Slipping into extinction: A decade after Cal’s similar battle, Minnesota men’s gymnastics fights to stay alive

Cal Men's Gymnastics
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Americans love winning. Americans love money. For these, we do whatever it takes, even sacrificing sports that may not be lucrative. This is what’s happening today, and one of the most impacted sports is men’s gymnastics.

In 1969, there were more than 210 collegiate men’s gymnastics programs. Now, with recent program cuts at Iowa and Williams & Mary, 12 Division I programs remain. With the team at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities on the chopping block, the number may soon drop to 11. Simply put, the sport is on the verge of extinction in the collegiate landscape.

The fate of the Minnesota men’s gymnastics team — which held the No. 10 spot in the NCAA when the 2020 season was canceled — along with those of the men’s track and field and men’s tennis teams will be determined Oct. 9, when the Board of Regents votes on a proposal to cut the programs after the 2021 season. In response, members of the men’s gymnastics community are standing up for the preservation of their sport.

Campaigns to save college men’s gymnastics teams

Though news of his program’s potential discontinuation was “really devastating” for Minnesota junior Tyler Davis, one of the three men’s gymnastics team captains, he and his teammates have hope. The athletes, coaches and alumni have been rallying support, requesting everyone they know to sign a petition, share the message and contact the regents before they vote.

According to co-captain senior Shane Wiskus, the people fighting to keep the sport have been compiling research to provide the regents with supplemental information not included in the proposal, including the existence of recuperated funds from the pandemic-induced cancellation of the 2020 season.

The team has also been working to bring awareness to the issue through social media, receiving help from other current and former collegiate gymnasts, such as Cal alumnus Kyte Crigger.

Though Crigger didn’t experience a threat to his team while he was at Cal, this situation may hit home for others in the Cal men’s gymnastics community.

The Cal men’s gymnastics program faced a similar situation a decade ago when UC Berkeley made plans to cut five intercollegiate teams after the 2011 season. Through the efforts of athletes, coaches and alumni, however, the team survived.

“We had concerns when the Cal team was in jeopardy that that could be the beginning of the end for college men’s gymnastics overall, and that concern is very much heightened now,” said Neil Popovic, a former Cal gymnast who was active in the 2011 fundraising effort to save the team. “And the more that go down, the harder it is to justify keeping the ones that remain.”

Title IX: More opportunities or less opportunities? 

The proposal to cut Minnesota’s team, along with other cases, comprises two main reasons: finances and Title IX. In light of the pandemic, the athletic department estimates a budget shortfall of $10 million to $75 million in fiscal year 2021. Now that the Big Ten is playing fall football, however, it’s unlikely that the $75 million worst-case scenario will come to fruition.

By cutting men’s gymnastics, men’s track and field and men’s tennis, the proposal states that the department would save about $2 million in fiscal year 2022 and $2.7 million annually come fiscal year 2025.

The proposal adds that eliminating the teams is necessary to comply with Title IX, which seeks to prevent gender discrimination in educational institutions. A requirement to comply with Title IX is that the proportion of men and women in the school’s undergraduate population must be reflected in the school’s athlete population. The proposal claims that discontinuing the programs would produce numbers that mirror the campus’s 54% female and 46% male population.

However, cutting the men’s teams decreases the number of male athletes by 58, which increases the percentage of female athletes beyond 54%. To combat this, the department plans to cut about 40 roster spots from women’s teams, which begs the question of why this solution isn’t possible to preserve the teams on the chopping block.

“I would hate to see (Title IX) used as a reason to cut any program, whether it’s a women’s program or a men’s program,” Popovic said. “The goal of Title IX is to increase opportunities, not to decrease opportunities in order to keep it equally bad.”

Institutional inequality among sports

With a minimum of 16 programs needed for each school to maintain an NCAA membership, schools can easily eliminate programs and ostensibly neglect less-visible sports, tending to award lucrative sports, such as football and basketball, instead.

The Ledger reported that Power Five conference schools are some of the biggest spenders, apparently squandering $14,000 or more annually for their football teams to stay in hotels before home games. In 2018, 93 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams spent a median of $44,000 on hotels for home games. For each game, the schools spent an average of $8,200 on rooms alone. UC Berkeley was no exception, paying $106,000 in hotel bills in 2018.

Even more troublesome is the fact that these expenses contradict scientific findings that show that sleeping in unfamiliar hotel beds the night before a game may deprive players’ sleep, thus impacting their performances negatively.

“At the end of the day, money talks,” said Mike Burns, head coach of Minnesota men’s gymnastics. “I’m concerned about how much money I spend and how much money do I have left at the end of the year, but some people spend money like they don’t even care. Where is the oversight, where is the accountability? Well, there isn’t any.”

While there seems to be almost no good news for men’s gymnastics, people are still fighting for the survival of the sport. Daniel Ribeiro, vice president of the College Gymnastics Association and assistant head coach of men’s gymnastics at the University of Illinois, has a vision of building privatized recreation centers that offer gymnastics, ninja and cheer lessons for the public, enabling gymnastics programs to generate their own revenue.

“I still have a true belief in my heart that what’s happening here is wrong. We are not a profit industry,” Ribeiro said. “So I am fighting both sides. While I’m fighting the system and trying to raise awareness, I am also working to fit the system at the same time.”

COVID-19 may have pushed the already unsustainable athletic system to the edge, but the underlying problem has remained the same for decades. Sports teams that are not generating profit must devise ways to be sustainable. However, the purpose of athletic departments is to provide opportunities for student-athletes. And the purpose of student-athletes is to compete and to learn, not to worry about finances and the future of their team. The fundamental question comes down to what collegiate sports stand for: money or integrity?

How Minnesota’s fate affects athletes’ futures

As the Minnesota gymnasts continue to fight to preserve their program, they also value the time they have.

“Moving forward, we know just how precious this time is and this opportunity (is), so we’re trying to take advantage of it the best we can,” Davis said.

Though Wiskus will have graduated by the time the proposed cut goes into effect, he wants to continue training at Minnesota after graduation. As a member of the U.S. national team and a contender for the 2021 Olympics, he wishes to follow in the footsteps of three-time Olympian and Minnesota alumnus John Roethlisberger.

“If the decision does go through, they still haven’t told me that I’ll have a place to train here for the Olympics,” Wiskus said. “My biggest worry is that the decision goes through, and … I have to move somewhere two months before the Olympic Games.”

How to help

According to Wiskus, the team has confirmed four of the six “no” votes needed to keep the program alive. He encourages all to spread the word by posting and reposting messages on social media.

“The main thing is to share the message and to keep it moving forward,” Wiskus added. “The second you start to let up on the momentum is when it starts to die out.”

Those interested in supporting the Minnesota men’s gymnastics team can sign the petition, contact the Minnesota Board of Regents (a pre-written email is available here) and donate through the College Gymnastics Association’s Stronger Together Campaign.

This is the first installment of a three-part series aimed to dissect the disappearance of men’s gymnastics programs across the nation.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].

Jocelyn Huang is the head of copy chiefs. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jocelynxhuang.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the University of Minnesota Board of Regents would be voting on the proposal Oct. 8. In fact, it is voting on the proposal Oct. 9.