After the 2016 Olympics, many of the nation’s elite gymnasts went off to college, where they now compete for NCAA teams. Madison Kocian, who won one gold and one silver medal in Rio, just began her sophomore year at UCLA. British Olympian Ruby Harrold is one of the stars of the gymnastics program at LSU. Many of the NCAA stars are elite-level gymnasts who fell short of the Olympics, and are using college athletics to redeem their careers. Most notably, last year’s NCAA champion Maggie Nichols tore her meniscus months before Rio, just barely missing out on her Olympic dreams.
Many athletes find NCAA gymnastics to be uplifting and therapeutic. Former elite gymnasts are celebrated in NCAA. You can find athletes like Maggie Nichols leaning into the audience during competitions to sign autographs and posting thankful messages to their thousands of Instagram and Twitter followers. This can help athletes who struggled at the elite level or were plagued by injuries throughout their elite careers regain confidence and redeem themselves. Despite the fanfare over former elite gymnasts, the bulk of NCAA gymnasts were not international elites, but competed at state and local meets and the Junior Olympic level. In collegiate gymnastics, Junior Olympic level gymnasts compete at the same level as the former elites, earning much of the same praise and sometimes beating them out for titles. Many gymnasts find that NCAA gymnastics boosts their confidence and contributes to their mental health.
Unfortunately, many elite level gymnasts never get the chance to experience the confidence-boosting effects of college gymnastics. This is because the NCAA has an “amateurism requirement,” or a rule that all athletes competing must never have played their sport professionally. This means that athletes cannot do paid endorsements or appearances until after they finish college. One of the justifications for the amateurism requirement is that it prevents colleges from recruiting adult professional athletes to boost their rankings. Many sports analysts take issue with this requirement, since college athletes don’t have access to the often substantial money that they make for their universities. However, for gymnasts, the amateurism requirement in particularly restrictive. This is because the career trajectory of a gymnast begins at a younger age than those of other athletes.
Gymnasts can begin competing at the international elite level when they turn 16. They typically compete at this level for three to four years before retiring from the sport. After they retire from elite gymnastics, some American gymnasts will go to college and compete as an NCAA gymnast, while others will choose to “go pro,” or accept endorsement money during their elite careers. It is extremely rare for athletes to return to elite competition after college. Wealthier gymnasts can afford to decline endorsements in order to maintain their NCAA eligibility, but for gymnasts with less money, it’s a difficult choice. When an athlete makes a high-level NCAA team, they are usually awarded a full scholarship. But the primary way that elite gymnasts make money is through endorsements. If a gymnast accepts an endorsement to finance their career, they are not eligible for an athletic scholarship. This means that gymnasts who want a chance at an athletic scholarship have to turn down money from endorsements throughout their elite careers. Many gymnasts cannot afford to make that choice.
Gymnastics is an expensive sport. Elite gymnasts train from six to eight hours a day with a personal coach. They usually require regular care from a physical therapist, and many choose to see dieticians or massage therapists. This type of medical care can go on until long after their athletic careers are over. Gymnasts often have pricey workout and practice equipment at home, and a high-quality competition leotard can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This places an enormous financial burden on the families of gymnasts, putting lower income elite gymnasts in a difficult position. NCAA gymnastics is a rewarding and healthy experience, but if they go pro they can support their families, and finance their own gymnastics careers.
Unlike athletes from traditional NCAA sports like basketball and football, gymnasts usually don’t have access to lucrative athletic careers after they graduate. This means that the amateurism requirement is particularly hard on gymnasts. It forces lower income gymnasts and their families to choose between college sports and much-needed endorsement money. The NCAA should make an exception in the amateurism requirement that allows for gymnasts to accept money before their collegiate careers.