How NIL and the transfer portal are changing the game for gymnasts — Other gym news — Thoughts from Aliyah Reed-Hammon, Fisk signee

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, June 4, 2022

Happy gymnastics Saturday! Arkansas signed Norah Flatley for a fifth year this week. I think most of us are thrilled simply to spend another year in Flatley’s gymnastics presence, but her decision to transfer from UCLA to Arkansas has raised some questions about how college gymnastics will be affected by increased use of the transfer portal, the use of COVID years, and that sweet NIL cash money. 

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Perhaps best to look at the traditional college-sports moneymakers, football and basketball, for comparison. 

Players in these sports have used the transfer portal for years to gain status and, it’s long been rumored, money. Shhh, that’s against the rules! But it happens, and we’d be foolish to pretend it doesn’t. It’s just more legit now that we have NIL. Men’s basketball had nearly a third of its Division 1 players enter the transfer portal in 2021, the last year for which we have complete transfer data. More than 2,500 football players in the NCAA’s top division entered the transfer portal – the most of any sport and 16% of  players overall. Men’s soccer has seen the largest overall increase in transfers in the NCAA, with 4.6% more players transferring in 2019 than in 2015. Among women’s sports, basketball had the highest number of transfers in 2021, with more than 22% of players seeking new opportunities. 

Yes, it’s risky, especially for players in those powerhouse sports. Only about half of those who enter the transfer portal find a new team. 

But female gymnasts are realizing the power of the portal. If we put aside 2022’s most notorious use of the transfer portal in women’s gymnastics – Alexis Jeffrey’s move from UCLA to LSU  – most of the moves we’ve seen this spring have been more heartwarming than heartrending. 

If Josie Angeny’s story – wanting to compete for Georgia her whole life, only to be told at 13 she didn’t have what it takes, choosing Kentucky instead, and becoming a stellar all-arounder and all-SEC Scholastic All-American there, then transferring to Georgia with her Covid year – didn’t tug at your heartstrings, well, you might be a robot. Sandra Elsadek transferred from Ball State to Georgia, calling the latter “the school of my dreams.” Victoria Nguyen transferred from Georgia to Florida, and her photos with her friend Morgan Hurd there show pure joy. And six Utah State gymnasts just transferred to Clemson, presumably following their former USU head coach Amy Smith as she transitions into the top job at Clemson.

Remember that the most-followed NCAA athlete on social media, across all sports, male or female, is a gymnast: LSU’s Olivia Dunne. Dunne has 4.6 million TikTok followers and more than 1.4 million Instagram followers. Dunne and Suni Lee are the top female earners in the NCAA  on social media, commanding upwards of $5,000 per post each, according to Action Network. Women’s gymnastics is the 12th biggest sport in the NCAA in terms of NIL earnings, according to Opendorse data. 

The money is there for the taking, is what I’m saying. And gymnasts are realizing this. But like many female athletes, gymnasts who choose to transfer to maximize their potential and/or rake in cash – we don’t know their motivations, but we sure like to speculate – are often hounded by accusations of disloyalty to their former teams or former coaches. While many posts about Flatley’s move to Arkansas were greeted by sighs of relief, both for Flatley that she got out of what seemed like an untenable situation for her at UCLA and for fans who just wanted to see that triple twist on floor for another year, some wondered why an athlete with so much name recognition would move from LA to Fayetteville. I’ve also seen plenty of posts saying she’s moving east to be closer to her boyfriend, a pro soccer player. And, of course, Arkansas has several UCLA alums in coaching positions: Jordyn Wieber, Felicia Hano, Kyla Ross. Being around friends and former teammates may have been a draw for Flatley. Both may be true, but let’s give Flatley some credit for making a move for herself and her career. 

However, the worst recent example of people not taking a gymnast’s motives at face value was the recent uproar over Arkansas signee Morgan Price decommitting. Price will head instead to Fisk University, where the first gymnastics team at an HBCU is taking shape. She won’t be on the SEC Network on Friday nights! She won’t even be in the NCAA! People cried. (Fisk belongs to the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, a separate athletic association of mostly smaller colleges and universities.) This is a huge loss for Arkansas! They yelled. 

Doh. It’s a huge GAIN for Price. And in ways some people (I mean white people) may not think are obvious. As Derrin Moore of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics pointed out to one naysayer,  “None of what you mentioned compares to being on a campus and team that was literally created for you!”

Arkansas will be just fine. What works for one gymnast (Flatley) may not for another (Price). Transfers are part of the cost of doing business, which the big-money NCAA sports have known for a long time. Changes in the eligibility rules mean that women no longer lose a season by transferring. And now that NIL money has entered the chat, it’s time that gymnastics fans get wise too. 

Yes, it may be disappointing to UCLA fans that the school could not retain Flatley for her fifth year. It might be disappointing to Arkansas fans, or SEC supporters, that five-star recruit Price chose a different college experience. It might seem odd that six gymnasts left USU for Clemson when they cannot even compete there for a year – Clemson’s team will not have their first season until 2024. But it seems to the casual observer (me) that each woman is making a choice for a team culture that appeals to her, and that may also come with the benefit of raising her star power and perhaps grabbing a piece of the NIL pie. 

Kleptomania is not running rampant in NCAA gymnastics. This is not the 90s, when “gym-hopping” was spoken of scornfully by elite coaches and observers. Remember that these are adult women with the agency to make their own decisions about their own careers. And right now, they may well have the financial freedom with NIL offers to live their dreams. 

Even the concept of the dream school is malleable right now. When an athlete with the potential to earn big NIL bucks is looking at schools, her choice is arguably less important for her than it is for the school. Arkansas is not raising Flatley’s profile; she is raising theirs. Likewise, Fisk benefits greatly from the publicity around Price’s decision.

Lee’s coach at Auburn, Jeff Graba, has characterized the Olympic gold medalist’s relationship with her school as a “business decision.” That is, Lee is probably more of an asset to Auburn than Auburn is to her, though for her part, she has spoken about how much she loves being part of the team there. 

Let’s believe women. 

Years from now, we may look at the decisions made by athletes this year as a real turning point in women’s college gymnastics, when the focus was finally put on the athletes instead of giving credit for their success to the people and organizations around them. 

Other gym news

Speaking of Norah Flatley, Arkansas gave us the 411 on her, along with some kind words from Gymbacks head coach Wieber.

UCLA top recruit Selena Harris joked about taking over after a Daily Bruin reporter bemoaned the team’s “huge loss” of Flatley, and Flatley (and Margzetta Frazier) approved of the clapback.

And speaking of Price, the Dallas Morning News ran a great profile on her Thursday. It mentions that she already has an NIL deal inked with Ozone, a leotard manufacturer.

.Morgan Price. Steve Hamm for The Dallas Morning News

Tasha Schwikert Moser will serve on the USA Gymnastics board, the organization announced Thursday. Schwikert Moser will represent survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse on the board. Her seat was part of the $380 million settlement reached in December between USAG and survivors. Schwikert Moser won a team bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics. She was also a two-time national champion and competed on two NCAA championship teams for UCLA. She is an attorney and lives with her family in Oregon.

Tasha Schwikert Moser. Courtesy of USA Gymnastics.

Danusia Francis was named the non-executive athlete representative to the British Gymnastics Board.

Danusia Francis. Courtesy

More than 175 gymnasts and parents signed a letter in support of former UCLA head coach Chris Waller that was published in the Los Angeles Times on Monday. Signees include five current members of UCLA’s gymnastics team (Emma Malabuyo, Emily Lee, Samantha Sakti, Ana Padarariu, and Paige Hogan); many UCLA alumnae, including Olympians Francis, Sam Peszek, Mohini Bhardwaj Barry, and Kristen Maloney, and viral Bruins star Katelyn Ohashi; and several parents and gymnasts from Waller’s GymJam, the Los Angeles-area gym Waller owned until 2021.

Inside Gymnastics interviewed Waller’s successor, Janelle McDonald. Reporter Ashlee Buhler, cohost of the All Things Gymnastics podcast, crowdsourced questions for McDonald on social media.

Janelle McDonald. Inside Gymnastics via UCLA Athletics.

Canada’s Denelle Pedrick debuted a new skill at the Canadian national championships: A clear hip circle on the high bar to a Pak salto transition.

Denelle Pedrick. Courtesy WOGymnastika.

And Ellie Black, who did not compete at the Canadian championships, nonetheless debuted a new skill in training: A free hip to piked Tkatchev half. We hope to see the Black become a named skill sometime this summer!

Ellie Black doing what may soon become the Black. Courtesy WOGymnastika

Five at The IX: Aliyah Reed-Hammon

Aliyah Reed-Hammon. Instagram

Aliyah Reed-Hammon, 18, announced her commitment to Fisk University on May 18. She will be a part of Fisk’s first signing class as the HBCU debuts its gymnastics team next winter. Aliyah, 18, hails from Milwaukee and trains under April Scheiner at M&M Gymnastics in New Berlin, Wis. (You might recognize that gym as the home of Chellsie Memmel and her dad, #fetch gym co-owner Andy.) She responded to my interview request on Instagram, and I’m delighted to feature another Fisk commit in this space! History in the making. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Why did you choose Fisk University to continue your gymnastics career?

ARH: I chose Fisk University to continue my gymnastics career because growing up in gymnastics, I was basically the only Black girl in my training groups. I always felt like I had to withhold some of the things I talk about with the group because they couldn’t relate to some of the things I experience as a person of color. Now that Fisk has become the first HBCU to have a gymnastics program, I will have the ability to express myself and relate to others who might share some similar experiences as me.

What do you plan to major in?

ARH: I will be majoring in sociology.

How does it feel knowing you are part of the first gymnastics team at an HBCU?

ARH: Knowing that I will be on the very first HBCU gymnastics team is really amazing. Me and my future teammates will become role models for other younger black gymnasts who hope to compete at the collegiate level. Hopefully, Fisk becoming the first HBCU to offer gymnastics will inspire other HBCUs around the country [to] also start gymnastics teams.

What is your favorite skill, and favorite apparatus?

ARH: My favorite event is vault by far! My favorite skill is a Yurchencko full.

If you could design a leo, what would it look like?

ARH: If i could design a leotard, it would be a black and pink ombré with lots of silver rhinestones on the front, back and arms!

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Lela Moore