The perfect 10 is supposed to be the pinnacle of scoring in college gymnastics. But the pursuit of perfection is breaking the sport in multiple ways.
On Jan. 14, Olympic gold medalist and current Oregon State star Jade Carey earned a perfect 10 for her vault at the Wabash Classic. It was the first 10 given to a vault during the 2023 season, and the fourth in Carey’s NCAA career.
But online, the mood was more one of consternation than of celebration. As even the most casual viewer could tell, Carey’s “perfect” 10 was impossible. Because on the landing of Carey’s vault — a beautiful, high Yurchenko double twist — she hopped.
Carey isn’t alone in receiving an “impossible” perfect score this NCAA season. Haleigh Bryant made history for LSU by earning three 10s in a single meet (a feat no gymnast has accomplished in over two decades) — but her vault also had a notable hop. Scores of other gymnasts, including Carey’s Olympic teammate Grace McCallum and World medalist Leanne Wong, have received perfect 10s for routines with visible errors like wobbles, balance checks, or steps.
And these imperfect 10s point to a larger problem of score inflation across college gymnastics: during last weekend’s regional championships — a time when scoring supposedly gets “stricter” because routines are evaluated by four, rather than two, judges — I counted a whopping 58 routines that received a 10 from at least one judge, nearly 4 percent of the field. Perfection, it seems, is no longer a rarity.
Fans, meanwhile, are losing patience. “I’ve been trying for three straight seasons to ignore overscoring… but this is my breaking point. What the f***,” Twitter user @arabianpike wrote over a video of Haleigh Bryant earning a 10 with a hop. “These scores are insane,” Connor McCool, an NCAA gymnast on the men’s side of the sport, wrote on Twitter during regionals, to which a fan replied: ”I would love accurate scoring all around, but that seems to be too big an ask for women’s NCAA gymnastics.“
They aren’t the only ones upset. Gymnastics luminaries like Kathy Johnson Clarke (ESPN commentator and former Olympian), Greg Marsden (retired Utah head coach), and Patricia Fiske (founder of Gymnastics Now) are calling for a scoring overhaul; Fiske captioned a video of an “impossible” 10 with “Tonight should be — HAS to be — the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
It’s gotten to the point where athletes themselves are taking to TikTok and Instagram to acknowledge scoring errors. After Chloi Clark earned a 9.95 from one judge for a vault with a large jump back (9.95 is the highest score Clarke’s vault could have earned, which means the judge took no deductions), she started a TikTok with: “I’m also very confused.” Florida legend Trinity Thomas captioned a photo of her perfect 10 on beam with “it wasn’t.”
The perfect 10 has become something different in college gymnastics
While the perfect 10 scoring system defined the early era of gymnastics, a series of scoring scandals and internal pressures led Olympic (or “elite”) gymnastics to move more and more in the direction of rigor, abandoning the 10 and implementing ever more meticulous systems of evaluation. NCAA gymnastics retained the perfect 10 but now finds itself at a similar crossroads to elite gymnastics. But is it even possible for the sport to turn away from the very scoring system that, in its appearance of fun and pageantry, has attracted scores of new fans?
Overscoring is hardly news in NCAA gymnastics. It’s so ubiquitous that gymnastics fans have a nickname — “Carol” — for judges who throw out impossible scores. The name comes from an infamous 2018 Florida/Oklahoma matchup in which one judge (the aforementioned Carol) gave Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols a 9.95 for a beautiful stuck vault — and then proceeded to give Florida’s Alex McMurtry a 10 for a vault with a visible hop.
But since 2022 and the entrance of the “greatest freshman class in gymnastics,” score inflation has gotten much worse. Thanks to the NIL, elite gymnasts and former Olympians no longer need to choose between making money and participating in college gymnastics. Gymnasts like Olympic All-Around champion Sunisa Lee and Olympic floor champion Jade Carey were instant contributors to the sport, helping their respective schools (Auburn and Oregon) shatter both attendance and scoring records. Scoring went through the roof: the number of perfect 10s more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, from 31 to 71; this year continues the trend, with 84 total 10s.
At the same time, score inflation cannot be solely attributed to Olympians, or even to massively talented international elites transitioning to college. In the past year, a whopping 43 teams (over half the field) broke an apparatus or team scoring record. Most did it without the help of an elite or Olympic gymnast. Indeed, some of the largest score gains came from middle-or-lower ranked teams, an indication that the scoring problem is pervasive throughout college gymnastics.
The problem is largely a cultural one. As Rhiannon Franck, a retired NAWGJ with nine years of NCAA gymnastics judging experience, explains: “There’s a culture of judging easier in college… Before [my first college meet] I asked about if we judge ‘easier in college’ and I was told to judge the same as I do in level 10. When I did and had around a 9.4 to the other judge’s 9.8, we had a conference and she said, “well maybe I do judge easier in college.”
Small deductions, like flexed feet or bent arms, are more easily forgiven by college judges; minor errors like a slightly short handstand may get the lowest possible deduction — or no deduction at all. “Judges should take deductions,” Franck emphasizes. But the culture of more lenient scoring means that they don’t always do so. Moreover, judges must be “in range” of each other’s score — if their scores vary by more than .2, a conference is called. A stricter judge — one who takes all the code’s deductions — is under a subtle pressure to loosen up, to avoid grinding the meet to a halt.
If judges are under cultural pressure to score leniently, and there’s no countervailing pressure for accountability, the scores will rise. As former Utah head coach Greg Marsden explains in a Twitter thread, there is “no oversight or accountability for judges” which may result in “selective application of required deductions with no repercussions.” Even within a single meet, there’s little oversight for scores. Only the “head judge” on each event can call a conference (a meeting to discuss and change scores), and they can only do so if the start values are wrong or the scores are out of range. In other words, if one judge gives a routine with a visible error a 9.85, and the other one gives it a 10, there’s no recourse: one of those scores may be wrong, but they will stand.
The emphasis in scoring is on speed rather than accuracy. Indeed, the only real oversight that judges get are from coaches themselves, who anonymously evaluate the judges assigned to their meets. Coaches have admitted that they may negatively rate judges who give their gymnasts lower scores, which means judges are incentivized to score highly, lest future assignments be affected.
One other reason for score inflation is that coaches have become adept at playing the code to avoid deductions. In years past, the majority of floor routines included three separate tumbling passes — but today most top floor workers only perform two, as coaches have figured out how to build a floor routine that starts out of a 10 with fewer tumbling skills. And fewer skills, practically speaking, means fewer deductions for judges to take: you can’t take an execution error on a pass that doesn’t exist.
Lineup strategy also contributes to score inflation: aware that judges tend to score the first performer in a lineup lower, in order to leave room for better performances at the end, coaches will often pick particularly clean gymnasts as leadoffs. In an LA Times interview, Emily Lee, UCLA’s leadoff for multiple events, explains that her job is “to box the judges in.” Like a video game player who has figured out all the cheat codes, teams have learned to code-hack gymnastics, leaving the fewest opportunities possible for deductions.
It’s easy to dismiss score inflation as overblown — as just part of the pageantry that surrounds the sport of gymnastics. But gymnastics is a sport, not just an exhibition or an aesthetic art. And it’s a sport that relies on judging, which means if no one can trust the integrity of the scoring, the competition falls apart.
That cynicism has been on full display over the last few weeks, after two upsets at the regional championships where teams qualify for nationals. When Oklahoma won the Norman regional after counting a fall (the largest single deduction in gymnastics), fans wondered if judges were selectively overscoring the home team — and the eventual National Champion — to make sure they made nationals.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the scoring for the Norman regional was appropriate — but with no scoring transparency, and a number of visible scoring errors this season, fans have very little reason to trust the integrity of the process. Athletes and coaches too, sense that scoring is not consistent across conferences and teams. Selena Harris, a star freshman for UCLA gymnastics, told the Daily Bruin that “If we were in the SEC, we would have had a couple of 10s.”
Lorraine Galow, head coach for the University of Bridgeport, wrote on Twitter about the difficulty of explaining to her athletes “why these schools, who I am aware receive significantly more publicity and tv time, receive beyond the benefit of the doubt [from judges]. They receive blatant lack of deductions.”
So what are the solutions to the proliferation of the 10? One popular solution is to increase the difficulty requirements of college gymnastics, with some advocates even calling for the NCAA to adopt the elite gymnastics system of dividing difficulty from execution. The latter will be a difficult sell: women’s college gymnastics will see men’s college gymnastics, which uses the elite scoring system and struggles to attract an audience, as a cautionary tale.
While the elite system likely has little to do with college men’s gymnastics’ troubles, it does not inspire confidence either. Just increasing difficulty requirements might be easier, but while the top programs will likely adapt, lower-ranked programs will struggle, reducing parity in the sport. One easy solution would be to reduce the acceptable judging range for scores from .2 to .1, at least for the highest scoring routines (above a 9.9 or a 9.8), a solution that may make judges hesitate to throw out an exceptionally high score lest their score cause a scoring conference.
The most obvious solution is to implement some level of oversight for judges themselves. Marsden argues that: “the organization that educates, trains, certifies and assigns judges should be willing to provide some type of oversight and accountability for their membership.” Indeed, judges in elite gymnastics do have oversight: the Judge’s Evaluation Program (JEP) identifies judges whose scores reflect bias, or who are out of line with the rules. Only judges whose scoring have been cleared by the JEP will ever get to judge major competitions like the Olympics.
Franck also thinks judges need some level of oversight, but advocates for “better compensation for NCAA judges to incentivize the best and highest trained judges to sign up to judge NCAA,” pointing out that the NCAA is competing with USAG meets, which provide much better payment.
What these solutions have in common is that they will cost money — for a new code, for training, for oversight — and will thus need serious institutional buy-in from gymnastics insiders to happen. And the people who have the most power to change the scoring system are the ones currently benefiting from it. Indeed, while much of the blame has been put on judges, it’s ultimately coaches who will decide how and when the code is changed: any changes to the code will have to go through the NCAA gymnastics committee, which is staffed primarily by coaches. And while fans, gymnasts, and commentators have called for changes, it’s notable that the majority of current coaches have remained silent.
After all, what incentive do coaches have to change the current scoring system? Higher scores mean more audience excitement, more record-breaking meets, an easier time recruiting, and a chance to move up the rankings. Record scores are also massive viewership opportunities: perfect 10 routines by Jordan Chiles, Jessica Hutchinson, and Suni Lee have racked up millions of views on ESPN’s Twitter feed.
At a time when NCAA gymnastics is breaking viewership and attendance records, it’s difficult to imagine why coaches would want to pump on the breaks — even if it’s ultimately to the benefit of the sport. There’s even speculation that media coverage leads to pressure for higher score — the podcast Gymnastic received an anonymous email from a judge explaining that a TV producer came in during a meet and said they wanted to “see some tens tonight.”
The perfect 10 is also a perfect marketing opportunity for NCAA gymnastics because it helps the sport brand itself as the “fun,” “encouraging” version of its elite counterpart. Major outlets love to contrast college gymnastics with elite, with the Washington Post editorializing that “what makes college gymnastics worth watching right now is the joy” in a “noticeable contrast to the Olympics, in which so many young women looked thin and exhausted.” Glamour, too, celebrated gymnastics — specifically UCLA gymnastics — as “shaking the specter of abuse.”
As Jay Clark, LSU’s head coach, said in an interview with the AP, college gymnastics is “a beacon of goodness in our sport right now.” Every time a gymnast dissolves into tears of joy at the sight of her first college 10 as the crowd cheers and her teammates celebrate around her, it reinforces the narrative that NCAA represents the “good” side of gymnastics.
This branding of college gymnastics as safe is all the more necessary for gymnastics marketers because it is not true — at least not always. “The specter of abuse” that people associate with elite gymnastics refers to Larry Nassar, the doctor who abused hundreds of gymnasts during his time at USA Gymnastics.. But Nassar worked in college gymnastics, as a sports doctor for Michigan State University’s gymnastics team, and he abused many MSU students and MSU student-athletes.
As Dvora Meyers has extensively documented, college gymnastics is rife with the same problems of eating disorders, emotional abuse, and pressures to compete injured as elite gymnastics. And the very teams celebrated for “bringing joy to gymnastics” sometimes find themselves in the center of scandal, as UCLA did in 2021 when the team made national headlines for the coaches’ mismanagement of racism. There is a reason college gymnastics wants us looking at the perfect 10, and not looking more closely at the sport’s broader culture.
NCAA gymnastics is one of the fastest-growing women’s sports in terms of viewership; it has incredible potential for growth. And precisely for that reason, it’s hard to imagine the NCAA making a serious change in the scoring system, despite the current levels of outcry. At the end of the touch warmup at major competitions, an announcement goes out, telling judges to “take control of their apparatus.” But while judging controls scoring, no one wants judging to control the narrative of the sport. Gymnasts — not judges — should be in charge of where the sport is headed.
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