A Sport Worth Saving

Neil Popović

I feared this day might come.

I dreaded the day when another college gymnastics program would fall victim to financial pressures. The sport is getting smaller year by year, and there’s a troubling feeling inertia at play.

As one school considers cutting its program, it becomes much easier for other schools to follow suit, to give up on so-called minor (code for non-revenue) sports.

Well, I’m not giving up.

It’s worth fighting to save these programs, for all the current student-athletes living out their dreams of participating in college gymnastics, for college communities and for the gymnastics community.

It’s worth it to the young gymnasts still dreaming of participating in college gymnastics.

I was just one of many volunteers who joined the fight to save gymnastics at Cal Berkeley in 2011. Working to save the Cal Men’s Gymnastics program reinforced for me that progress comes from facing up to the hard facts, persistence and willingness to think beyond the obvious possibilities.  It also eliminated any doubt that even a seemingly hopeless fight is winnable with a passionate group of people working together towards a common goal.

Staying in the fight

I’ll never forget the day I received an email from former Cal Berkeley coach, Dr. Harold Frey, expressing his concern over the gymnastics program potentially being cut. I wasn’t part of the original alumni group that raised the alarm and started the movement to save Cal Men’s Gymnastics, but once I got involved, I got deeply involved.

Working to save the program was a no-brainer when thinking back on the fond memories and long-term impact on my life of my time as a student-athlete.

I remember attending a gymnastics meet at the time the program was in jeopardy, to see the team and check in on the son of a childhood friend who was competing for Cal. Our stories were very similar. Like me, he grew up in Berkeley and admired the Cal gymnasts from afar, dreaming he’d one day get a chance to join the team.

It was so cool being there live to see my friend’s son’s dream come to fruition. The experience powerfully reminded me of my own experience, and how much I had wanted to be a Cal gymnast.  I was profoundly inspired to see another generation of Berkeley kids realizing their dreams of participating in college gymnastics at Cal.

The following day, I read an article reporting that the University had decided to cut the men’s gymnastics team along with a handful of other intercollegiate sports.  The news hit me particularly hard after just watching a meet that both reminded of the past and inspired me about the future of Cal Men’s Gymnastics.

I didn’t have a plan in the beginning, but I knew I had to do something.

So I emailed the athletic director, whom I had not previously met.

I was surprised when she called me about 15 minutes later to fill me in on the situation. That’s when I went from simply being a supporter and donor to getting directly involved in the campaign to save the team, eventually acting as a spokesperson for that effort. I received a disproportionate share of attention in my new role, but without question it was the hard work and initiative of many others that made it feasible to get the program reinstated.

The movement grew relatively quickly from a small grassroots project into a large team of alumni and supporters working together conducting phone banks and fundraising activities. We also enlisted the help of a former team member with years of experience as a CFO to help build the financial case to save the team.

We knew the fight was largely about money, and we knew we couldn’t fight effectively without a financial wizard.

The now-retired CFO developed a solid business plan to demonstrate the long-term viability of the program, which the two of us presented to the athletics department along with a list of non-financial benefits. We seemed to be making progress, but the real game-changer in our fight came when Douglas Goldman, an angel donor, stepped in with a major donation, even though he had no prior connection to college gymnastics.

Mr. Goldman’s generous donation demonstrated we could realistically raise enough money to fund the Men’s Gymnastics program with limited financial support from the Athletic Department. We eventually raised more than $2 million in donations and pledges, enough to ensure the financial viability of the program for years to come, and to convince the Athletic Department to bring it back.

Life lessons

College gymnastics isn’t more important than curing cancer, addressing climate change or racial justice.

It will not save the world, or even the country.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not important or worth protecting.

Gymnastics taught me discipline and the ability to get results by approaching a challenge in a systematic way. It also made me more comfortable performing for an audience and sometimes trying unorthodox methods.

During my first year of law school, I would do a handstand outside of the classroom before my final exams. When my somewhat amused classmates asked what I was doing, I explained that I was getting more blood into my brain so I would be ready to do my best on the exam.

By the look on their faces, I think many thought I was a bit crazy, a dumb jock, or both.

Being part of the Cal Men’s Gymnastics team of course taught me the importance of teamwork, including the importance of individual performance to support the team.  It may sound cliché, but these are life lessons that I still apply every day in my professional life as an attorney.

And we mustn’t forget about the long-term benefits of networking.

I’ve met a lot of interesting people through gymnastics, including teammates, competitors and others. Many of them remain my closest friends to this very day.

Not to take anything away from other sports, but college gymnastics consistently produces successful and productive members of society, a point of justifiable pride for programs all over the country.  Beyond their achievements on the competition floor, the many other contributions college gymnasts make to their schools, communities and society provide powerful evidence in support of saving college men’s gymnastics programs.

Winds of change

I do not pretend to know how other communities should address the potential loss of their men’s gymnastics programs, but I do hope that others can benefit from our experience.

Based on my involvement with the successful effort to reinstate the Cal Berkeley Men’s Gymnastics Team, I think it is important to articulate a clear message about what gymnastics contributes to the lives of the student-athletes, campus community, broader community, the national gymnastics program and Olympic sports in general.

I am deeply concerned for the other programs being cut or that might be cut, and I am equally concerned about the possible ramifications for the dwindling number of remaining programs, including Cal’s.

No matter what happens in the short term, all supporters of men’s college gymnastics need to take this seriously.  We need to have a plan to save the programs, and we need to prepare a contingency plan—not because we are prepared to give up the fight, but rather because we want to keep men’s college gymnastics alive no matter what. If that means transitioning to a club program, then we should make sure we understand how other sports have managed that transition, and what type of structure would make the most sense for men’s gymnastics.

Some sports have done great with club programs, while others have struggled. Understanding and documenting why some programs succeed and others fail will help bring clarity and focus to the shared cause of saving men’s college gymnastics.

Listing out the pros, cons, benefits and challenges of maintaining an NCAA program or switching to a club program surely will help program advocates make their case to athletic departments and college administrations, who in turn can make the case to others in the campus community who may not appreciate the value of maintaining and supporting college sports programs.

The best approach may differ from campus to campus, and program to program, but the shared goal of saving men’s college gymnastics provides an opportunity to set aside rivalry and work together.  When the Cal program was cut in 2011, perennial rival Stanford provided moral and financial support, demonstrating to the Cal Athletic Department that the benefits of maintaining the program go far beyond the individual student-athletes on the Cal team.

College gymnastics is responsible for producing thoughtful young people with the ambition to succeed and do positive things in the real world.

From my perspective, they personify the ideals of being a student-athlete.

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