Efforts Ongoing to Add Division I Gymnastics at the University of Houston

The College Gymnastics Growth Initiative, Title IX & the Woman Who Started It All

When Haley Poinsette arrived at the University of Houston’s campus in the fall of 2015, there was no gymnastics team to welcome her. She was a lifelong gymnast, a level 10 and was set to walk on to Arizona State’s team. But circumstances outside her control meant an education back home and an end to her gymnastics career instead.

After putting in a summer’s worth—make that a lifetime worth—of work to get in shape for college gymnastics, she wasn’t ready to give up on the sport for a second time just because Houston didn’t have a program. So she started her own, founding the school’s NAIGC club team.

In its first year, Poinsette was the club’s only competitor, competing at the 2015 NAIGC national championships and finishing third on vault. Poinsette enjoyed her time at nationals and walked away with a better understanding of what it’s all about. “After that, I got an idea of how big the club scene is for gymnastics.”

The experience lit a fire in Poinsette, motivating her to grow and expand the program—if you could even call it that with its single member and only rudimentary funding from the school. And the next year three Houston gymnasts, including Poinsette, competed at nationals with all three qualified for at least one event final.

The fledgling club program had become a strong NAIGC contender, continued to expand and had even started to develop a fan base on the Houston campus. “We had a lot a lot of people that supported even the club team,” Poinsette said.

University of Houston NAIGC team. Image courtesy of Haley Poinsette.

She started to think Houston could have more, and set her eyes on a Division I program. “I just kind of decided that my goal was to push for that,” she said.

Poinsette researched how teams are added to Division I universities and asked members of the gymnastics community to send letters of support. The community delivered as Poinsette received support from collegiate coaches the likes of KJ Kindler and DD Breaux, to the Vice President at Texas Gymnastics Conference, Andrew Hutcheson. There was even one from Mary Lou Retton.

In her letter, Kindler wrote, “I can tell you the University Athletic Programs in the State of Texas have a huge opportunity in NCAA Gymnastics. I have believed for a very long time that if a program [was] added at the Division 1 level, they would very swiftly soar to the top.”

Retton noted that one of her daughters had to leave the state to continue in gymnastics. Her other switched to acro and tumbling to remain in state, competing for Baylor University.

After exhausting all of the contacts she could think of at Houston, Poinsette sent emails to the Title IX office and discovered the counsel has a daughter who is a gymnast and was supportive of her efforts. “He would push everything forward,” Poinsette says, including providing the university with information, or bringing in people from facilities or those who could speak to funding a program.

One of the groups Poinsette contacted was the College Gymnastics Growth Committee (CGGI), which Houston brought in to give a presentation to then-athletic director Hunter Yurachek.

The university was aware that it needed to add a women’s sport to comply with Title IX, and when the presentation happened in 2017, the school narrowed the decision down to gymnastics and beach volleyball.

The timing of that meeting would turn out to be fortuitous.

Randy Lane and the College Gymnastics Growth Initiative

Randy Lane, associate coach at UCLA and the founder of CGGI, had just returned to the committee after a hiatus around the time of the Houston presentation.

“[Gymnastics] is not a sport that gets added. It’s a sport that gets dropped,” Lane said.

The 2000s were a fraught decade for gymnastics. In those 10 years, six gymnastics programs were dropped. One of them was the University of California at Santa Barbara, which was cut in 2002. It was personal for Lane, who was the head coach from 1995 to 1997.

“A few years [after the UCSB program was dropped], I decided we needed to do something to save ourselves and to hopefully grow this sport of ours that we all love so much,” Lane said.

As CGGI grew and evolved, it became more about growing gymnastics than simply saving it.

“Lindenwood was just a dream, and then it became a reality,” Lane said of the Missouri university adding gymnastics at the Division II level for the 2013 season.

Lane stepped away from CGGI after the Lindenwood success to focus on coaching.

Then UCLA won the 2018 national title.

“Having just been on the national championship floor and feeling the excitement and the buzz around our sport gave me motivation and passion to push us as a committee a little bit harder and a little bit stronger,” Lane said.

This motivation paired with his pure love for the sport motivated Lane to revamp the committee, noting two important factors when it comes to success: relationships and money.

Under his leadership, the committee has two sides that echo those factors. The first, led by Minnesota head coach Jenny Hansen, is devoted to growth, and the second, led by Michigan State head coach Mike Rowe, focuses on finances.

Hansen’s growth sector contacts universities considering adding gymnastics and makes presentations to the athletic director or someone in the athletic department, like the one at Houston. Those presentations are specifically tailored to the university, examining everything from startup costs to excitement about gymnastics in the surrounding community.

“The biggest thing is to present to them what gymnastics can offer their university,” Lane said. “Why it’s important, what our graduation rates are, what we see for this community and why it would be good for that particular institution.”

And, yes, even leotards play a role.

Leotard created by GK for the Houston presentation. Image courtesy of GK Elite.

“We put together a uniform thanks to GK,” Lane said. “Any time we go in to make a presentation, they’re doing a leotard and an actual sweatsuit.” The GK uniform is a tangible takeaway meant to ensure athletic departments know Lane and his team are serious and hopefully help nudge decision makers toward choosing gymnastics.

After the presentation, Lane’s team follows up with thank you notes and continued contact, offering the athletic department answers to any questions that may come up.

Image courtesy of GK Elite.

“Does it always work? No,” Lane said. “You have to have money to make things happen.”

For years now, CGGI has asked club gyms to donate one dollar of every registration fee to their invitationals. Eight or nine invitationals have regularly participated, and the committee was able to bring in $14,000 to $18,000 annually. This year, Rowe’s group has gotten 28 invitationals to sign on, surpassing CGGI’s initial goal of 25, and is continuing to push to have 50 invitationals on board.

With a goal of raising at least $100,000, the money won’t come exclusively from these invitationals. CGGI has asked every NCAA program that hosts a summer camp to donate one dollar per camper this summer. They’ll be adding a website feature that allows interested parties to donate directly as well.

The Southern California Gymnastics Coaches Association (SCGCA) has also stepped up. Carol McIntyre, co-owner of Long Beach’s American Gymnastics Academy, heard of Lane’s goals and offered her help. McIntyre brought the issue to this summer’s SCGCA meeting, and the coaches pledged to donate $35,000 to CGGI annually, a figure Lane calls “incredible.”

“The goal for our financial side of things is to eventually have an endowment,” Lane said. He’s eyeing a big number, like multi-million dollars big, as the end goal, and wants to be able to walk into a Division III school, give it $250,000 and help it start a program.

Lane isn’t just looking at Division III, though. “Any Division I, II or III school—or an Ivy League—that wants to add [gymnastics], we are going to do everything in our power to help them.”

But what about the fight at Houston?

Renewed Efforts at Houston

Houston brought in a new athletic director, Chris Pezman, in December of 2017. CGGI is looking to make a second presentation at the university, this time to Pezman, to plead the case for gymnastics.

“There was so much interest already from the administration that was there before,” Jen Llewellyn, head coach at Lindenwood and member of the committee, recalled from the first presentation at Houston. “The excitement about it was really positive and hopeful, and I’m just really hoping that it’ll take it into consideration this time and go for it.”

Lane noted that Pezman comes from Cal, a school that knows a thing or two about the sport. “He’s very pro-gymnastics,” Lane said. The committee feels optimistic, and has renewed its efforts.

When Lane rejoined the committee and started doing research about Houston, he discovered one particularly famous alumna by the name of Shannon Miller. “I thought, ‘Why aren’t we reaching out to her? She needs to be key in this addition,’” Lane said. “So she jumped on board right away and has been wonderful and very supportive ever since.”

Miller made a video in support of the project that was shown at the initial Houston presentation, as well as participated in a July 16 social media blast from Texas-area Olympians.

“I was very excited to hear last year about the efforts to bring NCAA gymnastics to UH,” Miller said via email. “As an alumna, I was happy to participate however helped the most.”

On July 16, the committee encouraged Olympians from Texas to pledge their support for a program at Houston in an effort to increase awareness of the situation. In addition to Miller, Kim Zmeskal-Burdette, Nastia Liukin, Madison Kocian and a number of members of the Arkansas gymnastics community (currently the newest DI program) all participated. Simone Biles also previously offered support on Twitter.

Support from external members of the community has proven to work in the past. At Lindenwood, it was crucial in pushing administrators to make the addition in 2011. Scott Cusimano, co-owner of GymQuarters, a club gym just 15 miles from Lindenwood’s campus, as well as Annie Alameda, a former gymnast at Illinois State and current NCAA judge, “sealed the deal and were the ones that kind of pioneered it and said [they’d] support it,” Llewellyn said.

“It takes a village,” Poinsette said.

In Houston’s case, that village includes the Big 12 conference.

In other sports, Houston is a member of the American Athletic Conference, which currently does not support gymnastics competition. Houston, though, is only about six hours from the University of Oklahoma.

“The beauty of Houston being so close is that, KJ is very much behind supporting the University of Houston to come into the Big 12 Conference,” Lane said.

Kindler and Lane are not the only members of the gymnastics community who are interested in that idea.

“You need more competition in the conferences,” Kathy Johnson Clarke, ESPN and SEC Network commentator, said. “Every school that joined the SEC got better because they were in the SEC. Period. That’s just the way competition works.”

Houston also provides another level of intrigue because of the state in which it’s located. “Good gosh so many of our top gymnasts have come from Texas; great clubs are in Texas,” Johnson Clarke said. “It’s the feeding ground for all the great programs around the country.”

What’s more, Johnson Clarke argues that adding a team to the Big 12 will boost TV coverage of the conference and attendance at other Big 12 schools as competitions become more competitive. “NCAA gymnastics is pure brilliance. It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s a great show—both for the audience in the stands [and on TV].”

Lisa Bowerman, head coach at Texas Woman’s University, has perhaps a better perspective on the status of NCAA gymnastics in the state than anyone. “Texas is a state with a lot of pride, and people want to stay here. Given that opportunity, a lot of them would stay here rather than accept an opportunity out of state,” she said.

Poinsette made a similar point. “I foresee Houston being a powerhouse,” she said, citing the number of excellent club athletes in the city. “The amount of amazing gymnasts that come from Houston is off the charts. You could create a team that is just Houston gymnasts.”

And somewhat unlike Llewellyn’s Lindenwood, Houston would have resources of a large institution right off the bat. Because Houston is a major public DI university in a big city with a $697,300,000 endowment, it would be able to pour funding into the program in a way that a smaller, private DII school like Lindenwood cannot.

But Bowerman isn’t worried about a potential Houston program cutting into her recruiting or fan base, though, with the city being a good five hours south. Plus, many Texas athletes currently take offers outside the state largely because of the opportunity for a full scholarship, something TWU, a Division II program, can’t offer.

What’s more, TWU has a strong reputation in its own right. The program has won the USAG national title 11 times and is the two-time defending champion.

“Those students that choose not to stay here in the state in the first place are the ones that Houston would really be recruiting,” Bowerman said.

In fact, she argued that the chance to travel to Houston to compete would actually strengthen her recruiting because it would increase TWU’s visibility outside of the Denton area. “If we had the opportunity to be in Houston competing each year, people who don’t have an understanding of what we’re about or what our skill level is would have an opportunity to see it.”

Title IX and Discrimination Against Women in Houston Athletics

Houston has known it has a problem for some time. Even before Poinsette brought gymnastics to the table in 2016, the administration sent an email to the student body, noting its intent to add a women’s sport and asking for input. The school has not added a women’s sport since sending that email; women’s golf, added in 2013, is the newest program.

What’s more, when asked for comment, DeJuena Chizer, Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Woman Administrator at Houston, responded, “We are constantly evaluating the sport programs offered and studying potential additions. At this time, we are not scheduled to present any potential additions to our Board of Regents.”

Title IX expert Nancy Hogshead-Makar confirmed the school is not in compliance with the law, meaning it needs to add more opportunities for women in athletics or be vulnerable to litigation. However, not only is Houston non-compliant, “they’re on the bad side of the distribution,” Hogshead-Makar said.

Athletic departments have three avenues, called three prongs, for Title IX compliance. They can: one, have the same proportion of female student athletes as they do female student body (if the university’s student body is 40 percent female, 40 percent of student athletes should also be female); two, show a consistent history of adding increasing opportunities for female student athletes over time; or three, show there is no unmet demand for female athletes to participate in sports.

Per research provided by Hogshead-Makar’s Champion Women, Houston does not meet any of those three prongs.

All data for FY16-17. Data compiled by and courtesy of Champion Women.

At Houston, women made up 48.9 percent of the student body but only 43.98 percent of student athletes in 2016 to 2017. In data Champion Women sourced back to the 2003 to 2004 academic year, there is no evidence of Houston showing efforts to add opportunities for women. Finally, there is unmet demand for athletic opportunities for women, as shown by Poinsette’s battle.

Moreover, per Hogshead-Makar, about two percent of students at Houston participate in athletics while about 60 percent of students in Houston high schools are members of athletic teams. This means there are likely many female athletes who would play sports if those opportunities existed.

“There’s just no way that a school that is offering two percent of its student body the opportunity to play sports is ever going to say that they’re meeting prong three,” Hogshead-Makar said.

Beyond not meeting any of the three prongs of Title IX, Champion Women found that Houston athletics is discriminating against women in other ways as well. The university spent $419,174 recruiting male athletes in 2016 to 2017, compared to only $239,431 spent recruiting women.

Men at Houston had 60.42 percent of the athletic scholarship opportunities in the same academic year versus 39.58 percent for women. In 2016 to 2017, the average male coach’s salary (including the massive $650,000 head football and $550,000 head men’s basketball coaches’ salaries) was $688,611, to an average of $116,264 for female coaches. Champion Women points out that this salary gap violates the Equal Pay Act and Title VII.

To bring Houston into Title IX compliance, Champion Women found the school would need to have had 223 female athletes in 16-17. The gap between male and female athletes was 67. “Courts have already decided if there’s a gap of 16 athletes, it’s not close enough,” Hogshead-Makar said. “[Houston is] way off.”

For reference, a Division I gymnastics team has 12 scholarships. If we assume the average team is about 15 women, Houston would need to add the equivalent of four and a half women’s gymnastics teams to close that gap and be in compliance with the law.

Next Steps for Houston and CGGI

For Poinsette, who has graduated and moved on from competition, the process she started has always been about expanding opportunity for others. She sees the addition of a Houston team as a benefit to the greater gymnastics community.

Johnson Clarke is of the same mindset. She argued that NCAA gymnastics is “such an incredible face of gymnastics as we go through these troubled times.”

Poinsette and Johnson Clarke’s excitement is echoed by Lane’s passion for expanding collegiate gymnastics. He views his work on the growth committee as his legacy in the sport he loves, from seeing new programs added to mentoring young coaches and instilling in them the same passion for growing the sport.

It’s impossible to have a conversation with any one of these three and not feel their love for gymnastics or get excited about the prospect of the sport growing right along with them.

Despite all the preparation, progress and excitement surrounding the addition of gymnastics to schools without, especially at the University of Houston, there is no clear road toward an addition in the foreseeable future.

While Poinsette focuses on Houston, Lane has his eyes on a few other prizes as well. CGGI is in contact with several other institutions, including—in at least one case—a program interested in adding both men’s and women’s gymnastics.

But the committee isn’t picky.

“[We’re] really working toward adding NCAA gymnastics anywhere and everywhere that is going to add opportunities for girls in clubs around the nation,” Bowerman said. “That’s really foundationally what’s most important to us.”

Despite over 1,230 women on collegiate gymnastics rosters now, there were nearly 3,000 level 10s in the United States in 2016—not even taking into account those abroad that are interested in continuing their academic and athletic careers in college or elites.

“You just see so many kids that don’t get that opportunity to go to college to do gymnastics because there’s just physically not enough programs,” Llewellyn said.

Despite pushback, financial questions and other obstacles that might come along, Lane soldiers on.

“It’s a daunting task, but we are so up for it and so excited about everything that’s ready to present itself to us in the future,” he said.

Poinsette, and passionate people like her at other universities, are the reason Lane and his team get involved. If we ever see Division I gymnastics at Houston, it will be largely thanks to the years of effort Poinsette put in trying to make it a reality after her own Division I dreams were dashed before they even began.

“To give [Houston gymnasts] an opportunity to have a place a little closer to home where they can still enjoy a sport they’re very passionate about—that’s really where it comes from for me,” Poinsette said. “I want that for other people, too.”

Article by Emily Minehart. Emily Howell-Forbes and Rebecca Scally also contributed to this story.  Header image/Emily Howell-Forbes. We will continue to follow the story at Houston, as well as the growth committee’s activities.

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