Men’s College Gymnastics Must Choose Between The NCAA And Survival
3:01 PM EST on February 24, 2021
“I kind of have always existed looking over my shoulder,” Mike Burns, the head coach of the University of Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team, said during a roundtable discussion about the fate of men’s collegiate gymnastics on an episode of the SHIFT Show podcast. “‘When am I going to get that call?’ I had dodged that bullet for 40 years.”
Burns began his coaching career in 1981, at the University of Iowa. During the next four decades, those calls—or bullets, whichever metaphor you prefer—came for dozens of other men’s gymnastics programs. The University of Washington answered that call in 1983. Arizona State did in 1993, then UCLA in 1994, and the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2019. When Burns walked into his first meeting of college men’s gymnastics coaches, there were 79 Division I programs in the U.S., which was already a steep decrease from the more than 200 men’s collegiate gymnastics programs that existed in the 1960s. At the end of the truncated 2020 season, there were just 15.
“When I went to my first meeting, it was a big room, like a ballroom full of people,” Burns said during the podcast. “And now we’re in a closet of a room for our CGA [Collegiate Gymnastics Association] meeting since we don’t have that many.” That number is still shrinking. At the end of the 2021 men’s NCAA gymnastics season, the number will have shrunk to 13, as Iowa and Burns’s own Minnesota programs have been dropped by their respective athletic departments. (William & Mary was initially part of that sad cohort, but their program was just reinstated and will be safe through the end of the 2022 season.) Men’s D1 gymnastics had been cut to the bone before COVID-19 launched a new wave of austerity. The most recent cuts amount to scooping out the marrow.
These cuts and many others to both men’s and women’s Olympic sports are being blamed, in part, on the revenue shortfalls projected by university athletic departments due to the pandemic. But as Burns indicated on the podcast, the crisis for men’s college gymnastics predates that by decades. That’s why, when GymCastic cohost and men’s gymnastics expert Kensley Behel opened the roundtable discussion on the SHIFT Show by asking Burns and the other NCAA coaches, “When did each of you feel like your sport was in danger?” not one answered “2020.” Mark Williams, head coach at the University of Oklahoma, said,“I got into college coaching in 1988 and we started to hear the rumblings at that point.” Justin Spring, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and head coach of the University of Illinois-Champaign, said that he told himself upon taking the reins of the program in 2009 that he’d be lucky to spend eight years at the helm; Brett McClure, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist and who is currently the men’s national team high performance director, said that when he joined Air Force Academy as an assistant coach in 2006, “I told myself, five years. It’s going to be five years before we lose all of the programs.”
[Disclosure: I used to be a co-host of GymCastic and have appeared several times as a guest.]
These cuts are a disaster, not just for the affected coaches and athletes but for the national team that McClure oversees. College gymnastics has long been the single largest feeder into the U.S. men’s national team. Sam Mikulak, the nation’s best male gymnast, is an alum of Michigan’s program; Yul Moldauer, the lone U.S. man to win a medal at the 2017 world championships, just graduated from Williams’ program at Oklahoma; Shane Wiskus, currently an athlete at the soon-to-be-cut Minnesota, competed for the U.S. at the 2019 world championships. (He is currently training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while taking classes remotely at Minnesota.) And Spring came up through men’s NCAA gymnastics. The fortunes of U.S. men’s gymnastics have long depended upon college programs, and those programs have been circling the drain for some time.
When I started reporting this story two years ago, after UIC announced it was cutting both its men’s and women’s gymnastics programs at the end of the 2019 season, my main question was how men’s gymnastics might survive within the existing NCAA model. But as the pandemic spun the clock forward, that question changed to what kind of future men’s collegiate gymnastics might have outside the NCAA.
So far, those working to save it are finding success by turning to a different model—club sports that pay for themselves. It’s too early to know if that will be enough to save a sport that is battling not just COVID-19 but also years of cuts, as well as decades of being maligned for the sin of being associated with girls and womanhood. Right now, though, men’s gymnastics will have to be open to seeing what works. The alternative is death.
Men started to lose NCAA Division I gymnastics programs right as the gymnasts coming out of those programs began kicking ass in major international competition. The first breakthrough came at the 1976 Olympics, where Peter Kormann won bronze on the floor exercise. He competed for Southern Connecticut State University under the legendary coach Abie Grossfeld; that school no longer has a men’s gymnastics team. In 1978, Kurt Thomas—then a collegiate gymnast at Indiana State University, another school that no longer has men’s gymnastics—won the first world title for the U.S. men by picking up the gold medal on floor exercise. Thomas brought “flares,” a move that several male college gymnasts performed, onto the international stage. The move ended up being named for him.
It’s hard to overstate how big a star Thomas was in his heyday; the New York Times referred to him as “the Balanchine and Baryshnikov of men’s gymnastics,” which is both over-the-top and somehow not totally off base. Thomas never fulfilled his Olympic potential due to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, though, and he retired from amateur competition to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities that had come his way, including a million-dollar contract with Sea World. He also worked as a commentator for ABC and starred in the goofy camp action-movie favorite Gymkata. (Thomas died last year.)
The U.S. men’s program as a whole seemed to be on the rise. In 1979, the U.S. men won the team bronze at the world championships in Texas. Thomas picked up gold medals on the high bar and floor exercise and silvers in the all-around, pommel horse, and parallel bars. And Bart Conner, who competed for the University of Oklahoma, one of the few men’s teams still kicking, won both the parallel bar title and a bronze on vault. Half the 1979 team—Conner, along with Peter Vidmar and Jim Hartung—hung around for another four years after the Moscow boycott to compete in LA84, where they won the gold medal over defending world champion China.
That U.S. men’s victory in 1984 didn’t seem to lead to the same explosion in grassroots participation that the women experienced after Mary Lou Retton won the all-around gold medal in Los Angeles, though. Even as the American men reached the top of the mountain, the ground was shifting beneath them.
Ten years after the U.S. men’s win in Los Angeles, UCLA announced that it was cutting its men’s team—the very same program that had trained half the 1984 gold medalists. The program had not gone downhill during that decade, either; just two years prior, UCLA put two of its athletes on the 1992 Olympic team. Its Olympic legacy would continue for two quadrenniums after its demise, with former Bruins Chainey Umphrey and Steve McCain claiming spots on the 1996 and 2000 teams respectively. (UCLA also tried to cut its women’s program in 1994. Universities were shedding both men’s and women’s programs at roughly the same rate up until around 1992. But the UCLA women were able to save their program in '94 thanks to something the men didn’t have at their disposal: Title IX. They threatened a gender equity lawsuit and the school backed down. It’s hard to imagine now, given the high profile of the UCLA women’s team, how close this program came to extinction. We almost lost Katelyn Ohashi’s viral floor routine.)
The end of UCLA men’s gymnastics was also chilling in a deeper sense. It signified that athletes and coaches could do everything right—win national championships, even win Olympic gold medals—and still be eliminated by their university. If UCLA men’s gymnastics wasn’t safe, no program was.
The year before UCLA announced it was cutting its men’s team, another heavy hitter in men’s NCAA gymnastics got the axe. That was Arizona State, which had been at or near the top of men’s gymnastics throughout the late 1980s and into the ’90s, peaking with a national title in 1986. Scott Barclay, a former standout ASU athlete from the ’70s, was the assistant coach of the team at the time of its elimination. “We didn’t feel like our program was on the cutting block at all until the day it happened,” he told me. “I do remember going into 1993, the discussion was there’s 40 teams left and the NCAA is going to drop the championship if we drop below 40, so we need to work on getting more teams back into the program.” The elimination of ASU brought that number down to 39, although the NCAA didn’t end up canceling the national championships. Instead, the NCAA created an exemption that allowed for continued sponsorship of Olympic sports that fall below 40.
Barclay was told that the reason his ASU team was being eliminated was purely financial. “Well, at the same time, they were doubling their [football] coach’s salary from $400,000 to $800,000,” he recalled. “They just built a $1 million locker room for the basketball team.”
Barclay told me he was given one chance to save his program—the athletic department told him that he needed to raise $2 million in about two months. “It was totally unrealistic,” he recalled. “They didn’t give us any tools. They locked us out of our office and turned the phones off and everything else.” Still, Barclay tried. ASU men’s gymnastics hosted a benefit event that featured Willie Nelson and the writer Og Mandino, but they came up far short.
The same thing happened to Charley Nelson after he learned that both the men’s and women’s gymnastics programs at UIC were getting cut at the end of the 2019 season. The school cited cost as the primary reason, despite the fact that UIC wasn’t even offering scholarships to its athletes by 2019. The athletic department informed him and the team that they—the men and the women—could stick around if they raised a mere $25.2 million by the end of the 2019 season.
“Why not a billion?” I asked. It would be just as easy, which is to say just as difficult, to raise that sum in that period of time.
“It’s a blow-off,” Nelson responded. “That’s the only way to describe it.”
I spoke to Nelson for the first time back in January 2019, five months after UIC announced that it was cutting both its men’s and women’s gymnastics teams at the end of the season. We were at the Credit Union Arena in downtown Chicago, where Nelson’s UIC team and Prairie Gymnastics Club, a local gym, were playing host to a competition that featured three days of boys’ gymnastics and one evening of NCAA gymnastics known as the Windy City Invitational. It was also a “Save UIC Gymnastics” event. There was a note about signing a petition above the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom where I spoke with a woman about the pending demise of the program while we both washed our hands; people in the stands were wearing T-shirts with supportive messages for UIC gymnasts. At the end of the NCAA competition, which featured four D-I teams and one collegiate club team, UIC Flames men’s squad took to center mat for a photo with a banner that read “You can’t extinguish this flame.” By the end of the 2019 season, though, it was well and truly out. The school’s men’s and women’s teams were gone and the most promising of its gymnasts had transferred to the remaining extant Division I programs. UIC gymnastics, at least in its NCAA incarnation, was dead.
Every conversation I had about men’s gymnastics in Chicago that weekend was an existential one, even as I sat in the stands with Spring watching the boys' age group competition Saturday afternoon. “If you lose these developmental centers, like this is basically what [NCAA gymnastics teams are] are, it’s really, you know, it’s going to kill the grassroots,” Spring told me. We were watching the very grassroots he was so concerned about—the 17-18 year old segment of the age group competition. Some of his recruits and prospects were competing that day.
It was my first (and only) time watching an age group boys' competition; up until Windy City, I had only ever watched the very best male gymnasts in the world compete, either at the world or national championship. When you watch an age group competition and see the young men trying to hold an iron cross on rings and trembling, you really start to appreciate just how hard rings are, and how hard the whole damn sport is, and also how much this developmental process means. Some of those young men already had college scholarships in hand; one gymnast who swung a smooth set on the pommel horse later donned a Penn State T-shirt. Another's shirt bore the logo of the University of Iowa, then a viable program and now also fighting for its life.
Spring spoke about how critical NCAA gymnastics had been to his development as a world-class athlete and Olympian. Though he had some early success in high school and won the junior national title, he “didn’t make a senior [national] team until my junior year in college,” he said. “What would I have done if college athletics didn’t exist? Would I have stayed at home and just kept training at my club? No scholarships, gone to community college or something but without any assistance, parents still have to foot the bill for, you know, gymnastics lessons for another three years for this long shot that you make a national team as I’m into my twenties?”
Men’s gymnastics was not always this inaccessible. Nelson and Barclay, both of whom went to the same high school several years apart, spoke about how easy it was for them to get high quality gymnastics instruction in the Illinois public school system. “When I was in high school, I went from my last class, walked down the hallway and went to the gym and was on the team there,” Nelson said. One of the people Nelson trained with as a young boy doing gymnastics in the Chicago area was Christopher Bridges, better known as Ludacris.
“It was free. Didn’t cost my parents one penny,” Barclay told me. “It was just something that kids did. After school, we went and did that stuff. And it got me a college scholarship down here at ASU back in 1974.”
“Gymnastics has kind of moved away from that,” Wendy Hilliard, a nine-time national team member in rhythmic gymnastics, told me in 2016 for a story about minority participation in gymnastics. “It has become really club-focused, which means you pay a lot of money to train.” When she was a young gymnast competing in the late ’70s into the ’80s, her family only had to pay nominal fees for her to train in her hometown of Detroit.
The changes that have taken hold since Barclay’s and Hilliard’s time as gymnasts have made the sport more exclusive. One of Barclay’s ASU athletes, co-captain Anthony Mills, spoke about how much it cost him and his family for him to participate in gymnastics as a young boy—tuition, meet entry fees, competition uniforms, travel costs. Not to mention the fact that the gym he trained at was 25 miles outside of his home in Detroit. All of which points to a decline that goes well beyond the loss of those collegiate programs at the very top. It’s also about the migration of the sport from the public domain to the private one, and from a free activity open to all to one that only a select few can afford, long before a college roster position is even a possibility. “I’ve always said, you put one to two gymnastics facilities in the Black community, you will see a lot more Black gymnasts in this world,” he said.
Barriers to participation aren’t just economic or geographic, though. Men’s gymnastics faces a hurdle to recruitment and retention that many other sports don’t face: its association with women and girls. In most sports, the men’s version of the discipline is the platonic ideal and it’s the women’s version that requires a modifier—basketball and women’s basketball, hockey and women’s hockey. But in gymnastics, at least in the west, the women’s version of the sport is the dominant one, from both media and participation perspectives. According to USA Gymnastics, 90 percent of the gymnasts registered are girls and women. Simone Biles is one of the most famous athletes in the world. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with being associated with femaleness—except that we live in a society that closely polices gender roles and punishes those who deviate even slightly from them.
Spring, Mills, and former UIC team captain James Marden all spoke about being mocked by their non-gymnast peers when they were younger. “I remember getting made fun of all the time,” Spring recalled. “‘Stick your landing, Justin,’ and they’d salute like a girl to me and I’m like, ‘Oh I hate you guys,’” he told me. “High school was so brutal.” (Male and female gymnasts do sometimes present, or salute, to the judges in markedly different fashions; the women’s style is the one that’s more iconic, hence Spring’s tormenters’ taunt.)
“I got picked on all the time,” Marden, then a captain for the UIC men’s team, told me last year. “Being the one kid that did gymnastics and being super flexible and stuff like [that], it was definitely kind of like having a target on your back.”
Though Spring and Marden persisted, it’s not hard to see how the lack of acceptance and validation for young boys who do gymnastics might possibly depress interest in the sport at the grassroots. “I do think that homophobia and sexism (and in particular, intersections of both) has deterred men and boys from participating in gymnastics,” Blake Bonkowski, co-host of Half In, Half Out, an LGBTQ+ focused gymnastics podcast, told me. “Based on the experiences of this reported to me by men who were/are in the sport it is clear that they face homophobia and are assumed to be gay by people outside of gym, whether or not they are actually gay/bi/pan/etc.”
This assumption can make it hard for male gymnasts who are LGBTQ+. Danell Leyva, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist who recently came out as bi/pansexual, said that the stereotypes about male gymnasts made it difficult for him to come out. “[The stereotypes were] such a big factor in it,” he told the Olympic Channel. “Just not giving the people the satisfaction of being right because it doesn’t come from a good place.”
It’s worth noting here that men’s gymnastics is not similarly stigmatized in other countries. Japanese gymnasts dominated the men’s global field in the postwar years, and the sport has been popular there ever since. Many of the skills in the men’s Code of Points have Japanese names for the athletes who competed them first. The Japanese men won five consecutive Olympic titles from 1960-1976. Most famously, Shun Fujimoto competed on a broken leg in 1976 to help the Japanese prevail against a rising Soviet team. He is still an iconic figure in Japan.
The Japanese men’s program fell off for a couple decades as the Soviets, Chinese, and then Americans started to win gold medals, but men’s gymnastics still remained an important part of the country’s sports tradition. “They’ve put a lot of emphasis behind a whole cultural developmental program for gymnastics and it’s been primarily on the men’s side,” Williams said. Men’s gymnastics has even been featured in anime. One of the early inspirations for Kohei Uchimura, the two-time Olympic champion and greatest male gymnast of all-time, was an anime program featuring a male high school gymnast called Ganba! Fly High. It was written by Shinji Morisue, a gold medalist from the 1984 Olympics. In Japan, the sport’s roots are generations deep.
“Unfortunately, UIC is not going to be the last one,” Giancarlo Mora told me at the conclusion of the 2019 Windy City Invitational. Mora was then the head coach of the University of Washington’s men’s gymnastics club, a position from which he resigned in early February*. His Huskies placed fourth, ahead of a UIC team that had already lost its two top gymnasts to transfer after the decision to cut the program had been announced.
“What is happening to UIC today happened to us 40 years ago,” he continued. “We started as a collegiate program in the ‘50s and in the ‘60s. A decade later, University of Washington funded [us] as Division I. So in the ’60s and ’70s, we were Division I. And since the ’80s again, when they dropped the funding, we have become a collegiate [program] again, self-funded. We [have been] self-funded for almost 40 years.”
Mora seemed, overall, pretty pleased with how his program had progressed since they lost their D1 status all those years ago. “We are allowed to compete internationally [as a team],” he pointed out. He also told me that they have an approximately $40,000 budget for scholarships based on merit and need. “As many gymnasts who ask us, they all become scholarship [athletes] depending on what is the financial need and how much their skills [are] valued for the team,” he told me.
Becoming a self-funded club was the path that Barclay and ASU ultimately chose a decade later. Barclay planned to look for a coaching position elsewhere, but told his athletes, “I’ll do this one more year until you guys find a place to land.”
“That was 27 years ago,” he said.
What happened in the intervening three decades, beyond the continued decimation of the men’s D1 ranks, is that young male gymnasts kept calling Barclay and asking to come to ASU even though he couldn’t offer them a scholarship. It was even worse than it looked; Barclay couldn’t even pay himself a salary during those early years, and told me that he put a lot of expenses on his credit card and was working multiple jobs to make ends meet. “The first few years we had between six and ten guys,” he said. “But nobody left. It just kept on going.” Coaches of the remaining D1 teams were very accommodating, inviting the ASU men to their tri or quad meets so that Sun Devil gymnasts would have the opportunity to travel and compete.
In 2000, the university tore down the campus gym where both the men and women trained with plans to rebuild the facility just for the women. “[The university] said, ‘You guys are done. We took your money away, you didn’t leave. Now we’re gonna take your building away so you gotta get out of here,’” Barclay said. He tried to convince the university to add about 20 feet onto the building so that the gym could house those men’s events that they don’t share with the women—men’s gymnastics has six apparatuses to the women’s four; the two that they share are vault and floor—and offered to raise the money in order to make up the difference in the budget. When his request was flatly denied, Barclay said, “I realized that they just didn’t want us.”
The loss of their facility pushed ASU’s men’s gymnastics off-campus. For the next few years, the men trained at a private club while Barclay figured out his next steps. Barclay and his board of directors decided to buy a plot of land to build a gym for kids; the profits from running the club would subsidize the team. “They pay for the building and the guys don’t have to pay anything to come in and use the gym,” Barclay said.
This model is not specific to Barclay or ASU. Stanford also does a version of this. Their facility, when it’s not playing host to team workouts, functions as a club where young gymnasts, both boys and girls, go to train; the profits go towards funding the collegiate gymnastics programs. “It becomes a community center,” Spring said of Stanford’s program. “It’s yoga sessions. It’s fitness classes. It’s mommy-and-me classes. There’s a full-throttle club, just like [the one] I send my 8-year-old to down the street.”
But operating a club out of your college gymnastics facility may not be enough to stave off the end for other programs; Iowa was running a similar program out of its gym but it still got axed. (Iowa’s women train in the same facility, so the club will presumably live on.) Burns’s program at Minnesota submitted a comprehensive sustainability plan that not only used their facility to create a club whose profits will help offset the costs of the program but also proposed creating an Acrobatics and Tumbling team to increase roster spots for women, addressing Title IX compliance concerns. The Board of Regents still voted to kill the 117-year-old program anyway.
Barclay didn’t stop with building that private club, called Aspire Kids Sports Center, just over 10 miles away from campus. He created other revenue streams for the men’s team, including a business that sets up equipment for gymnastics competitions around the region; Barclay and his team spend many weekends out of the year hauling equipment. Mills, the co-captain of ASU’s team, told me that they call this “floor moves.”
In 2018, Barclay, Mora and some other coaches of men’s club teams formed Gym ACT, Gymnastics Association of Collegiate Teams. Though a college club gymnastics association already exists—NAIGC, or National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs—the GymACT teams are coached and compete at or near a NCAA level, whereas NAIGC teams can really run the gamut. I was on my club gymnastics team at Penn, for instance, and I was not remotely good; some of my teammates competed in high school at Level 8 or 9, although even that is still below the Level 10 skill level you see in women’s NCAA competitions.
In addition to ASU, Washington, and Temple, whose men’s D1 gymnastics team was sacrificed on the altar to football back in 2014, there are three other collegiate teams that aren’t affiliated with universities. And at the end of the 2019 season, Nelson and UIC came aboard too. With the help of the recreation department, he helped create “Gymnastics at UIC,” the men’s gymnastics club.
After the 2019 season was over, the UIC gymnastics teams lost access to their practice facility. As a result, Nelson and the club team and their equipment migrated to CITY Gymnastics Club, which is owned by the former Soviet gymnastics legend Natalia Yurchenko and Keith Bukowski. (If the name “Yurchenko” sounds familiar to you, it’s because you’ve likely heard it hundreds of times while watching the Olympics; Yurchenko was the first to do the roundoff-back-handspring entry vault that is near ubiquitous in both men’s and women’s gymnastics.) Nelson, who has a young child at home, has had to find additional work to support both his family and what he calls his “coaching men’s gymnastics habit,” just as Barclay had to 27 years ago.
“A lot of people, a lot of places want to have a GymACT program now,” Barclay said. “It’s going to keep growing,” Barclay said. “I expect to have a good 20 to 30 club teams in the next couple, three years.”
A framework like GymACT has the potential not only to sustain programs that lost their D1 status but also the national team. Club rosters, Kensley Behel noted, have served as a talent reservoir for the very same D1 teams that feed into the U.S. Olympic effort. “Michael Reid was on the club team the first semester at Oklahoma and he went on to win the 2015 pommel horse title [at NCAA championships],” she wrote to me in an email. And clubs can also offer opportunities to athletes who follow a less straightforward path in the sport. Mills, the ASU co-captain, told me that he took a break from gymnastics in high school and didn’t actually matriculate at ASU until he was 21. While late-starting athletes might not be immediately competitive, they can develop on a well-coached club team, such as the ones in GymACT.
Behel also pointed out how the NCAA and the TV contract system has hampered the marketing of the men’s side of the sport. “The B1G or another conference may have rights to an event with no plan to cover said event,” Behel pointed out to me in an email. “However, because they own the contract, streaming of that meet on another platform is not allowed.” This amounts to a self-imposed blackout, and while in many cases some member of the team or a fan will stream janky video on Instagram Live or Facebook Live, that’s no way to grow a fanbase.
“It’s hard not to be able to have a sense that, geez, what have we done wrong to be in this position,” OU’s Mark Williams told me. “I feel like I go to work every day trying to give it 100 percent and put forward the best version of Oklahoma Gymnastics that can be out there. And yet we’re bombarded with the possibility of extinction. On a personal level, that still hurts.” It wasn’t just him, either. It was painful to hear Williams, whom I have interviewed multiple times through the years and always found to be a mensch, saying that he couldn’t help but feel that, despite having built a legitimate dynasty at OU—despite nine national titles in 17 years, despite having coached several Olympians and world medalists—he had still failed because he couldn’t stop the decades-long decline of men’s NCAA gymnastics.
In a better world, what Williams, Spring, Burns and the rest of their cohort are doing would already be enough. They wouldn’t have to recruit, coach, market their teams, and somehow find a way to save the men’s sport at the collegiate level.
But the demands being placed on men’s gymnastics coaches are all not that different from the ones that women’s college gymnastics coaches had to meet back in the early days of Title IX when they had to beg, borrow, and steal in order to get what they needed for their programs. At Utah, Greg Marsden, who started the team back in 1975, was dragging bleachers into the practice facility for competitions, just as Barclay and the ASU team have to do it now. Marsden, who I’ve interviewed several times, could fill a book with ideas of how to market gymnastics to the masses. (In fact, he told me a lot of them for my book.) He put most of those into practice over a 40-year coaching career during which Utah won 9 NCAA titles and became the leader in attendance in women’s college sports. At LSU, whose program was started in 1978 by the just-retired head coach D-D Breaux, the women trained in a corner of the field house during the early years. Breaux used to stand in the local supermarket handing out free tickets to meets. Now the Tigers train in one of the best facilities in the U.S. and the team regularly attracts crowds larger than 10,000, at least in the Before Times. Similar stories played out at Georgia and Alabama with coaches Suzanne Yoculan and Sarah Patterson, respectively. Men’s sports have just always been; women’s sports have to fight at every stage to simply exist.
This situation is not fair, of course. It’s not fair to the women who had to fight their way into existence and not fair to the men whose programs are now teetering on the brink. But fair or not, it is entirely up to the coaches and the men’s gymnastics community to set things on a path towards sustainability, because university athletic directors and the NCAA sure aren’t going to help. Neither institution is remotely invested in the survival of men’s gymnastics; if the coaches and athletes can’t save it, everyone else seems quite content to let men’s college gymnastics die.
It remains vexingly unclear just what changes might make survival more likely. The men have discussed moving away from the scoring used by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and reverting to the 10.0, which is what women’s NCAA gymnastics uses, in the belief that the latter is more marketable. (See: Ohashi’s perfect-10 floor routine.) But that arrangement better suits female collegiate gymnasts than their male counterparts; the vast majority of women’s NCAA gymnasts aren’t planning to compete internationally during or after their college careers, whereas college age male gymnasts are just getting started on their elite careers. Given that, scoring men’s NCAA gymnastics according to FIG rules enables the men to move more easily between college and international competition. Besides, the decline in men’s programs started well before the implementation of the new scoring paradigm in 2006.
Coaches have also discussed reducing roster size to make them a less appealing target when Title IX compliance is the rationalization for the cuts. I say “rationalization” because Title IX has been turned into something of a scapegoat for the demise of men’s college Olympic sports despite the fact that women’s sports are also getting cut. When I spoke to Burns, he noted that at first Minnesota claimed both budget shortfalls and Title IX concerns for the elimination of the men’s programs, but after external pressure, the university reinstated the men’s track and field program, which meant adding back several men’s roster positions. All of a sudden, he pointed out, Title IX wasn’t such a big problem.
“I was a young two-year head coach,” Justin Spring told me in 2019 as I sat next to him in the stands in Chicago. “I was trying to reinvent gymnastics, almost to the point that I was willing to go really far to where it barely looked like gymnastics as we know it.” Spring suggested all manner of radical changes to the sport, everything from eliminating pommel horse from the men’s repertoire to the reintroduction of some very old gymnastics disciplines like rope climb, which last appeared at the Olympics in 1932. “If we’re not thinking about ideas like eliminating pommel horse from our meets, we’re not thinking big enough,” Spring said back then.
He didn’t propose anything quite as extreme when we spoke in 2020, but he was still insistent that the sport couldn’t keep tinkering around the edges. “If we can’t agree on anything else,” he said, “it’s got to be that what we have doesn’t work, and [that] continuing to do the same thing is just absolutely crazy.” While he allowed that coaches are all on the same page when it comes to their passion for the sport, he said they’re not when it comes to what to do to save it. “I don't think we've looked at the bigger picture,” Spring said. “I think we all walk in with our individual institution’s polos on.” Some coaches are better situated and funded than others, and so probably aren’t in favor of radical change. As above, so below.
“When you don’t have to necessarily worry about survival, your thoughts don’t evolve as quickly because you don’t have to,” said Burns, who is still hoping to save his Minnesota program. “The panic of the oncoming death of the program helps you evolve faster. So I think everybody’s got a different pace.” The threat is the same, in other words, but the urgency of it varies.
The predicament facing men’s gymnastics teams will feel familiar to any of the many Americans working in declining industries. The combination of waiting for the other shoe to drop and the absence of other viable options breeds despair, of course, but also inaction. Yes, the boat is filling with water. But how fast would you bail in the absence of another vessel that seems notably more seaworthy?
The NCAA and IOC tell niche sports that there is no way for them to thrive outside their model, and so they must try to survive within it. But there have been successful alternatives to the Olympics, such as the Women’s World Games in the 1920s, which featured female athletes competing in track and field events after their efforts to be included in the “real” Olympics were denied. At the first one, more than 20,000 spectators came to watch the competition. Eventually, the event was brought into the IOC fold, not because the IOC suddenly recognized its value and wanted to encourage women to participate in sports but because they feared losing control of it. This history has been largely erased, mostly because of misogyny but also because the institutions that run sports don’t take kindly to the idea that things might be otherwise.
“When [ASU] did cut the sport, I spent three years fighting the university, legally, emotionally,” Barclay recalled. “Then just one day, I just said, ‘You know what, I'm tired of fighting. I'm gonna build. Forget this fighting stuff. I can't fight against it. It's a dead end. The university is way too powerful. The whole system is powerful. I'm just one guy.’
“So,” he continued, “I said I’m going to build a team. I didn’t know what it was gonna look like. I didn’t have an idea. I just knew that we had some guys who just love doing gymnastics.” The ASU team now has a 50-man roster, by far the largest in men’s collegiate gymnastics. The size of his team is a testament to how many guys want an opportunity to continue doing gymnastics at a high level in college. Also, their numbers aren’t being capped by Title IX. Barclay’s guys do all this without the promise of scholarships; Mills told me that Barclay is sometimes able to provide a stipend to defray some of their expenses, but that’s about as good as it gets. They join his team even though it means that they have to become a moving crew on weekends in order to help fund the entire enterprise.
Like Barclay, Nelson seemed optimistic about the future of men’s collegiate gymnastics, if not necessarily within the NCAA. “When it comes down to it, we can’t be cut anymore. There’s nothing that can be taken away. There’s no administrator telling us they want to take us in a different direction,” Nelson told me.
It was a stark contrast to our conversation over a year ago, back when he was still fighting to save his team at the D1 level. It was also different in tenor from the conversations I had with coaches whose programs are still ensconced, firmly or otherwise, within the NCAA. Barclay and Nelson are not just trying to survive the next round of cuts. They’re trying to build programs that can live, and thrive, outside the stifling pressures of the NCAA cartel. “We don’t have to win to prove our existence every time we go out there,” Nelson said. “We exist because we should exist.”
*This story has been updated to reflect Mora's resignation.