College Athletics, Breakdancing, Deferred Dreams and the Future of Amateur Sports

The USOPC needs college athletics but college athletics does not need the USOPC

If you watched the venerable newsmagazine show 60 Minutes on Sunday, December 6, 2020, reporter Bill Whitaker painted a bleak picture of the future of “secondary sports” such as gymnastics and swimming, focusing on recent program cuts at Minnesota, Iowa, Clemson, and Stanford. 

We have it heard over and over again. The U.S. Olympic movement needs college athletics. This is something about which I have written twice previously on, first on March 28, 2018 and more recently on April 9, 2020. But while the Olympics needs college athletics, college athletics simply does not need Olympic sport, and the December 7, 2020 announcement from the IOC about inclusion of skateboarding, breaking, and surfing to the 2024 Paris Games should underscore this.

On the 60 Minutes episode, Sarah Wilhelmi of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, when asked by Whitaker about how big a role colleges and universities play in producing Olympic athletes, boasted, “85% of our 2016 team, our medalists were college athletes. We did a case study with USA Swimming. And we looked over a ten-year period to see what our footprint was. There were 370 athletes that were on Team USA in that ten-year period for swimming. 366 competed in college.”

Further, Wilhelmi said, “there were over 600 international athletes from over 100 different countries that were competing in the NCAA and then went to Rio to represent their country as well.”

Let’s ignore for a moment that Wilhelmi enthusiastically noted how college athletics were influential in creating not just U.S. Olympians, but also Olympians from nations which directly compete against Wilhelmi’s employer. 

Instead, let’s focus on the 2024 Olympic program in Paris. According to the official Games website, the following 32 sports are included in the Games (note sports such as swimming and water polo are considered one sport):

Athletics, rowing, badminton, basketball, boxing, canoeing (slalom, sprint), cycling (BMX freestyle, BMX race, mountain bike, track, road), fencing, football, golf, gymnastics (artistic, rhythmic, trampoline), weightlifting, handball, hockey, judo, wrestling (Greco-Roman and free), modern pentathlon, rugby 7, water sports (swimming, synchronized swimming, marathon, diving, waterpolo), equestrian sports (eventing, dressage, show jumping), taekwondo, tennis, table tennis, shooting, archery, triathlon, sailing, volleyball (volleyball and beach volleyball), breaking, climbing, skateboarding, surfing.

Of those 32, only 16 - exactly HALF of the 2024 Olympic sports - have NCAA-sanctioned national championships: athletics, rowing, basketball, fencing, football, golf, gymnastics, hockey, wrestling, water sports, equestrian sports, tennis, shooting, triathlon, sailing, volleyball.

The IOC is making a deliberate effort to move away from traditional, legacy sports and toward sports which attract a younger demographic. And why wouldn’t it do that? Figures from Front Office Sports indicate viewership among 18-49 year olds declined 25 percent in 2016. The average viewer age in 2016 rose to 53. By 2024, those 53 year olds will be in their sixties. The Olympics need to get younger, and they know it. Freestyle BMX and 3-on-3 basketball will be part of the 2020, er, 2021 program in Tokyo.

Will the NCAA suddenly encourage its member institutions to add skateboarding and breakdancing to their list of sports? Probably not, but the proliferation of varsity esports teams across all divisions, but particularly in Division III, suggests athletic departments are attempting to get younger as well.

So how might this ultimately manifest itself? Here are some questions and hypothetical answers.

Why does the USOPC need college athletics to develop elite Olympic athletes when the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act legislates that responsibility to the USOPC and its National Governing Bodies?

36 USC Ch. 2205 §220505. Powers and duties. (c) Powers Related to Amateur Athletics and the Olympic Games.—The corporation may— (1) serve as the coordinating body for amateur athletic activity in the United States directly related to international amateur athletic competition;

  • Answer: It doesn’t need it, it is just that college athletics has been subsidizing Olympic sport development for decades. The NCAA, dating back to the early-to-mid 1900s, wanted to influence the U.S. Olympic team (see SI’s The End of the AAU from 1961 for a summary of Walter Byers’ end run to Olympic influence). This lasted until the early 1970s when President Gerald Ford appointed Mike Harrigan as executive director of the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports, from which the Amateur Sports Act emerged. But the framework was in place - Olympic sports were embedded in colleges and universities.

At what point will the USOPC and NCAA stop bragging about how many Olympians were college athletes?

  • Answer: Never. It fits the narrative that college athletes are amateur athletes, even if the framing of it is disingenuous. Missy Franklin was a multiple Olympic medalist as a high school student before she enrolled at California. She renounced her remaining eligibility prior to the 2016 Rio Games in order to, wait for it, profit from her athletic talents. In college athletics, athletes earning money off their abilities is strictly forbidden. Carmelo Anthony was a one-and-done at Syracuse. Is he really the example of a student-athlete the NCAA wants to tout?

How can these two entities - USOPC and college athletics - exist in concert with one another?

  • Answer: At some point, some college athletic director will come out and say it directly: college athletics does not exist to subsidize Olympic athlete development. At least not at the highest level. College athletics on the FBS stage exists to provide entertainment and engender school pride (translation: donations) among alumni and other stakeholders.

  • As the 60 Minutes piece pointed out, college athletics is doing all it can to protect its core business - revenue from American football and men’s basketball. And, in so doing, Division I programs have eliminated nearly 100 varsity programs, primarily in the “secondary” or Olympic sports. That is extremely unfortunate for the individuals involved in those sports. Many of these athletes went to college dreaming of a chance to compete at the Olympics. But was it their dream to compete for Minnesota or Clemson, or did they just want to compete? Are these athletes experiencing explosion of their dreams, or is it merely a dream deferred?

  • If the powers that be in “secondary” sports such as gymnastics and swimming want to see programs saved, they could follow the approach employed by Dan Sharadin, commissioner of the Collegiate Water Polo Association, and documented in last month’s ill-fated Atlantic piece by Ruth S. Barrett. Sharadin arranged meetings with Division II and III institutions to discuss the merits of adding water polo, and the associated enrollment it would bring. His targets were tuition-driven schools reliant upon enrolled students to pay the bills. Having a water polo team to attract the many high school athletes who are not yet ready to have their dream of playing college athletics explode, would be a win-win. And he is not fundamentally wrong. This is what the USOPC should be endorsing, perhaps even incentivizing. If the USOPC were truly serious about the importance of college athletics to elite Olympic athlete development, it could, in conjunction with the appropriate National Governing Body, provide grants to offset start-up costs for universities which start programs in sports such as water polo, gymnastics, tennis, wrestling, fencing, rowing, and other “secondary” sports.

Of course the USOPC will cite financial struggles as the reason it cannot do this, and will return to Congress for additional resources. It is at that point the government needs to convene another commission to study the proper structure for developing elite Olympic athletes in the United States. This commission will consider sports development and objectives at all levels - grassroots, travel teams, high schools, colleges, and so on - to identify a unified path forward. Athletes in all Olympic sport - gymnastics, tennis, judo, skateboarding, or breakdancing - should understand how to receive the best and most competent coaching and instruction in order to realize their dreams.

High school athletes wishing to continue their athletic identity know they must hold fast to their dreams for if those dreams die, their athletic life becomes a bird which cannot fly. In which case, their dreams are not deferred, but dead.