The Scoring Problem in NCAA Gymnastics
In NCAA gymnastics, the maximum score a routine can receive is a perfect 10. Most routines at the Division 1 level have enough difficulty to start out of 10, and the judges are supposed to take deductions for execution errors. The perfect 10 should only be reserved for extraordinary routines without obvious execution errors such as steps on landings. However, the judging in NCAA gymnastics, especially recently, is often biased, and judges are not taking obvious deductions. The NCAA gymnastics judging system has no accountability structure to warn or punish judges who are consistently overscoring certain routines. This is a problem that affects the future of the sport and places the gymnasts in an awkward situation when they know their scores are too high.
One common complaint among NCAA gymnastics fans and even gymnasts themselves is that gymnasts who are more famous or are from more accomplished programs receive more lenient scoring. One recent example was on February 18 when Oregon State competed against the University of Arizona. Olympic and World champion Jade Carey received two perfect 10s- one on vault and one on floor exercise. The more controversial of her 10s was the one on the floor exercise. On her first tumbling pass, Carey underrotated her double-double and took a step forward. Gymnasts are allowed to take a controlled lunge backward when doing backward tumbling on the floor, but a step forward on a backward tumbling pass is a sign that the skill was not fully rotated, and this should receive a deduction. This criticism of the judging is not meant to take anything away from Jade Carey because she is an incredible gymnast doing the most difficult skills in the NCAA. However, the judges should not reward her for performing the hardest skills when these skills are not actually done perfectly.
Another meet that received criticism for the biased judging was when the University of Missouri competed at the University of Florida on February 10. Chloi Clark is a junior at Florida who has been added to the vault lineup while other athletes are recovering from injuries. Clark performs a Yurchenko full vault which actually only has a start value of 9.95 rather than 10. Clark performed a relatively clean vault, but she took a large hop back on the landing. This is an obvious deduction that should receive a 0.1 deduction. One judge gave her a score of 9.75 which is a reasonable score. However, the second judge gave her a “perfect” 9.95, meaning the judge took no deductions even though she did not stick the landing. This scoring controversy went viral online, and Clark felt the need to address it in a TikTok video.
“At the end of the day, I can’t control the judges’ scores…” Clark explained in her Tiktok video, “it is just as frustrating for the athletes as it is for you guys.”
Clark’s video highlights the fact that overscoring does not actually help gymnasts. For one, inaccurate scores do not help gymnasts know what they need to improve on. But the larger issue here is that overscoring and the controversy that comes with it can harm the gymnasts’ mental health. Overscoring for certain teams and athletes frustrates the gymnasts who do not receive the benefit of the doubt, and the gymnasts who are overscored face online criticism and resentment. Judges may feel the need to overscore athletes to help a team win a meet or place higher in the rankings, but in the long run, overscoring does not actually help the gymnasts.
There are several changes that the NCAA could implement that would help improve the judging. One example is that head coaches are currently responsible for evaluating the judges at their meets. This creates an obvious conflict of interest because head coaches will want to praise judges who give them higher scores and punish stricter judges. Instead, judges should be evaluated by the meet referee rather than the head coaches. Another change that could be implemented is allowing for more judging conferences. Currently, judges only have a judging conference when the difference between the two judges’ scores is greater than 0.2. For example, the Chloi Clark vault score did not require a judges’ conference because the two judges’ scores were exactly 0.2 apart. If the standard for a judges' conference was reduced, this would allow judges to be more consistent with each other and provide more access to replay reviews.
The judging problem in NCAA gymnastics is incredibly important to address both for the gymnasts and for the sport as a whole. NCAA gymnastics is becoming increasingly popular, but unfair scoring can turn away newer and more casual fans. Individual overscored routines may not seem like a big deal in the moment, but it adds up over time. Qualification for the NCAA postseason is determined by a National Qualifying Score (NQS). NQS takes the team’s top six scores (with the caveat that at least three of the scores have to be from away meets) and drops the highest score then averages the remaining five scores. If a team is frequently overscored, they will end up higher in the rankings. This ultimately affects who qualifies for the postseason and the seeding. Overall, the judging in NCAA gymnastics needs to change to be fairer because overscoring is not actually benefiting gymnasts or the sport as a whole.