By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Spelman College, the oldest historically black U.S. college for women, is scrapping its competitive sports program in a bold effort to help students combat the troubling health statistics faced by African-American women.
The private school, based in Atlanta, Georgia, will cease competing against other colleges' athletic teams at the end of the current academic year. It will then put its $1 million annual sports budget toward improving the health of all 2,100 students, said college president Beverly Daniel Tatum.
The college plans to expand fitness programs such as strength training, Pilates and yoga, and is raising money for a new gymnasium, Tatum said.
The idea to try something different came after the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III athletic conference Spelman belongs to decided to disband.
"I started thinking about the state-of-the art wellness program we could develop if we reallocated the money we were spending on the sports program that was benefiting a very small number of students," Tatum said. "We could flip that script, and we could put that money into a program for everyone."
Health statistics for African-American women are disturbing, Tatum said, with higher rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure than other groups.
Fifty-one percent of black women over the age of 20 are obese, compared to 32.8 percent of white women, according to the American Heart Association.
An estimated 9.5 percent of African-American women have been diagnosed with diabetes, compared to 5.4 percent of white women, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Spelman has 80 student athletes, and fields teams in volleyball, basketball, soccer, cross country, tennis, golf and softball. Division III teams are not allowed to offer sports scholarships, and Spelman does not recruit athletes, Tatum said.
The school's wellness program, on the other hand, has about 300 participants, nearly four times the number of student athletes. But the current wellness program has been limited by the sports teams, which often use athletic facilities for practice and games, Tatum said.
By expanding the broader program, "instead of learning how to play soccer or basketball, the focus will be on fitness for life," she said.
Tatum said she knew of no other college that has made a similar decision.
Colleges have been more likely to take the opposite approach - cutting physical education programs to fund sports, said Philip Haberstro, former president of the National Association for Health and Fitness.
The Spelman plan makes sense for many reasons, Haberstro said, including the potential to increase academic performance by improving the health of students.
"The mission of the college is education," he said. "I think there is a good, solid rationale for a college doing this."
Not everyone is pleased. Tatum said some student athletes upset about the decision have told her they were thinking about transferring.
"I understand the disappointment," she said. "I think the majority of them will still be with us, that there are other things they like about Spelman that they'll want to continue to be affiliated with. Certainly, that is my hope."
Sophomore Channing Carney-Filmore, who plays on the school's soccer team, said she initially was disappointed about the sports program being cut.
But she said she understood the greater potential benefit of instilling healthier lifestyles, though she doubted the idea would fly at larger schools with big sports programs.
"When you're at Spelman it makes sense," she said. "There aren't many people involved in sports. We're not known for our sports. We're known for academics."
(Reporting by David Beasley; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Tim Dobbyn)