were inappropriate, and the women on the team were incensed late last week when they were told the garments were banned.
"They said that we were distracting," De la Cruz, 19, said. "We're pretty professional. We really get down to business. We are just following our workout."
In an email to students Friday, Houshmand said that while the verbal protocol regarding the requirement to wear shirts was "long-standing," it was recently explained to new staff, who then relayed the information to students who had been practicing all season in sports bras.
He said the Rowan administration didn't know the policy existed, but "met with the athletics department and promised immediately to develop a written policy that allows women athletes to wear sports-bra tops without shirts during practices," and will follow NCAA guidelines for uniforms during competition.
"The university recognizes that while the verbal policy attempted to set standards, it could be misunderstood and does not accommodate today's training practices across sports," Houshmand wrote. "We recognize this may stir debate within the university community and beyond."
De la Cruz called Friday's announcement a "half-victory," saying team members hadn't heard from officials regarding where they'll practice moving forward. Neither cross-country coach Derick Adamson nor football coach Jay Accorsi responded to a request for comment.
School spokesman Joe Cardona said the cross-country team wasn't told to work out elsewhere due to the women's attire, but rather to comply with a policy the school has long held that dictates teams use the venues one at a time.
In the past, the cross-country team used the Rowan stadium after the football team when it was doing track work. While there was some overlap, he said the teams largely stayed out of each other's way. Rather than practicing later, the cross-country coach has, on some occasions, made plans for the runners to use a track at Glassboro High School, he said.
But there was a situation several weeks ago when the cross-country team was unable to use the Glassboro High facility, so it practiced in Rowan's stadium while the football team was still there. Cardona said in an athletic department meeting several days later, football program leadership brought up the one-team-per-venue policy. In the same meeting, Cardona said they also brought up the verbal policy regarding wearing shirts.
Both complaints were relayed to student-athletes on the cross-country team at the same time, Cardona said, causing some to interpret them as related.
Claire Incantalupo, a fifth-year student-athlete who's on the track team and works out with the cross-country team, said she was relieved the sports bra policy was reversed, but as of Friday afternoon was still hoping for additional clarity on where the team would practice in the future.
"It doesn't take much to run track. All you need is clothes, sneakers, and a place," she said. "And they just took our place."