When Jordyn Wieber stepped off of the podium, she had to face the harsh reality of her gymnastics career being over. Wieber had already decided to go “pro” when she accepted sponsorship money after winning the 2011 world championships. Per NCAA amateurism regulations, accepting sponsorship money leaves gymnasts ineligible to compete at the collegiate level. These rules are particularly punitive towards the sport of gymnastics. Pro gymnasts should be allowed to compete at the collegiate level, as long as they don’t accept any scholarships from the schools. The NCAA needs to reconsider its stance on how much gymnasts can receive in the form of sponsorships while still being able to retain their eligibility.
According to the NCAA, “The cornerstone of the amateurism rules is that student-athletes are not allowed to have received prize money (beyond the reimbursement for participation); they can’t have signed a contract with or receive benefits from an agent; they can’t receive money for promotion of products or services; and they are not allowed to make money by use of their athletic ability or fame.” The NCAA amateurism regulations might make sense for other sports that have funded professional leagues; however, professional gymnastics does not exist. The non-profit organization needs to amend its policies for smaller sports. Gymnasts who have gone pro should be able to maintain their eligibility, as long as they do not accept a college scholarship. Per the NCAA, Division I Women’s Gymnastics programs may offer up to 12 athletic scholarships per year. The pro gymnast would maintain their ability to compete without taking away scholarship money from other athletes.
Unlike other sports, many gymnasts will retire in their early 20s or after the Olympic Games, which only occur every four years. According to The Stats Zone, the average Olympic gymnast is 20 years old with most retiring shortly after their Olympic competition. This means that statistically, gymnasts have a very small window for opportunity within the sport. These incredibly talented gymnasts dedicate upwards of 20 hours per week to practice, miss school (or homeschool) for competitions and battle injuries to have a shot of making National and/or Olympic teams. Nastia Liukin, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the all around for the U.S., openly discussed feeling “lost and confused” after the end of her career, as gymnastics was the only world she knew. Although Liukin forfeited her NCAA eligibility, she says that the transition out of the sport would have been easier if she had been able to compete at the collegiate level.
The financial burden of competing can also cause people to accept sponsorship money and quit the sport. Monthly tuition fees can run upwards of $1,000, leotards can range between $200-500 and travel/meet fees can skyrocket depending on the competition. According to Forbes, the average annual cost for an elite gymnast is $15,000, with most competing at that level for five to eight years. Considering most gymnasts compete for the majority of their athletic lives, the financial incentive to accept prize money and turn down college gymnastics is a lofty one. Two-time Olympic champion Gabby Douglas faced the same decision and decided to go pro as her mother filed for bankruptcy right before the 2012 Olympics. Deals with brands such as Kellogg’s and Nike can bring in millions of dollars for these athletes at the peak of their careers.
In this way, the NCAA policy creates a form of socioeconomic prejudice, which may be viewed as discriminatory. For families with a high socioeconomic status, the cost of high-level gymnastics is not a problem; however, people with a low socioeconomic status have to give up on competing in college. Gymnasts are typically at the end of their competitive career when they reach college, whereas most athletes in male-dominated sports begin their career while they are in college; thus, putting female gymnasts at a disadvantage for making any money in their sport.
The NCAA needs to revise its eligibility rules for the sport of gymnastics. It is not fair for the gymnasts to have to choose between ending their career and accepting sponsorship money that may help relieve the financial burden associated with competing.
Gymnasts deserve the best of both worlds within their sport. NCAA policies have become overly-punitive, especially toward poor families. Having to choose between brand deals and collegiate-level gymnastics is a crossroad that no gymnast should face. The NCAA needs to take a hard look at its current policies and consider revising the regulations for gymnastics.
Article by Megan Polanosky
Polanosky was a competitive gymnast for eight years and a coach for four. She is now a rising junior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, studying Behavioral Science.
Disclosure: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.