Judging concerns gymnastics coaches

Michael Dougherty

Coaches constantly question the impartiality of judges and officials. Bobby Knight berates officials and throws temper tantrums that would make a four-year-old proud. He sometimes even throws chairs.
But basketball officials seldom have the influence over a competition that gymnastics judges have. Often times, the subjectivity of a judge’s decision creates huge problems, especially when there is no system to police the judges.
Internationally, there is a system in place that monitors and rates the performances of judges. The NCAA, however, has no such system in effect — but it is something Gophers women’s gymnastics co-head coach Jim Stephenson said is sorely needed.
“When you look at it within the NCAA, there is no procedure for a coach or university to voice a concern,” Stephenson said.
Valorie Kondos, head women’s gymnastics coach of the defending national champion UCLA Bruins, recently proposed a system that might help alleviate the problem.
“In my opinion, if every team filmed every single routine, and if I have a complaint about a judge at that meet, my suggestion is to take that video and hand it over to the state judging chair and they would review that video,” Kondos said. “Then, if they find there is some discrepancy there, they can give that judge a warning.”
Kondos said she feels this would be almost as effective as the system used internationally.
That system has been adopted world-wide, and Gophers women’s assistant coach Doug Day said as a result it has made judges better at what they do, as well as more accountable.
Day, who has judged men’s gymnastics at the Olympics, said the system was developed in the United States and gives out warnings similar to soccer’s system of yellow and red cards.
“It is a computer-based evaluation system called the JOE (Judging Officials Evaluation) system, and it is used for women’s championships internationally,” Day said. “Basically, it’s designed to see if a judge is biased towards another country, and that catches them in this block.”
What Day is referring to is something called block judging. It is a phenomenon which occurs in international competitions, and it involves countries aligning their judges to award higher scores based on the competitor’s country of origin instead of the individual’s performance.
“A good example is the World Championships of 1991, in Indianapolis,” Day said. “It was the first World Championships that they used that system, and they threw five officials off the floor.
“At an international competition, if you are thrown off the floor — caught cheating — you can no longer judge for the rest of that four-year cycle.”
Pay scale another issue
A system of monitoring college judges might help curb another trend that upsets some coaches: discrepancies between judging styles and pay scales across the nation, and the disjointed scores they produce.
“Our judges — most of them — simply will not judge how we’re asking them to,” Kondos said. “What’s happened on the West Coast — and I know it has happened — was that some of the judges saw the Georgia-Alabama meet on TV, and they started judging more leniently based on what they saw those judges were doing.”
Georgia and Alabama are part of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), a conference that is known for having strong and well-followed women’s gymnastics programs. The pressure for these schools to perform at a high level is enormous.
Some gymnastics coaches outside the SEC whisper that schools in the conference take advantage of anything they can, within the rules, to gain an edge on an opponent.
For example, the NCAA has no cap on what a school can pay a judge to work at a home meet. There is a standardized minimum of $75 per meet, but there is no maximum.
Minnesota pays its judges $96 to oversee home meets. UCLA pays $100. Michigan State pays $81.
But the SEC, as a conference, pays its judges $200 per meet, plus expenses such as traveling and dining. The SEC also has four schools ranked in the top eight, with rankings that are based on meet scores: Georgia is No. 1, Florida is No. 4, Alabama is No. 5 and LSU is No. 8.
Whether the higher paid judges are giving preferential treatment to those schools is something coaches won’t directly admit. However, the practice is being seriously examined as coaches across the country are calling for a nationwide pay scale.
Pat Wall, the associate commissioner of the SEC, is in charge of setting the prices for the judges.
When asked why the conference pays double what the rest of the country pays for its judges, Wall said only, “We’ve had this for a long time — four to five years.”
When asked about the discrepancy between the home meet scores and the non-conference away meet scores that exist among SEC schools, Wall said:
“If you’re asking me if because we pay them more do we expect higher scores, there is no way I would say that.”
While Wall denies there is a correlation between higher pay and higher scores, other coaches continue to call for uniformity.
“I think it is ridiculous for us not to have a uniform fee,” Kondos said. “That’s my proposal that’s on the ballot this year. I feel that you go some places in the country and it’s almost like the judges are part of the ambiance of the show. They know their role — it’s all choreographed.”
Stephenson said he sees a problem with a uniform pay scale, though, because some schools don’t have the operating budgets that others do, so they have a harder time meeting those requirements.
“You have the problem of people saying, Well I can’t afford to pay more than $75,'” Stephenson said. “Then the people paying in excess of $200 are saying, It’s worth it because the fans will boo them and harass them if they don’t give them the scores. So, yeah it’s worth it because they might get lynched.’
“Neither argument is very powerful. If you are going to go between $75-$100 for an official — I’m sorry, but every athletic department in the country can afford that — but $200 is a bit much. We should be able to say, It’s gone beyond what looks to be reasonable and prudent.'”
Greg Marsden, head coach of the second-ranked Utah Utes, said he sees the need for a change, but also points out that there are humans involved so there will always be imperfection.
“I think it’s a concern that we need to continue to work on, and we need to look at all aspects, from what we pay the judges to how the coaches in some places try to intimidate the judges,” Marsden said. “We have some coaches that have favorite judges that they hire to do every meet.”
The human element also is on Stephenson’s mind.
“If you talk to almost any coach across the country and ask him or her, Do you feel that the officiating is uniform across the country?’ I would be surprised if any of them said yes, because it’s not,” he said.
Along the same lines, Marsden said:
“It has always been an issue in our sport. I’ve been doing it for 23 years, and the first year I was in it there was this big discussion among the coaches at nationals, and there has been every year,” he said. “And 23 years after I’m out of the sport they’ll still be talking about it.
“It’s the fly in the ointment. We’re judged by human beings and it’s an imperfect system.”
Reform still needed
Although the human component is inevitable, Kondos’ proposal and the concerns of other coaches show some answers about impartiality are still needed.
“The judges I’ve spoken to feel it would make them more accountable,” Kondos said. “It’s just human nature — if you know that you’re being watched, you’re going to be a little more on top of your game.”
While Stephenson said that he accepts the imperfections, he is particularly disappointed with how the judging affects the gymnasts.
“What’s frustrating to us is that the athlete is the pawn here,” he said. “We know that most of these athletes have been involved in the sport since they were three years old, and they have gone to the gym five or six times a week since that time until now.
“They are incredibly dedicated and have done everything they can to be their best, so they expect the officials to judge them fairly and without bias. But there are times in the world of women’s gymnastics where that doesn’t happen.”
Although the impartiality of some judges is consistently being called into question, Stephenson balks at the notion that all of them are unfair.
“The majority of the officials that we see are very competent, have a high level of integrity and are actually very concerned that they are fair,” he said. “Especially locally, Minnesota judges have been famous for years for being well-qualified officials that stick to the rules and show no bias.”
Stephenson said he wants officials at his team’s meets to judge his team to the letter because it helps them improve.
“We come back to the gym after they have said, These are your deductions and you need to work on fixing them.’ So we do that,” he said.
That seems to be a good example of athletes being able to improve within the framework of the system.
Still, what many coaches are afraid of is that until the system becomes more uniformly consistent, judges will continue to have too much control over the fate of college gymnasts.
“It’s an imperfect situation, and it always will be,” Marsden said. “Does that mean we won’t work on it or try to tweak it to make it more impartial? No.”