OPINION: Pulling Scholarships Isn’t Unfair, It’s Business

It’s that time of year: Rosters are out, we’re seeing joyous surprise scholarship gifts and we’re all doing the math to count to 12 and scratching our heads, wondering where that extra spot came from. 

Inevitably, someone on scholarship has medically retired or simply disappeared completely. Sometimes we hear stories, after a gymnast transfers or graduates, about how their scholarship was pulled. 

As fans, our gut reaction is usually frustration or sadness; maybe just empathy for the gymnast in a tough spot. Those are all very fair, and very human, reactions. However, sometimes the gymternet goes overboard, assuming the coaching staff or medical staff at any given school are monsters or have a vendetta against a gymnast. 

Scholarships are big business. It’s a hard value to quantify, especially since each school and each sport is so different, but the annual value of $150,000 is an average that floats around. There’s a lot to be said about student athletes’ revenue-generating potential for universities, whether they should be able to make money from sponsorship deals (I support it) and about the ways in which universities view student athletes as cash cows and valuing their money-making potential over the health and wellbeing of the athlete. Those are important discussions, but not my point here.

Any given coach is looking at 12 scholarship spots because gymnastics is a headcount sport. (There are exceptions, though. To be eligible for USAG nationals, schools must have less than seven and a half scholarships. Ivies and the service academies do not give athletic scholarships, nor do DIII schools.) 

Because gymnasts are recruited so early, some may have committed to a program for a full ride before a major injury impacted her performance. Maybe she showed great potential as a first-year level 10, but never thrived at that level of difficulty. Some gymnasts just struggle to adapt to the collegiate system. 

This doesn’t make them bad or unworthy in the sense of their value as a human being. It does sometimes mean that their precious scholarship spot should be moved to someone else. There’s always the Cinderella story: a gymnast who struggled in J.O. but is a standout at the college where she walked on, or the gymnast who struggled at her initial institution transferred and now thrives.

In our discourse about the sport, we should do two things: First, we should understand that when we’re talking about gymnastics ability, we’re not talking about a person’s character or worth; and second, we should begin to separate the coaches’ business of constructing a team from our feelings about who we loved so much in J.O. or elite. 

Gymnastics is a sport. We struggle to have these conversations, I think, because it is a sport full of young women who have dedicated their lives since they were small children in pursuit of elite success or a college scholarship. It’s hard to remove our feelings about that incredible effort from the conversation.

But we should.

Those are two different topics. Coaches are not bad or evil or mean-spirited because they move a scholarship around. They, just maybe, want to win.

This plays into a broader discussion about our sport: Do we want to follow the norms of the rest of the sports world? Do we want the hunger to win to be OK? Do we want to be able to talk about things like scholarships and whether someone is ready to compete objectively, or do we want our feelings to muddy that?

Gymnastics is being treated increasingly like other collegiate sports. To me, that is a good thing. The national championship is going to be on broadcast television in 2020, on a channel that even those with the most basic cable plans can watch. Maggie Nichols and Katelyn Ohashi have fame outside of the sport. Schools at the top treat their gymnasts like they treat their football or basketball stars. It’s an exciting time to be a gym fan!

To really break out of being a niche sport with a culty following (I say that with love; I have long been part of the cult) means learning to have more objective discussions, though. I’m not saying we shouldn’t still have our favorites and make our fantasy teams by our feelings, but if we’re going to have serious discourses about athletes with regard to their right to make money and scholarship awards—or even about injury comebacks and lineup readiness—we should take a step back.

Let’s be a sport with starred recruit rankings (stay tuned…) and serious discussions about who fits best in what lineups. Let’s be a sport that can be more objective when objectivity is called for, and have impassioned discussions without immediately assuming the actors are bad people. We’re a small fandom that is growing rapidly; whether we like it or not, change is coming.

Article by Emily Minehart

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