On September 16, two-time Olympian, 1984 bronze medalist and NCAA commentator Kathy Johnson Clarke posted an open letter she wrote to the Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents regarding the systematic elimination of men’s sports programs, along with the following Tweet: I’m sharing my email to the Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents as an open letter because the systematic elimination of men’s sports programs is infuriating. It’s no secret that gymnastics and track & field are sports near and dear to my heart but dropping ANY sports program – men’s or women’s – without first doing everything possible and with great transparency is not only destructive and heartbreaking, it’s short-sighted and illuminates the inherent business model flaws of too many universities.

To further address and add to the ongoing conversation about the current state of men’s and women’s NCAA gymnastics, and Olympic sports, we asked Kathy for permission to post her letter here.

Update 9-18-20: Kathy updated her letter to also address William & Mary, after they announced the discontinuation of seven varsity sports after the 2020-21 academic year comes to an end. Men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball will be allowed to compete one more season provided the university deems it safe within parameters of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That letter appears here.

September 18, 2020

To Whom It May Concern:

As a two-time US Olympic gymnast (1980 & 1984), mother of a Division 1 two-time All-American pole vaulter and aunt of three collegiate student-athletes (soccer, volleyball and ice hockey), I don’t even know how to begin to address the unfathomable decision by your athletic department to drop SEVEN sports at a time when these young people have already been dealt a terrible hand due to the Coronavirus-19 pandemic.  Add to it my 37 years as a sports broadcaster covering international gymnastics for many years and collegiate gymnastics most recently, I am nothing short of horrified by the decision! Not only have I experienced personally and seen firsthand the immeasurable value of participation in college sports and representing one’s university and community, but I can assure you it goes far beyond athletic achievement, school records and national championships. It is both character-building and defining in a way that simply can’t be dismissed or disregarded when making this monumental decision.

Having been a Women’s Sports Foundation member for many years during the 80’s and early ’90’s, I am well-versed in how Title IX compliance has been used as an excuse for dropping men’s programs, along with “fiscal constraints” and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, these are unprecedented times, but this knee-jerk reaction to cut programs without thoroughly exploring every possible solution is not only devastatingly heartless, but it may also preclude an opportunity to be creative and resourceful, while in turn developing a better, more sustainable business model.

It is a myth that football pays for everything. Perhaps this is so for schools in the Power Five conferences, but the reality is that while most football teams DO generate revenue, very few actually turn a profit. No doubt you are well aware of this 

I cover SEC Gymnastics for ESPN, so I am very familiar with college football programs that do turn a huge profit and the benefit that provides the gymnastics programs in the SEC. They are currently cutting budgets, as expected, but they are NOT eliminating entire programs.

Men’s collegiate gymnastics has been systematically decimated over the past three-and-a-half decades. Our historic gold-medal-winning 1984 US Men’s Olympic team in Los Angeles was an extraordinary group of gymnasts, my teammates, from three great universities – Oklahoma, Nebraska and UCLA. Their intense school rivalries pushed each of them to greatness and honed them into a collective force that would not be denied when “preparation met opportunity”, and history was watching. Half the team, three gymnasts, hailed from UCLA and within a few short years it went from a national powerhouse, to club sport, to non-existence by 1996. Why? I’m not sure that we’ll ever know the real reason(s).

Flash forward twenty-four years and there are now fewer than 20 men’s collegiate gymnastics programs left. You are about to reduce that number by 5%, and I can’t imagine what those athletes, YOUR student-athletes, must feel. Simultaneously, as if it were a concerted effort and incredibly cruel joke, Iowa and Minnesota are also dropping men’s gymnastics, EVEN while one of Minnesota’s own athletes, Shane Wiskus, is fighting to earn a spot on the US Olympic Team! What must HE feel? What must Minnesota’s greatest and most decorated gymnast and three-time Olympian, John Roethlisberger, think and feel?

What about his father, Olympian Fred Roethlisberger, who coached Minnesota’s team to greatness for years, or his sister, Marie, Minnesota’s first NCAA champion gymnast, alumna and my Olympic teammate? The Olympic legacy alone is reason to fight to keep their program and should be the inspiration for William & Mary to keep theirs! I hope you will read John’s very detailed prescription to create a successful plan for NCAA Gymnastics during unavoidably lean times. If not, I’m providing the link for you here along with Oklahoma Head Coach Mark William’s Op:Ed piece.

https://www.insidegymnastics.com/news-features/ncaamensgym/

https://www.insidegymnastics.com/news-features/opedmarkwilliams/

My love of gymnastics is closely rivaled by my love for and devotion to Track and Field, which is called Athletics, coincidentally, in most of the world and during the Olympics. It embodies the very essence of athletic sport and, literally, embodies the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. Swifter, Higher, Stronger. I don’t wish to see ANY sport eliminated – they all have value – but running, jumping and throwing were among the first events contested during the Ancient Olympic Games. I hold very dear the values inherent in Olympism and feel strongly they can and should be at the very heart of higher education.

“Olympism is a philosophy of life which places sport at the service of humanity. This philosophy is based on the interaction of the qualities of the body, will and mind. Olympism is expressed through actions which link sport to culture and education.” 

https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Documents/Document-Set-Teachers-The-Main-Olympic-Topics/Olympism-and-the-Olympic-Movement.pdf

You may also be familiar with the famous quote, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” popularized by John Hulley, one of the founders of the British Olympic movement and a gymnastics and athletics entrepreneur who understood the importance of physical education and public participation in sports for a “sound mind in a sound body.” Absent opportunity and support it’s not possible.

There simply must be another way. This cannot be the only option. I know these athletes. I was one. I raised one. My broadcast partner and Olympic teammate, Bart Conner, and I have told their stories on air for years! These great athletes can do a lot with very little, so cut back if you must, but please don’t eliminate. I implore you to ask the Athletic Department to reconsider this decision and explore ALL options before simply giving up and causing irreparable harm to so many: irreparable harm that will include your renowned university among those victims!

In closing, I have read the following column by D. R. Hildebrand, ’03 graduate and member of the William & Mary swim team. The veil has been lifted. You have no cover as you make this decision, so hiding behind the usual excuses or this new one is impossible.

https://richmond.com/opinion/columnists/d-r-hildebrand-column-cutting-sports-to-steal-endowments-the-myth-of-football-funded-athletics/article_98b020e8-2ea2-50a7-b4bd-1a5c49620adf.html

Thank you for your time and consideration as you choose the fate of your student-athletes. Their futures depend on you and OUR future and the development of its leaders depends on you. 

Kathy Johnson Clarke, OLY

ESPN/SEC Network Commentator

 

Photo by University of Minnesota

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