College Gymnastics Teams Work to Stay Afloat Amid Pandemic
In response to the Covid-19 Pandemic constricting budgets, many higher education institutions have turned to athletics in search of cost-saving cuts. While a few community colleges have taken the drastic step of slashing their entire athletic department, more often universities have taken aim at ‘secondary’ sports—non-revenue generating sports like gymnastics, swimming & diving, tennis, and track & field that neither pack 80,000-seat stadiums nor bring in lucrative television contracts.
Since March, over two hundred sports have been cut across all NCAA divisions, including the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota eliminating their men’s gymnastics teams following the current academic year and the College of William & Mary announcing plans to ‘reevaluate’ its team following the 2021-2022 academic year. The elimination of these programs exasperates concerns about the sports ability to survive, having already seen an alarming decline during the last half century. As recent as the 1970, over 200 NCAA institutions sponsored men’s gymnastics, according to a 60 Minutes segment. By 2022, that number could be just 12, perhaps making for the smallest NCAA-sponsored sport. On the women’s side, 61 NCAA Division I teams participated in the 2020 season, a far cry from the 179 teams forty years ago. Unlike their female counterparts who traditionally enter the Olympics straight out of high school, male gymnasts don’t reach their physical peak until their twenties, making collegiate competition—and year round training—vital for Olympic hopefuls. In fact, 80 percent of the male gymnasts to represent Team USA at the Olympics and World Championships first competed collegiately.
Colleges cutting sports isn’t a new phenomenon: the 2009 NCAA Sports Participation Report revealed that 227 teams were dropped during the Great Recession. But most of those teams’ stories didn’t end there, with many reborn as club teams. More than 150 colleges support women’s and/or men’s gymnastics club teams. In an essay for the New York Times, Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute argued club gymnastics offers plenty of positives, writing “Club athletes represent their colleges, wear the colors, but play more on their terms, not those of an athletic department groaning under the strain of an NCAA rule book and of a business model that turns many athletes into employees without paychecks.”
While the outlook may seem bleak on the surface, the rollercoaster William & Mary student-athletes experienced provides a glimmer of hope. In early September, the College announced plans to discontinue seven varsity sports—including both men’s and women’s gymnastics. Current and former student-athletes, William & Mary alumni, and others within the athletics world quickly banded together and organized a movement to reverse the decision through social media, email and phone campaigns. Within a month, the college—fearing a Title IX lawsuit—reinstated the three women’s teams slated for reclassification. But that wasn’t good enough for those female student-athletes: rather than celebrate their victory, they shifted their attention to restoring the men’s teams by writing an open letter to the administration, while dozens announced they would not represent their school in uniform unless the men’s teams were restored. Finally, in mid-November, the remaining four teams on the chopping block breathed a collective sigh of relief when the college relented, announcing a resetting of the “process to determine long-term sustainability for W & M Athletics”, with a final decision to come following the 2021-2022 academic year.
Although the true ending to the William & Mary story won’t be realized for a couple of years, the saga serves as a reminder of all the good that exists in sports: how complete strangers—united only by a shared passion for their sport—can come together to help one another in the face of overwhelming adversity and preserve the sport they love so dearly.
Another team striving to come together during these challenging times is the University of Alaska Anchorage women’s gymnastics team. One of three UAA sports teams eliminated by the University’s Board of Regents, the team is scrambling to raise enough funds to keep its sport alive. The Seawolves must raise $880,000 by February in order to achieve reinstatement. In addition to full course loads and the 20-plus hours they spend practicing every week, these determined student-athletes are dedicating the majority of their free time to fundraising and reaching out to potential corporate sponsors.US Glove is proud to help sponsor the UAA women’s gymnastics team this season, and for the next two years. If you would like to help these resilient athletes, check out their Gofundme campaign and their split-the-pot raffle. You can follow them on Instagram at @uaagymnastics to keep up with their ongoing fundraising efforts.