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ASCA Pounds A Petty Piece Of Prejudice

Jun 7, 2012  - Craig Lord

In an open letter, ASCA, the body representing American coaches, has condemned an article in the Wall St Journal that called college athletes "The Enemy" - the target overseas students - as shameful and grotesque. 

The article, penned by Rachel Bachman and running alongside a picture of Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry - Olympic 200m backstroke champion in 2004 and 2008 and a woman who could hardly go home and expect to excel in sport - includes a graph of "offending" colleges under the headline "Rating The Traitors". It would have been better not to have helped Coventry given that she beat Margaret Hoelzer to gold at the Olympics, the tine suggests.

Former Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines is among those who apparently live in fear from the threat the likes of New Zealand's Lauren Boyle, Britain's Gemma Spofforth and others may do to the aquatic superpower. The paper claims that he favours "capping the percentage of international athletes on US college teams to preserve a majority of opportunities for US athletes". Fielding so many foreign athletes, Gaines said, "hurts our Olympic movement, which we have to think of, first and foremost." 

Our Olympic movement? Not the world's Olympic movement? That would be the Olympic Movement that holds this sacred in its Charter: "The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries".

Gaines is a man steeped in a fine commitment, alongside Cullen Jones, to helping minorities in the US get into the water, learn to swim, get the drowning stats down, erase them altogether. Great work, great sentiments, great aims. The issues are global, they are about people, not nationalities. On a visit to Florida of late, I watched Spofforth and her Britain teammate Stephanie Proud train for five hours, hard at it in pool and gym, and then spend two hours teaching American 2 and 3 year olds to swim as volunteers. 

Is that a missed opportunity for British kids? Of course not. It is a wonderful example of humans helping other humans - and that's how they see it in Gator-land.

Gaines is unlikely to have intended to be personal about it - but the WSJ makes it so, naming as if shaming a whole shoal of world-class athletes nurtured in the US. [I was told after posting this piece that only one side of the issues raised by Gaines were used by the WSJ, the balance of his thoughts lost in the edit - ED].

The argument in the US among those who want a cut-off is heading into uncomfortable territory: we don't want anyone who comes to get the best out of themselves if that best is better than our best. Such views have repercussions well beyond the pool, while the blade of such arguments is sharpened at times of fiscal stress.

There are valid arguments on the issue of scholarships if world-class American talent is genuinely being denied in favour of overseas athletes. On the other hand, hard to find any colleges who complain when their foreign swimmers (including many who have sacrificed international careers for the good of the college programme) help them win NCAA honours (as has often been the case).

The article concludes with Bill Martin, the former Michigan athletic director who doubled as USOC president in 2003-04, saying: "When you're wearing your athletic director's hat, you want to get all these great swimmers to come to Michigan and help us win an NCAA championship. You don't like it when they go beat you in the Olympic Games. It's a two-edged sword, isn't it?"

Less so these days, Mr Martin, many would rightfully say: the world of coaching and facilities is catching up out there in the big beyond and there are ever greater numbers of non-Americans able and ready to step up and beat you whether you help them or not. The trend is likely to continue. 

Meanwhile, the best the US - or anyone else - ever had never swam in college, never claimed a scholarship. Greatest Olympian of all-time. America, says its visitors, is bigger than the sentiment expressed in the WSJ article. ASCA sympathises with that view.

In the letter, headed "Civility, please", John Leonard, Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association states:

Yesterday in the Wall Street Journal was a piece that described young, college age athletes competing at NCAA Institutions as “The Enemy”. 

That’s grotesque. 

I even hesitate to comment on it and draw attention to it, but it is upsetting. 

The piece talks about noticing that a lot of American Universities public and private, enroll athletes from international locations in their universities and in their sports teams. (The fact that this has been the case for about 70 years should also be noted.) 

The argument is an ancient one, with truth on both sides. But the fact is that no one, not even the federal government, can tell a University who to enroll, who to give scholarships to, etc.  We can argue away all day and not reach any solutions (at least in 70 years we haven’t been able to.) 

But “The Enemy?”, for a group of wonderful, delightful young people doing what people have done forever…recognize the USA as a land of opportunity and wanting to come here? 

There is no place for that language in this country, in sports, in the Olympic Games.  Enemy’s are for war. This is not war. 

Shame on the WSJ for publishing this.  It does not serve civil society in any way. 

American coach to generations of talent, Eddie Reese, may well concur. At Shanghai world titles last year, in reference to a question on America's role in helping others to beat her own in the race pool, he told me that Man was "put on earth to help each other" and that that was the "best thing that you can do". A simple and wonderful thought. 

Hurray then to Casey Barrett and a column under the provocative title The NCAA is Un-American. Barrett, born a Canadian in the US, is a pupil of the Bolles school (where Gator head coach Gregg Troy once led the way in Barrett's day), no longer there in Florida and no longer in the race pool but forever part of the swim family is what they tell you when you visit the Gator programme. I had the privilege of doing just that of late. The university of life, with swimming a lightning rod to wider experience and learning, is what you find there. 

The Gators is just one example of this scenario; when a Gator steps up as an American, a Brit, a Canadian, a member of a team from South America, Africa, Asia, at a world championship, he or she not only has those waving the same flag on side but folk from all over the world who have worked alongside each other. Much strength in all of that. 

The bureaucracy of sport decided that its world would also be divided into nations and there is merit and pride in that - but as Eric Liddell, an Olympic champion born in China of Scottish parents whose path pointed to the difference between human and national colours, indicated: the human, the common currency of us all, is king. America has grown strong on that belief. 

Land of the free and the home of the brave, it is also a place of opportunity founded, built, developed and exploited by "foreigners", a trend continued by the current owner of the Wall St Journal who, back in 1985, became a naturalised citizen and no longer Australian on paper, to satisfy the legal requirement that only US citizens were permitted to own American television stations.

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