By Matthew Hendley
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While there are exceptions, of course, those who compete in men's gymnastics in college fit a certain mold: They are goal-oriented, macho, mostly white youngsters from middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Small in stature, but possessing a remarkable strength-to-weight ratio, they have toiled at their chosen sport for years, fighting through the inevitable injuries.
Gymnastics is so difficult that one can't even be bad at it at first. But every collegiate-level gymnast became obsessed with the sport as a youngster and stuck with it.
With rare exceptions, the U.S. men's gymnastic program has lagged behind the world's powerhouses, most prominently the former Soviet Union, Japan and, recently, China. All but three male U.S. Olympic gymnasts since 1980 have come from the college ranks. Still, those athletes are limited by NCAA guidelines to 20 hours of training per week, about half the practice time put in by the world's best.
That's not why college men's gymnastics has been in decline nationwide in the last decade. While Charles Harris' priorities may be sorely misplaced, he is correct that the athletic programs at many universities have taken a financial beating in recent years.
Several sources contacted by New Times say male, nonrevenue-generating sports usually have been the first to go during the economic crunches. One reason is federal Title IX, known as the "gender equity" law. It ordered universities to make bona fide efforts to balance monies spent on men's and women's varsity sports.
Bad finances and the often tricky Title IX guidelines have conspired to kill many men's gymnastics programs. In 1981, 78 of the nation's 789 NCAA-affiliated schools had men's varsity gymnastics programs; by 1991, that number had decreased dramatically to 41 programs at 847 universities, though a number of schools approved "club," or non-NCAA-sanctioned, programs.
"What we had to do is something that all college athletics programs and universities in general have had to deal with," Harris says, noting that ASU was the last of the Pac-10 schools to drop a sport. "This is a national trend. That's why we put the men's gymnastics people and others on notice almost a year before we announced our decision that we had a money crunch. "
By the late 1980s, most folks involved in NCAA men's gymnastics knew the sport was in trouble.
@body:The ASU men's gymnastics team is practicing a few days after Charles Harris pronounced the death sentence. Garon Rowland, a freshman from Oklahoma City, takes a breather and describes how the decision has affected him.
"It's like a death," Rowland says, after thinking for several seconds. "This is going to cost all of us something that means so much to us. We believe in hard work and we have pride. Our dream was to compete in college. I don't know what to do."
Rowland gathers himself, much the same as he would before beginning a gymnastics routine. "I want to tell [ASU president] Lattie Coor, 'Don't end my dream,'" he continues. "As for Charles Harris, I just don't think he cares about my dreams."
Harris expresses disappointment that the gymnasts and their coaches "choose to personalize" the decision. "This was a difficult, long-thought-out process," he says. "Of course, some people are going to be unhappy. None of us is happy about it. But we cannot all take the position that what's mine is mine and what's yours is divisible."
But the other ASU gymnasts and the team's two coaches--Robinson and assistant Scott Barclay--echo Rowland's anger and confusion. Maybe Lattie Coor will listen to our side at the meeting with him in a few days, they say. Maybe we won't have to answer the office telephone, "Ex-ASU men's gymnastics," as some team members have been doing since the announcement.
"But I just don't think President Coor is going to reverse Charles Harris," gymnast Paul Bedewi says. "We were one of the strongest programs in the nation, and we're clean. We do things right. We represent the university with pride. But that doesn't matter to Charles Harris. It's like we caused this big debt, so we must pay. That's not true."
President Coor didn't return a telephone call last week from New Times. In a written statement, Coor has called the recent moves "a difficult but necessary step in order to bring expenditures in line with revenues. . . . The reality of our budget requires that we make choices, however painful they may be."
@body:Historically, the NCAA has a way of mucking things up even when the going is good, and few in men's gymnastics seem surprised the organization has hurt the sport more than helped it.
Case in point is the lucrative 1989 television deal between the NCAA and CBS-TV for rights to the college basketball championships. The deal meant big bucks for universities, but not for such "minor" sports as men's gymnastics.
Previously, the NCAA forked over $85,000 per year to offset the expenses of the sport's annual national championships. But for reasons no one can adequately explain, the NCAA decided not to turn over any of its new revenues to individual sports such as gymnastics. The organization also doubled, from $40 to $80, the mandatory per diem each school must produce for each athlete at a championship.