Collegiate men’s gymnastics is facing extinction. And that was the case before Covid. With university budgets decimated and athletic departments frantically cutting varsity programs, the sport is fighting for survival.
The number of Division NCAA men’s gymnastics programs has been dwindling for some time. In 1969, there were more than 210 programs competing at the Division 1 level. As of last May, that number had fallen to 15. When the University of Iowa shelved its men’s gymnastics program last month, it dropped to 14.
Evan Heiter, a former college gymnast who shared his coming-out story on Outsports in 2011, says the surviving men’s programs are well aware of their standing. Even the schools with thriving programs, such as his alma mater, the University of Michigan, are perpetually scraping to hold on.
“Men’s gymnastics has been aware it is the endangered species out in the wild for a long time,” he told Outsports in a phone conversation. “Similar to a lot of non-revenue generating sports, at least you have football and basketball and in some cases hockey and baseball programs to keep everything afloat and keep everyone in a stable spot. When you take those big revenue generators out of the equation, I think men’s gymnastics is well-aware those are things and aspects they rely on just to maintain them.”
With the cancellation of March Madness, the NCAA decreased funding by 62.5 percent to members schools this year, due to catastrophic revenue shortfalls. Last year, March Madness brought in nearly $1 billion. The Big 10 and Pac 12 have also canceled their fall football seasons, which promises to be devastating financially. (After public outcry from players, coaches and parents, the Big 10 is now reportedly scrambling to salvage some semblance of a season this fall.)
The news of Iowa cutting its program was brutal for Heiter, who responded to the news with a four-letter expletive on Twitter. A decade after leaving the mat, Heiter has stayed around the sport as a broadcaster, providing commentary for USA Gymnastics and teams at Stanford and Cal. Though Stanford cut 11 varsity programs last spring, men’s gymnastics survived. It was a rare piece of good news.
But Iowa’s program wasn’t as lucky. Like many higher education institutions, Iowa is experiencing a budget crisis. The school is projecting a revenue deficit of $60-75 million this fiscal year, according to ESPN. It cut three other non-revenue sports besides gymnastics — men’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving — and says it will save $5 million per year with the eliminations.
Heiter says there is always an abundance of conversation in gymnastics circles about how the sport evolves, but the threat of more cuts has put programs in pure survival mode. “Now, our reality is there are 14 remaining Division 1 programs, and it’s really hard to evolve when your back is against the wall,” Heiter said. “Now you have to think about, ‘how do we just keep the lights on?’ Instead of, ‘how do we evolve?’”
Make no mistake: evolution is needed. As Heiter explains, the vulnerabilities of gymnastics are the “elephant in the room,” with the sport’s culture of abuse being exposed for all to see. In conjunction with the release of “Athlete A,” the Netflix documentary that chronicles the Larry Nassar case and toxic culture of USA Gymnastics, female gymnasts are collectively sharing their stories of abuse. (More than 300 women say they were abused by Nassar.)
At least one male gymnast, Jacob Moore, has publicly accused Nassar, the former team physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, of sexual abuse. In 2018, dozens of male Brazilian gymnasts accused a prominent coach of sexually abusing them.
Last year, U.S. champion Chris Riegel alleged he was abused by his coach Larry Moyer, and says top officials ignored it.
While women’s gymnastics programs are being cut as well — 61 programs competed in Division 1 last season, down from 179 in 1981 — they’ve managed to survive more than men’s programs. Heiter says that’s because men’s gymnastics also suffers from a lack of support at the youth level. According to the 2018-19 high school athletics participation survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 104 schools still support boys’ gymnastics programs.
“It’s bleak times,” Heiter says. “There is no map or course of action that’s kind of like, ‘OK, this is how we handle this, and we’ll come back from that.’ So I think it’s knocking a really vulnerable sport down a couple of pegs, just in the eyes of the general public, and that’s an unfortunate consequence of what’s going on, but also necessary to bring about change.”
Since coming out as a college student in 2010, Heiter says the LGBTQ experience in gymnastics has come a long way. There have been multiple stories this year about female college gymnasts coming out, including UCLA’s Kalyany Steele, who was recently featured on Outsports.
Being on the mat was one of the most consequential experiences of Heiter’s life. Though there’s no sugarcoating the sport’s current precarious position, he’s hopeful these trying times will serve as a springboard to push through long-needed culture changes.
“Sometimes change looks positive for one side, and negative for another,” he said. “I think it’s just a perfect storm of sorts in terms of the reality that we’re dealing with.”