The NCAA is Un-American

by Casey Barrett

And that’s a good thing. The issue of foreign Olympians training at U.S. colleges… 

That headline is not meant to inflame. It’s just a fact. In many quarters, calling someone “un-American” is akin to hate speech. In this case, in reference to an athletic institution based in the United States, it’s simply the way it is. See, for decades now, the NCAA has been the principle development system of the world’s greatest Olympic athletes. Many of those athletes carry American passports and go for gold under the Stars & Stripes; many more do not.

This upsets some folks. Well meaning Americans who seem to be believe that it’s the duty of American universities to prepare only American athletes for the Olympics. Never mind the fact that the USOC does not give a single penny to these colleges to fund that perceived duty. So, apparently it’s just supposed to come from some vague altruistic notions of nationalism?

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal got in on the debate – with a grossly jingoistic piece entitled Schools That Train the Enemy. (Nice to see Rupert Murdoch’s always classy fingerprints on his illustrious paper…) The language in the piece makes the skin crawl. In addition to the “enemy” in the headline, there’s a sidebar called “Rating the Traitors” (an honor won by Auburn), and words like “damage” and “threat” sprinkled throughout the piece. Fair and balanced, indeed.

Clearly I take exception. And unlike the Journal, I’ll make no pretense of any objectivity. My bias is huge. I was the “enemy.” I received all the spoils and expertise of NCAA swimming, and then I went off and competed for Canada at the Olympics. My business partner found his way from Germany to Cal Berkeley, where he was the captain of the Golden Bears his senior year, and was a member of their U.S. Open record-breaking 4 x 100 free relay back in 2000. Suppose he’s the enemy too. A couple of damaging threats who now own a school that teaches thousands of mostly American children how to swim…

For the two of us, and a great many of our friends, the NCAA was un-American in the best possible way.

But I guess all that big picture context is besides the point. The question remains – should American coaches at American colleges be preparing top foreign athletes to compete against Americans at the Olympics? Is there an inherent conflict of interest there?

First, some facts and figures: In 2008, USA Swimming did a study on the number of foreign swimmers competing at the top level of the NCAA. At the 2008 men’s and women’s Division I NCAA champs, they found that 48 different countries were represented. The Olympic Games could not top that level of international participation until 1936 – when 49 countries competed at the Berlin Games. This means that our current NCAA Swimming championships are a bigger international event than the first eight Olympics.

Hans Chrunak, the former head coach of the Swedish national team from 1991 to 2000, was once asked who was the biggest sponsor of Swedish swimming. Chrunak thought for a moment, then replied matter-of-factly: “That would be the NCAA.” An unlikely reply perhaps. One would expect an apparel company, or perhaps a petroleum company like Phillips 66. But no, for the Swedes, their biggest benefactor was the NCAA. When Chrunak made that statement a few years back, there were 51 Swedish swimmers competing in the NCAA. Now, not every one of those 51 were receiving full scholarships, and not all went on to make the Swedish Olympic Team, but consider the resources and the finances that the NCAA was devoting to these 51 Swedes. Even if each one was receiving a partial scholarship worth $10,000 a year, that’s still a half million dollar investment each year in Sweden’s swimming program.

One can see how that might rub certain Go U-S-A’ers the wrong way. Should those scholarships and those dollars have been spent on American kids? Well, if those Americans were better qualified, yes. If not, then absolutely not. (How do you feel about affirmative action? What’s your stance on isolationism? How do you define your patriotism? This particular issue can quickly slip and slide onto bigger pastures…)

The greatest coaches in the U.S. are often divided on this delicate question. On one hand, you have Texas’ Eddie Reese and Stanford’s (now retired) Skip Kenney. These two elder statesmen are widely regarded as coaches who’ve seldom been interested in international swimmers at their schools. That’s not to say it was a hard and fast rule for these men. I can rattle off a number of Canadian swimmers who competed for the Cardinal. And Israeli breaststroker Imri Ganiel (1:00.9 in the 100) just recently signed at Texas. Just two examples, plenty more, yet these two perennial powers have mostly been stocked with US swimmers through the years.

Contrast that with the longtime leaders of Auburn and Florida. As the head coach of Auburn from 1990 to 2007, David Marsh took the Tigers to prominence by focusing more on top foreign swimmers than anyone else. Sprint kings Freddy Bousquet and Cesar Cielo, to name the two most obvious. Meanwhile, Florida head coach Gregg Troy quite literally made his coaching name by developing international talent. At the Bolles School, where he coached for twenty years, he guided world beating talents like Surinam’s Anthony Nesty and Spain’s Martin Zubero, Olympic champions in 1988 and 1992, respectively. Add these guys to the Journal’s “enemy” list too… (More bias, I was one of Coach Troy’s “international” swimmers at Bolles. At the 1996 Games, we had 18 different countries represented in Atlanta. Two Thai friends and I made t-shirts that proudly proclaimed “Bolles Nation.”)

Fast forward to today: Gregg Troy is the head coach of the U.S. men’s Olympic swim team. Dave Marsh is now the CEO and Head Elite Coach of SwimMAC – a United States Olympic Committee Center of Excellence. So, is it fair to say that these two world class coaches may have improved their craft working with all those world class foreign talents? So much so that these two are now charged with developing and leading Team USA on the biggest stage possible.

The career arcs of Marsh and Troy reveal something frequently missed when folks make their isolationist arguments in favor of keeping foreign swimmers out of the NCAA. Both coaches and swimmers improve thanks to that international presence. Want to be the best? Put yourself around the best possible talent. American swimmers are better thanks to the presence of foreign athletes side by side in their lanes at college. And American coaches are better too, when given the opportunity to work with top talent from a wide range of diverse backgrounds. How could that not help a team improve in every way?

So, here’s to the enemies. The foreigners, the ones who cross oceans and borders and arrive at American colleges determined to improve themselves… By doing so, they also improve all those young entitled American kids around them.

No thanks necessary.