SportsMonday Column: A sport is dying. Does anyone care?

Sunday, September 20, 2020 - 3:25pm

Men's gymnastics programs across the country are being canceled in the wake of COVID-19.

Men's gymnastics programs across the country are being canceled in the wake of COVID-19. Buy this photo
Julia Schachinger/Daily

The last Michigan team to win a national title was men’s gymnastics. The last one before that was also men’s gymnastics. By any measure, it’s among the most successful programs in the school’s history, with six national titles and three in the last decade.

In short, when Kurt Golder — the coach who won those championships — talks, you should listen.

Golder started out his coaching career at a local high school while in junior college, trying to scrape the grades to attend Michigan and compete in men’s gymnastics. He got the grades. He went to Michigan. Then, in his fifth year of school, he coached at Ann Arbor Huron High School. He’s been coaching ever since, first at Ann Arbor Huron, then as an assistant at Michigan State, then at Genesee Valley — a boys’ gymnastics club — then at Iowa, then back at Michigan, with work for the U.S. national team peppered throughout. He’s won four national titles with the Wolverines, including the school’s most recent in any sport, in 2014.

Now, he’s watching what could be the slow death of his sport.

Universities have been dropping men’s gymnastics programs since the advent of Title IX in 1972, so this isn’t a new problem, but it’s one accelerated by the pandemic. There were 15 men’s programs competing last season and three — Iowa, Minnesota and William & Mary — have dropped the sport due to budget cuts. That means of the three colleges where Golder has coached, Michigan is the only one that still has a men’s gymnastics program.

“You’re seeing the demise of your sport, to some extent, right in front of your eyes,” Golder said.

He was sitting in his office, mask off so his words wouldn’t be obscured through the phone, on Tuesday afternoon. A couple hours prior, the Big Ten had announced it would play a football season that, for all intents and purposes, amounts to a saving financial grace for struggling athletic departments. Michigan, before and after that announcement, has been consistent in the position that it won’t drop any sports, and Golder has nothing but praise for athletic director Warde Manuel for sticking to it. 

But that won’t matter if the Wolverines are the only team left standing a few years from now.

“What we need right now is good leadership,” Golder said. “Let’s say when the bald eagle was nearing extinction, they put a Protected Species Act, and now the bald eagle is thriving. And that was good leadership. 

“... We just need athletic directors, like at the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota, to have an attitude like our athletic director, Warde, and just say ‘We’re not gonna drop any sports.’ ”

Golder first started noticing the effects of contraction decades ago when high school programs eliminated their men’s gymnastics teams. That, combined with a short high school season, meant talented young gymnasts who were serious about competing in college or the Olympics had to train at private clubs. Put it together and you get a country club sport.

Now, with fewer college programs, there’s more good athletes than scholarships. Talented gymnasts may get cut out of the sport if they can’t find a collegiate home. In turn, there’s less competition for the Olympic program, which already pales in comparison to the U.S. women’s team.

“I don’t see how gymnastics is gonna survive,” Ron Rapper, a captain on Michigan’s 1970 national championship men’s gymnastics team said. “... For the athletes, yeah, they’re losing the sport they love, but they’re losing a lot of intangibles that they’d be able to build their life upon. Not everyone becomes an Olympic gymnast. Not everyone becomes an NFL football player. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t receive positive benefits from participating in the sport.”

If you’re a believer in the stated mission of college athletics — academics and life lessons and all of the stuff people like to talk about — you should care about this a whole lot more than whatever’s happening with football. Because men’s gymnasts aren’t making money off professional careers. Nobody is dropping bags to get them to commit. They’re the athletes to whom something resembling the NCAA’s mission actually applies, and schools are cutting them anyway.

“It does seem like we’re the targeted one,” Golder said. “Boy, I don’t have a good answer for (gymnastics being cut), unfortunately. They’re one of the cleaner programs in a department. They stay out of trouble for the most part. They have great GPAs, they take real challenging courses, they don’t bother people or anything. 

“In my opinion, they're sort of like the model student-athletes, and they’re not rewarded for it. They're eliminated as a result of it.”

When football season was canceled, the anger was palpable. Parents protested in Rosemont and Ann Arbor. The public lost its mind and the season became a political prop.

Football is a lot bigger than men’s gymnastics. But maybe this deserves more than some frustration in select quarters of the internet.

“If there’s outrage because they’re delaying the (football) season or something like that, I’m OK with that,” Golder said. “I wish that we had the same public support and the same outrage when they cancelled our season. We had a really, really good shot at winning the Big Ten and NCAA championship last year. And of course that story will never be told or we’ll never know if we would have or not.

“But I’m just all about opportunities for every sport and it hurts to see any sport be dropped. Stanford dropped 11 sports. They didn’t drop men’s gymnastics, so I'm real happy about that. But I’m pissed that the culture in America is eliminating opportunity.”

Golder had to tell his team, one he thought had a shot at a national title, that their season was over last March. Imagine if he had to tell them the sport itself was done.

At least at Michigan, that won’t happen soon. But it’s happening elsewhere. 

Michigan doesn’t make money off men’s gymnastics. Even if there was a possibility of having fans this year, tickets are free. There aren’t media rights. These guys are playing for themselves and their school. And their sport is on the brink.

It’s on everyone else to notice.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.