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IS THE USTA THROWING AMERICAN COLLEGE TENNIS PLAYERS
UNDER THE BUS?

Is it even worth it for Americans to still pursue the college tennis dream?

CONTEXT: NCAA rules state: A student-athlete may participate in a certain number of hours per day and per week of countable athletically related activities and may not participate in any countable athletically related activities on two days per week during the out-of-season period. The student-athlete also has practice limitations during mid-term or finals week.

What are countable athletically related activities?

A “countable athletically related activity” (CARA) is any required activity with an athletics purpose that involves student-athletes and is at the direction of, or supervised by, any member of an institution’s coaching staff, including strength and conditioning coaches. These activities must be counted toward a student-athlete’s daily and weekly limitations.

What counts as CARA?

  • Competition

  • Practice

  • Skill instruction

  • Individual workouts as required or supervised by institution’s coaching staff

  • Use of institutional athletics facilities when such activities are supervised by or held at the direction of any member of the institution’s coaching staff

  • Required participation in camps or clinics.

 

What doesn’t count?

  • Study hall or tutoring sessions

  • Participation in fundraising activities, community service or community engagement

  • Involvement of an institution’s strength and conditioning staff with student-athletes in voluntary strength and conditioning programs for safety purposes

  • Compliance meetings

  • Attendance at an awards ceremony or banquet

  • Medical examinations or treatments (e.g., physical rehabilitation, treatment by athletic training personnel).

 

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Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash

When can they occur?

  • During the playing Season for tennis: Not more than four hours per day and 20 hours per week during a 60-day window, with a required two days off per week.

  • Outside the playing season for tennis: Eight hours a week with two days off. Not more than four hours per week toward team practice and/or skill instruction.

[Side effect of the main NCAA rules about CARA: Many students report spending double that amount of time on the court or in workouts that are “voluntary” in name only. But I don’t want to get into that right now]

Who is monitoring CARA?

College coaches are tasked with the time-consuming requirement to track practice time for each individual student-athlete and complete a form each week that is submitted to their school’s compliance office.

Why am I writing about all this today?

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) and the NCAA cooked up a rule change 2 years ago that went into effect in January 2021. It’s about the designation of ELITE ATHLETES in college athletics.

The NCAA Bylaws were changed and the section about ELITE ATHLETE TRAINING now reads as follows:

17.02.1.1 Exception -- Elite Athlete Training. A student-athlete who has been designated by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the sport-affiliated national governing body (or the international equivalent) as an elite athlete may participate in an individual workout session conducted by a coaching staff member without such activity being considered a countable athletically related activity, provided the workout is initiated by the student-athlete and the student-athlete does not miss class. (Adopted: 7/13/20)

In other words

When a National Governing Body designates an athlete as ELITE, the aforementioned rules for countable athletically related activities don’t apply anymore. ELITE athletes are free to practice as many CARA hours as they want to. With coaches or assistant coaches. They don’t have to do “voluntary” workouts alone or with non-coaching staff.

What does that mean?

It means that ANY college student-athlete including international student-athletes attending in the United States can be designated in their respective sport as an Elite Athlete by their respective NGB.

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Photo: Adobe Stock

What else comes with the status ELITE for athletes?

12.1.2.4.8 Exception for Developmental Training Expenses for Elite Athletes. An individual (prospective or enrolled student-athlete) who has been designated by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the sport-affiliated national governing body (or the international equivalent) as an elite athlete may receive developmental training expenses related to training, coaching, sport experts other than coaches, training partners, facility usage, equipment, apparel, supplies, comprehensive health insurance, travel (including travel for parents or guardians, coaches, sport experts and training partners), room and board without jeopardizing the individual's eligibility for intercollegiate athletics, provided such expenses are approved and provided directly by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee or the appropriate national governing body in the sport (or, for international student-athletes, the equivalent organization of that nation). (Adopted: 1/23/20)

A brief summary of the main advantages of being declared an ELITE athlete

  1. No limit on the number of hours for practicing with college coaches and their staff.

  2. Train anytime – no practice limitations during mid-term or finals week.

  3. Eligibility for receiving training expenses.

  4. No need for coaches to complete weekly/training reports

This Bylaw applies to ALL Student Athletes from ANY country and in any international competition sport.

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How do college student-athletes get an ELITE Athlete designation?

Foreign students can get designated as ELITE by their NGB with very little oversight or accountability. I understand that most of them come into the United States now with ELITE status in their baggage. Good for them! Right?

American students’ eligibility is stated on the USOPC website

https://www.teamusa.org/About-the-USOPC/Collegiate-Partnerships/Pathway-Project.


That site also outlines the 2021/2022 ELITE COLLEGE FOOTPRINT for American athletes. The list states, The USOPC and NGBs collaborate annually to identify and designate NCAA elite student-athletes. For the 2021-2022 academic year, the USOPC has currently identified 331 current NCAA elite student-athletes, representing 93 different institutions.

Looking through this list you see how many ELITE athletes are currently designated per sport. Like, 0 in Baseball, 1 in Rowing, 51 in Swimming, 6 in Wrestling, 24 in Water Polo, etc. Check out the number of ELITE players in Tennis.

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So, zero tennis athletes, impacting zero schools, and the 2021/2022 Elite Roster Threshold for tennis is TOP 54 WORLD-RANKED MEN AND WOMEN. Hmmmh.

If you’re asking who is responsible for those big, fat zeros and the threshold criteria, our NGB, of course, the USTA.

But, wait a minute, why zero, don’t we have lots of great college tennis players?

We do indeed. That number could have easily been 50 or 100 or more. But it is zero. Nil. Nada. Naught. Zilch. Nix.

And why is it zero?

Because the USTA said so.

The USTA designated no American tennis athletes as ELITE. That's zero with a capital Z.

What does the Intercollegiate Tennis Association say to all this?

I asked Tim Russell, the ITA’s CEO. He knew about it before the rule was passed way back in 2020 and mentioned that the ITA was principally opposed to it and expressed it in January of 2020 to the NCAA. Unsuccessfully. Tim says, ”No doubt that the American college tennis players will be at a disadvantage.”

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Photo: Adobe Stock

Let’s look at that Elite Roster Threshold for tennis

Since the USTA is our tennis NGB, let’s look again at the aforementioned USOPC/Collegiate Partnership Pathway list. The screenshot shows that the USTA has established the Elite Roster Threshold as “Top 54 world-ranked men and women.” The USOPC could have easily ruled that only athletes who showed up on their country’s Olympic roster could be designated as ELITE. But they didn’t. They left it to the NGB’s to make that determination. (Btw, the last U.S. men’s Olympic roster included Tennys Sandgren, Frances Tiafoe, and Marcus Giron, none of whom were in the ATP Top 54 at the time.)

You may agree with me that there’s so much you can read into that “Top 54” designation (besides asking yourself whether the USTA has declared war on American college tennis.)

Let’s try, shall we?

  • What ranking system is it based on? ATP? WTA? UTR? ITF? WTN? “Other?”

  • It does indeed look like it’s based on the Top 54 ATP and WTA players in the world who are currently in college. Ergo zero!

  • How about Top 54 world-ranked college players? That would be 108 for men and women.

  • How about Top 54 Americans that play college tennis? That would be maybe 15-20.

  • Since the ITF rules international tennis which includes the Grand Slams, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Cup etc, you can make a case for them using the ITF world ranking which would mean more Americans could be designated as ELITE athletes.

 

Doesn’t it seem that this totally unclear and ambiguous threshold definition was somehow done on purpose? For whatever reason that may be?

So we know now that all NGBs can designate as many college tennis players ELITE as they like and many foreign players come with that designation to the United States. But why is this significant?

Let’s see how the new ELITE rules impact American college tennis players

According to Tim Russell at the ITA, 64% of all D1 tennis players are foreigners. (That means only 36% are Americans) Also, from what I hear, it’s estimated that foreign students receive about 70% of all D1 scholarship money.

Looks like Americans are already at a significant disadvantage, doesn’t it?

  • Let’s look at David. He’s on a college team with 4 foreign students who have all received ELITE status from their respective NGBs. They can practice as much as they want with their coaching staff with no practice limitations and at any time, even during finals week. David is screwed when it comes to competing for a playing spot and for his own professional development, is he not?
     

  • How about Sarah? Her team is exclusively American with all the limitations thrown at them by the NCAA. Sarah’s team is at a huge disadvantage when playing a team that’s made up of all international students that are enjoying ELITE privileges without practice limits. No?

 

If I were a D1 College Tennis Coach, I would have figured that out a while ago and recruited only foreign students to my team. I would also encourage all of them to obtain ELITE status from their NGB without ever checking the validity of that status. I had actually asked a D1 coach with only foreign players on his team and he replied to not know about the ELITE rule. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. Btw, his men’s team won the Big 12 regular season in 2021 and 2022. Good for them!

As a matter of fact, I asked 7 current and former coaches of 6 colleges and they all either claim to have never heard of that ELITE rule or just didn’t reply at all. Isn’t that weird?

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Photo: Adobe Stock

Can the USTA not do something and give ELITE status to a few or even a lot of American players?

Ha, now it gets dicey. First, you have to know who makes that decision at the USTA. Martin Blackman? No, actually I was told he spoke out against the new NCAA rule before it went into effect. But since I have informants reaching into the highest chambers of our NGB, it wasn’t too difficult to find the culprit: the USTA Board of Directors.

Martin Blackman in an interview with Bill Simons (Inside Tennis) on 9/5/2016:

"One of my big initiatives has been to invest more in college tennis. I don’t think we’ve invested enough in college tennis financially or from a human resource perspective."

But what do the members of the USTA Board of Directors know about college tennis?

Not much, I guess. How else could one justify them not expanding their narrow, unclear, and ambiguous interpretation of that USOPC/NCAA rule? Well, then I’m finding out that earlier this year, the USTA Board was tasked with ruling on a possible expansion of that ELITE roster threshold. And the Board President, Mike McNulty asked the three members of a very obscure part of that Board, the AAC – Athlete Advisory Committee, all former WTA pro tennis players.

What do the members of the Athlete Advisory Committee know about college tennis?

A little. Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Liezel Huber – never went to college.

  2. Vania King – went to college briefly but didn’t play on any team.

  3. Megan Mouton-Levy – played 4 years for William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

So, only one of the three athletes on the AAC played college tennis. Hmm. All three played on the pro tour for a long time. Do they not want college tennis players to get equal opportunities compared to their foreign compadres?

Apparently not. I was told they recommended against expanding the ELITE roster threshold from ZERO to a number of players.

Why would a USTA advisory committee vote against giving American athletes a level playing field?

Could it be they are only Americans in name only? Huber’s heritage is South African, King’s is Taiwanese, Mouton-Levy is Jamaican. But that can’t be it, right? Maybe they don’t want the pro tour to be flooded with too many college players? Or what other possible reason could they have to vote anti-American? Is there a USTA directive we don’t know about?

This wouldn’t be the first time the USTA seems to throw an entire group of players under the bus. Remember what I wrote about Transgender women and USTA adult leagues? Any man can declare he’s now a woman and demand to play on a women’s league team and no one can ask him/her for confirmation. They want to be “all-inclusive.” I wrote, “The USTA Transgender Policy is even harder to understand knowing that First Vice President (and next President) Brian Hainline is actually a frigging medical doctor!”

Ah, here is a name I haven’t had a chance to mention in connection with the ELITE ruling. Here’s a man who apparently wants to appear as progressive as possible. As Vice President of the USTA Board, I assume he was also most likely directly involved in the decision not to expand the ELITE designation.

Did Dr. Hainline put some pressure on the AAC ladies to vote a certain way?

Why on earth would the good doctor do that? It so happens Dr. Hainline is an employee of the NCAA. He’s their SVP and Chief Medical Officer. You didn’t know that? Now you do. Since the ELITE designation comes with an annual payment of $5,000 for that athlete, how much money did the USTA Board’s declaration of ZERO players save the NCAA or USOPC? I don’t know where the money trail comes from but could it be related? You figure it out, folks. Do I smell a conflict of interest? I may be completely wrong but yes, I do!

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Photo: LinkedIn

Any comments from the Board?

On 8/16/22 I had sent the following questions to the USTA Board members Dr. Hainline, Mike McNulty, Vania King, Megan Mouton, and Liezel Huber via the Communications Department:

Our September issue will be a wake-up call for college-bound tennis players to perhaps look for another sport since they have apparently been put at such a disadvantage by the USTA Board compared to foreign students. I’d love to have some USTA Board members comment on their decision to not expand the current Elite Athlete definition.

My specific question for the Board members mentioned below: Why do you think this decision may not look like the USTA has thrown an entire section of their constituents, American College Tennis Players, under the bus?

Also, my question for Dr. Brian Hainline: As USTA Board VP and current SVP employed by the NCAA, why do you think it was not a huge conflict of interest to cast your vote against an Elite Athlete designation?

Until today I have not received an answer from any of those people. I’m actually not surprised since the Gordon Smith/Kurt Kamperman directive to “Ignore the noise” is probably still being obeyed.

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Conclusion

Over the years, we have heard and read from various USTA CEO’s, Presidents, and other executives about their "unwavering commitment" to college tennis. Heck, Kamperman at one point said that college tennis is our future or something of that nature. Player Development boss Martin Blackman acknowledged that college tennis is in fact a viable route for playing professionally. Vania King regrets not going the college tennis route and said in a 2020 tennis.com interview, “I watched from afar as friends soaked up the college experience.”

To me, it seems quite disappointing that the USTA is apparently not viewing some college players as elite athletes. I think college tennis is indeed an elite athlete path to professional sports. Just look at the historical data that shows how many former college tennis players have been successful on professional tours.

In an interview, Lisa Raymond, eleven times Grand Slam doubles and mixed champion, feels strongly that every young player thinking about turning professional should experience at least one year of college. After all, it got her enshrined in the University of Florida sports hall of fame; she's officially a "Gator Great." "Even one year," Raymond insisted, "goes a long way. It teaches you independence and how to organize your time. There are so many benefits; I can't begin to count them."

Coach Dick Gould said this, “Seven Stanford players have been world no. 1’s at some time in their career. One was close at no. 2 and two were no. 3’s.” He was of course talking about players like John McEnroe and his brother Patrick, Jim Grabb, the Bryan Brothers, and others.

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John Isner, who played four years for Georgia, carried the Bulldogs to the NCAA title in 2007, and turned pro at age 22, said, "Without college, I wouldn't be here today. I can say that with 100 percent certainty. I wasn't nearly good enough to go pro after high school. I didn't even have pro aspirations. I got so much better at Georgia. Once I did get so much better, I realized I could maybe play professional tennis. For me, it was the right decision. I had to go there. But everybody's different."

We have to ask some serious questions: Can the AAC really be objective when advising the Board? Are Huber and King equipped to understand the college athlete landscape? Was the AAC provided a complete set of background information and by whom? Did Dr. Hainline have an ulterior motive when advising the Board and ultimately voting against American college players?

It looks to me, the USTA has added another directive to their arsenal: DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO.

USTA: Do as I say, not as I do!

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