Judge's Inquiry

Judges Inquiry: 9 Ways to Improve NCAA Judging

Let’s face it, NCAA Women’s gymnastics judging has a problem with evaluating routines appropriately and consistently, but no one really knows how to fix it. Last year, there were 84 perfect 10s, more than the number of 10s in 2020 and 2021 combined. Moments where judges clearly made errors (like Chloi Clark’s 9.950 vault) are frustrating, not only for the fans but for the athletes as well. As a former judge, I’m equally frustrated by the overscoring and inconsistencies we see from the officials, especially since I know first hand how well-prepared and experienced these judges have to be to even be assigned to these competitions.

Issues with judging can be broken down into three categories: accuracy of scoring, consistency of judging, and availability of officials. In this article, I lay out some suggestions to address each of these major issues, some of which are very easily implemented while others may require more significant time and resources.

Accuracy of Scoring (aka Overscoring)

For the most part, judges don’t take deductions that don’t exist, especially since coaches can request a line item list of each deduction at the end of the meet, and the judge must be able to justify their score. Most accuracy issues involve ignoring deductions that should be taken. We all love to see high scores, but they start to lose their meaning and diminish the truly exceptional routines when judges give them out when they aren’t earned. Here’s some ideas to help with that:

Allow Judging Conferences More Often

Currently only head judges can call a conference, and they can only call one if scores are out of range, there’s an impossible score, a coach submits an inquiry, or a composition deduction was incorrectly applied. Scoring out of range is an automatic conference, but the other reasons are initiated by the discretion of the head judge only. This means that if the head judge messed up, the panel judge can’t say or do anything to try and correct the score before it’s finalized. If panel judges (who are usually as qualified as the head judge) could also call conferences, there would be more checks and balances between both officials.

Decrease the Range of Scores to One Tenth for Averages of 9.800 and Above

Currently, if the average is 9.500 or above, judges are allowed to be two tenths apart while letting the score stand. This is way too large for scores that have fewer than two tenths of deductions in the entire routine. This easy fix would get rid of the 10/9.850 split, or the 9.950/9.750 split. With most scores for top teams averaging 9.800 or higher on every event, a 9.950 and a 9.750 can be the difference between the best routine and the worst routine in the line up, and it seems poor form to let that large of a difference of opinion between the judging panel stand. It’s likely one judge missed some legitimate deductions or made a mistake if the opinions are that far apart.

Encourage Judges to Apply Deductions Appropriately

If you’ve read any Judges Inquiries from the past season, you know that most of them involve rejudging routines and pointing out all the deductions, many of which are not taken consistently by NCAA judges. There’s not a simple way to universally and fairly get judges to take the right deductions. However, better education and oversight would go a long way. For example, the NCAA could require non-judging meet referees to audit a certain number of scores to be submitted and tracked nationally and review the results with the judges in a post-meet judges conference.

Consistency of Scoring

To be a good judge, you need to be consistent and fair with every routine you score. This means that a judge would have the exact same score for the routine regardless of the time of day, part of the country, color of the leotard, appearance in the lineup, number of fans in the stands, or level of competition. However, to be consistent as a group, we need every single NCAA judge nationally to reach these standards. Unless we can fully replace human judges with robotic ones, this is a really hard bar to reach. 

Implement a National Judging Auditing System

An NCAA judging committee could complete routine audits for all college judges at the start of the program. After the initial implementation, new judges would be audited regularly and established judges would be randomly audited. This would obviously be a lot of work (and would require funding), but it would also go a long way in improving the quality of judges and incentivizing judges to take all the deductions they see.

This would also help judges hold other judges accountable for their scores in a non-punitive way and would provide specific feedback to allow for targeted coaching to mentor and support judges who are not scoring accurately or consistently. 

Require NCAA Judge Education

Currently, all judges have to have a minimum of a level 10 rating and pass an open-book multiple choice rules exam to be eligible to judge NCAA gymnastics. Before each meet, judging panels “practice judge” some set routines that have been scored by a national committee to get a “base score” to try to keep scores consistent. This probably helps to some degree, but judges only see the score of the base routine, not the rationale. NCAA judges need required, free education on applying appropriate scoring and training on how to stay mentally tough and focused in the often high-pressure environment of a collegiate competition.


Availability of Judges

Each year, NCAA judging assignors have to find a way to assign enough judges to every NCAA competition nationally. This is complicated by trying to keep costs low for host schools, as well as rotating judges among schools and conferences to make scoring less regional and more consistent.

What may not be well known is that every weekend, the NCAA competes for judges with USAG and AAU competitions, with weekend-long invitationals typically paying much more than a weekend judging college gymnastics. This year, conference championships will conflict with the level 10 state meet in several states, further depleting the supply of available judges. Although more judges would certainly fix this problem, becoming a level 10 judge can be a lengthy and costly process. Additionally, the specific culture within judging and over-representation of older white women can be intimidating to many young or new judges, especially those of color, who are severely under-represented.

Offer Competitive Compensation

Most individuals judge because they love the sport, not because of the pay. Better compensation for NCAA judges would allow for the sport to recruit and retain a sufficient quality and quantity of available judges.

Strategically Recruit Former NCAA Athletes to Become Judges

These athletes already have an accelerated training process and already understand the role, meaning more judges sooner.

Make Judging a More Welcoming and Supportive Environment

For all, especially judges of color.

Coordinate Scheduling

USAG level 10 state meets should not be scheduled to compete with busy NCAA weekends. This would allow more college coaches to attend important level 10 meets for athlete recruitment, as well as free up the availability of some of the most qualified gymnastics judges in the country. 

Seeking many of these changes, especially a national auditing system, may be a big ask, but simple procedural rule changes could be easily implemented for free, and could go a long way to at least keep obviously wrong scores from being finalized. If we value college gymnastics as a competitive sport, we have to invest in how it’s evaluated. Otherwise, it could lose its credibility, fans, revenue, and relevancy.

READ THIS NEXT: Judge’s Inquiry: Illustrating the Differences Between Level 10 and NCAA Judging

Article by Rhiannon Franck

Rhiannon Franck is a former national-rated NAWGJ women’s gymnastics judge with over 15 years of USAG judging experience and nine seasons judging NCAA gymnastics. Outside of gymnastics, Franck works at a university as a nursing professor and loves to travel.

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