Illinois joins nationwide effort to save athletic programs

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Photo Courtesy of Illini Men’s Gymnastics Twitter

Members of the Illinois men’s gymnastics team lock arms in a circle at a gymnastics meet during the 2019 season..

By Bradley Zimmerman

In a span of just three weeks, the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota and the College of William & Mary announced the discontinuation of their men’s gymnastics programs, among other sports, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Facing multi-million-dollar revenue shortfalls, the universities will field their men’s gymnastics teams for one final season (should health and safety precautions allow) before disbanding them at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

The discontinuation of Minnesota’s program requires the approval of the University’s Board of Regents, which will vote on the proposal next month. The board is already showing support for cutting the program, with none of the regents expressing opposition to the plan.

Current and former gymnasts and coaches across the country are leading an effort to convince the board to change its mind and to convince Iowa and William & Mary to reinstate their programs and save the remaining 12 programs across the country. Several Illinois gymnasts have joined the movement by tweeting, retweeting and sharing posts via their Instagram stories.

“We support each other,” said Illinois sophomore Dylan Kolak.. “Gymnasts have each other’s backs. That’s just the spirit that we have in gymnastics, and that’s one of the best parts about gymnastics.”

Kolak is one of the most vocal gymnasts on the Illinois roster when it comes to supporting the three teams on the chopping block. He has filmed several videos explaining why he thinks they shouldn’t be cut and plans to upload them to Tik Tok, where he has over 52,000 followers. On Instagram, in addition to sharing others’ posts via his story, he posted in his biography a link to a website where members of the public can contact Minnesota’s Board of Regents. Minnesota head coach Mike Burns tweeted the same link on Sept. 11 with a comment encouraging “anyone and everyone” to contact the board and express their disapproval of cutting Minnesota’s men’s gymnastics team.

“Everybody should be passionate, but I do feel there is a little bit more on my plate just because I have the audience that I have,” Kolak said. “If we want to make these changes happen and get the awareness that we need to save this sport, we need an audience and we need people who are going to see this.”

Fellow sophomore Connor McCool is another voice among the Illinois roster. Although he acknowledges the financial deficits Iowa, William & Mary and Minnesota are facing, he thinks these schools may have been too early to cut their programs.

“All of the sports that were cut are being given another season to participate, so to me, it doesn’t make sense,” McCool said. “If they’re able to pay for this season, shouldn’t they wait until after the season, see what the revenue situation looks like and then say whether or not they need to make changes to the athletic program?”

McCool pointed to the uncertainties about the Big Ten’s fall season as his reasoning. At the time, the Big Ten had yet to reinstate the 2020 football season. Now that the season is reinstated, the revenue shortfalls could be less than originally projected. According to McCool, who serves as a men’s gymnastics representative to the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, even athlettic director Josh Whitman was surprised by the early decisions Iowa and Minnesota made.

“It just didn’t seem like that was a call that should’ve been made so early down the line,” McCool said.

Something else that both Kolak and McCool are trying to bring attention to is the apparent unfairness and injustice their sport is facing. Perhaps the biggest thing they are bothered by is the fact that in the weeks following Iowa’s announcement to cut men’s gymnastics, Iowa’s football coaches were given pay raises.

“Like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Kolak asked. “You can’t just cut a program, saying that it’s strictly funding and budget issues, and then take that money and give someone a raise who is already making way too much money. That to me is absolutely ridiculous.”

McCool compared it to Iowa’s athletic department stabbing its own athletes in the back.

“It shows that there was a totem pole and that the sports that were cut at Iowa were at the bottom of it,” said McCool. “The football coaches clearly mattered more. If people were aware that sports are being cut while coaches are being given raises, I feel like there would be outrage among the athletics community. I just don’t think enough people know about that.”

Kolak and McCool aren’t just fighting for the three teams on the chopping block; They’re also fighting for their sport as a whole and for its future. Only 15 universities across the nation sponsor men’s gymnastics as a varsity sport, so when three of them are simultaneously discontinued, Kolak says, “it hurts the sport so much.”

“As a kid, you look up to these college athletes and that motivates you to work harder in the gym because you want to get to where they are,” said Kolak. “That is such a good motivational factor to the kids and younger athletes.  Imagine a 12-year old kid who’s been obsessed with Shane Wiskus and Minnesota gymnastics his whole life. Now that kid reads in the news that Minnesota men’s gymnastics is cut. What is that going to do to that kid? I’m just hoping that kids aren’t seeing this and being like ‘It’s done for. I’m done. That’s it.’ I want them to have hope that men’s gymnastics will survive and still be a persistent sport in the future.”

For most gymnasts, the collegiate level is as far and as high as they’ll reach in their careers. Only a select few get to compete on the world stage at the Olympics and world championships. But of all the men who competed for Team USA at world championships and the Olympics, 80% of them came from the collegiate system. Illinois head coach Justin Spring was one of those gymnasts, and he credits his experience with Illinois as having gotten him to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, where he won a bronze medal. Without it, Spring said, he wouldn’t have gone to the Olympics.

On Monday, the College Gymnastics Association announced the creation of the Stronger Together Campaign, a fundraising initiative to help men’s gymnastics teams survive the pandemic and related revenue shortfalls. Within hours, the campaign received support from USA Gymnastics and from around the country.

Also joining the effort is 11-year old Louie Diab, the younger brother of Illinois senior Max Diab. Louie, who wants to compete for Illinois when he enters college in seven years, announced via Instagram a fundraiser to be held on Saturday at the Village Links of Glen Ellyn in Glen Ellyn. Several of his brother’s teammates shared Louie’s post, as did the CGA. In a show of solidarity with the men’s gymnastics team, Illinois’ football student section Block I also shared Louie’s post.

@B_RadZimm

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