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Volume 21 No. 2
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USOC, NCAA aim to protect, promote athletes

The U.S. Olympic movement is taking a more aggressive role in protecting and promoting low-revenue college sports as budget pressures, legal challenges and changes to NCAA rules threaten one of its largest athlete feeder systems.

A group of Olympic sports national governing bodies and coaches met earlier this month to plan a coalition that would defend their programs collectively, and U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun addressed the topic in a speech to the Collegiate Commissioners Association last week. On June 30, the USOC will present to its board of directors plans to help Olympic sports at the college level.

The Olympic committee and its aligned bodies have three goals, said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics:

A major campaign to emphasize to fans, donors, university administrators and sponsors the importance of NCAA sports to Team USA’s medal count and athlete development.

Determine how the Olympic bodies and college conferences can work together to promote Olympic sports.

Sport-by-sport collaborations between governing bodies, universities and conferences to share resources and strategies.

“Frankly speaking, it’s not just about the money,” Penny said. “There’s more money out there than there’s ever been. It’s about the awareness and the attitude.”

The issue is hardly new. Blackmun called for greater cooperation with the NCAA in October, and low-revenue sports such as swimming, wrestling and gymnastics have faced a steady onslaught of university-level cutbacks for three decades.

Low-revenue college sports such as gymnastics have faced cutbacks in spending for decades.
Photo by: NEWSCOM
In 2005, the USOC and the NCAA issued a report calling for a series of changes to protect Olympic sports. At the time, those suggestions ranged from adopting a values statement to rewriting NCAA rules to make it easier for elite athletes to pursue an education and an Olympic career at the same time.

But those proposals mostly stalled out, and a decade later, new threats are emerging to the Olympic athlete pipeline. Cost-of-attendance stipends are a reality, and various pending lawsuits could entitle athletes to more money and stress athletic department budgets even further. That will hurt nonrevenue sports first, Blackmun said prior to his speech to the conference commissioners, which was not open to the media.

Conference-owned cable channels could play a key role, Penny said. Women’s gymnastics, for instance, has done very well on the Pac-12 Networks and the Big Ten Network. “One question is: How can we work with the conferences to promote Olympic sports at a higher level?” he said.

Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and a faculty athletics representative for the ACC and the NCAA, predicted that the USOC will urge each sport’s governing body to consider devoting dollars to NCAA athletes in the same way they fund other training infrastructure. Also, the USOC may press for changes to NCAA rules that would explicitly allow NGBs to fund stipends or travel allowances for college athletes trying out for national teams.

“It’s tricky,” Burton said. “I don’t want to say it’s against the rules, but I think it’s complicated, and the NGBs and the NCAA, or the USOC and the NCAA, are trying to figure out ways to work together to make it easier for the student athlete to continue [his or her] development toward Olympic team stature.”

A sticking point, Burton added, will be how the U.S. Olympic movement can help without indirectly subsidizing its competition ­— the foreign students who play NCAA sports but compete against Americans during the Olympics.

Tangible rule changes or new financial partnerships may still be far off, but even simply rejuvenating the discussion among the stakeholders is important, said Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s the best strategy, because we know for sure we’re stronger together than individually,” Bender said.