Reading through the recent round of articles, letters and comments related to the friction between USSS and NCAA skiing, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “Same team! Same team!” Anyone who read through all of the contributions can likely appreciate how frustrating and fruitless it feels when people dig in on one “side” of a discussion that was never meant to be binary. Life’s big choices are rarely black and white, and what has motivated and fueled this discussion is less a contest to prove what or who is “right,” and more a desire for recognition and cooperation.
This potential cooperation is based on a few assumptions. The first is that we all want to improve our current system versus maintain the status quo. Improving means being innovative, proactive, inclusive and collaborative versus being rigid, reactive, exclusive and defensive. The second basic assumption is that we, as a country would logically want to utilize all the resources available to develop ski racers, by aligning them towards a common goal. The shots on goal math here seems pretty straightforward: More enthusiastic skiers at the bottom + more competition in the middle = more fast skiers at the top. If we can agree on those two things, we can move forward together. If not, we retreat to our various corners.
Still in the ring? Great!
This brings us to a third assumption which is this: We all like free stuff. Let’s be honest here—skiers, faced with a very expensive habit, find special delight in all things free. Whose heart hasn’t revved a bit when passing a sample tent of your favorite energy bars, or winning the goggles at the Warren Miller Movie? Free is good.
As Richard Rokos wrote in his piece that describes the potential advantages in a more cooperative approach to development: “For the NGB, this is an opportunity to broaden the developmental base of elite skiers in the United States. The best part — it’s free!”
The comments around this conversation about ski racing reveal that there is some confusion about how the term “free” is being used. Here, I hope to shed light on the basic but important concept of “free” that is at the heart of this topic and also the general topic of development.
But first, the disclaimer. This analysis of all things free, as with much of the recent conversation, does put more of the onus on the NGB than on NCAA skiing. That may appear one-sided, but the NGB holds all the power of World Cup and Olympic starts, and USSS has struggled to translate the often-promised collaborative spirit into practice. That said, this is most definitely a two-way street, and NCAA ski programs as a whole must continually and actively pursue ways to raise their game and push for continuous improvement. Some are well-oiled ski racing development machines and others are not. Perhaps more programs would be motivated to join that first group if there was strong mutual recognition that USSS and NCAA skiing stand to benefit from each other’s success. Now, back to the free stuff.
What’s free about college?
First, a closer look at the college resources referred to by Rokos and others. A college education, except for the very, very few who get full scholarships is not free. Ski racing while in college is also decidedly not free. In the context of this discussion, however, all of the time, effort and money a college spends on an athlete’s development post high school are resources the NGB is not spending, on an athlete who would otherwise leave the sport. Current U.S. Ski Team athletes Jett Seymour and Sam DuPratt, in their letters, aptly described how these resources can both fill the cracks in an elite path, and keep the dream alive. Harnessing all the resources provided to NCAA skiers, by authentically accepting and embracing NCAA skiing as a potential path, rather than penalizing or denigrating that pedigree, is 100 percent free. I asked college coaches to describe the resources available to their alpine skiing athletes. Those resources, especially when looked at in aggregate, are multifaceted and significant.
These are the basics:
Scholarships and financial aid
Division 1 schools can offer athletic scholarships, which can add up to $80,000/year with books, room and board, and stipend. Any team can give, at most, 6.3 men and 7 women scholarships, spread in any way among their roster of alpine and Nordic athletes. The Ivy League and NESCAC schools do not offer athletic scholarships, but, contrary to comments on the topic, many skiers do avail themselves of substantial need-based scholarships, bringing the cost of racing for an NCAA program well below the cost of ski racing during a PG year. (Each NCAA ski team supports between 6-12 men and women on their alpine rosters.)
All NCAA athletes have access to the varsity gym and a staff of athletic trainers and team doctors throughout the year. The athletic facilities, in many cases eclipse what any NGB anywhere could provide its athletes. Among them are Colby College’s $220 million Athletic Center opening this fall, and CU Boulder’s $370 million Champions Center. In aggregate, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in training facilities, not to mention training, medical and sports science staff.
Nearly all the programs have early season on-snow camps, requiring, at most, a small contribution from the athletes. All programs pay for uniforms, training gear and in season travel, training and racing costs. Some programs pay for or subsidize equipment and all provide both tuning space and tuning equipment. Most schools pay for some amount of FIS racing, some including NorAms and National Championships. This support can add up to $10,000 or more per athlete, not including coaches’ salaries and cost of athletic department support. According to one NCAA coach, his athletes who are hitting the highest level of NorAm and nationals pay $1000-2,000 per year out of pocket for all their ski racing, apart from whatever summer training they can arrange.
In addition to training facilities, healthcare and insurance, most colleges also provide a fleet of full-time specialists in sports nutrition, sports psychology, physical therapy and mental health. Many schools offer wellness, nutrition and sports psychology classes and seminars throughout the year. These are the things, beyond actual training, that become more valuable at the highest level of elite competition. At smaller colleges like Colby Sawyer College, the exercise and sports science department offers both a training resource and a hands-on major, while Dartmouth’s Peak Performance program shows how colleges can bring together the might of all their institutional resources to promote physical, intellectual, personal and career growth.
Expenses that are not covered by the school are often covered by robust and geographically diverse “friends of” donor networks of alumni and boosters. These enthusiastic and generous friends are potential fans and supporters of U.S. skiing, especially when a collaborative posture between the NGB and these institutions, shows that “their” teams are part of a healthy “one team” ecosystem.
Time is money
Another major freebie that four years of college offers is time. For every athlete who just needs food water and sunlight to gain the physical or emotional maturity to compete internationally, college is a productive place to do that growing. After four years, whether they are ready to make that step, or have stalled or topped out, it didn’t cost the NGB a dime. As one coach put it, “It’s like picking up an extra (well-charged) battery laying along the road, and it is free. All they need to do is bend down and grab it.”
Attitude is free
The most valuable potential assets in the “free” column are everyday behaviors and attitude. This is the free stuff that is easy to nail persistently and naturally, if it matters to a team or a club or an organization. Otto Tschudi, in his piece on finding solutions, uses a business analogy to explain how this works: “If leadership can project a more ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ outlook, the door opens, and necessary collaborative conversations can take place.” We can all help foster a more inclusive attitude throughout the sport, if we nail behavior and attitude.
What motivated the letters from the NCAA women was not a demand for funding or roster spots. It was simply a desire for recognition and cooperation. As their letter stated: “There are many routes to achieving success in this sport – all of them involving hard work and dedication – and we hope this letter encourages skiers to view the collegiate circuit as a possible pathway to help them achieve their goals.” Cost to acknowledge? Free!
To be sure, some individual letters got personal when they touched on the bad behavior these athletes experienced. Those stories are real. They can easily become the third rail of the conversation, electrifying it, or they can become an opportunity to listen, acknowledge, learn and find a way forward together.
Talk is cheap, action is priceless
Getting the conversation back on the rails is also free, and it starts with a genuine desire to get better as a community and as a sport, as individuals and as valued members of one team. If positive change is what we want, we need to make sure this conversation doesn’t just quiet down and fade away, as difficult conversations tend to do. For all the skiers who share the conviction that we can do better in this sport as a country, with the talent and resources available to us, these are just a few actions available in the free box.
- It’s free to be curious, ask questions, seek information and learn about issues and perspectives you don’t fully understand.
- When someone feels mistreated or misunderstood, it’s free to look deeper instead of looking away or lashing out.
- It’s free to ask, “What went wrong?”, “How can we understand?” and “How can we do better?”
- It’s free to treat people with respect and a friendly, encouraging manner. This sport is hard enough without having to also wrangle egos, turf wars and hostility.
- It’s free to acknowledge and understand the unique challenges of fellow athletes who have fully committed to their best available path.
- It’s free to disagree with an approach without discrediting it.
- It’s free to keep the dream alive by highlighting possibilities instead of fixating on shortcomings.
- At every level, its free to communicate with athletes, even those on the wrong side of the bubble. Returning calls and emails, or just checking in says, “We know you’re out there. We’ll leave the light on!”
- It’s free to come to the table with an open mind and a genuinely positive attitude towards finding solutions to improve all athlete experiences.
We’re lucky this little sport has so many people who care enough to engage so fervently and thoughtfully in this discussion. Creating and supporting options for athletes who want to develop their full ski racing potential goes beyond simply NCAA and USSS, and into the broader skiing community. There are far more than two stakeholders and a couple of hot-button issues here.
In his letter Sam DuPratt, after using an outstanding boat metaphor, puts forth a very reasonable plea: “To all the people making these decisions, please make it as fair as possible, that is all anyone asks.”
As Patricia Mangan suggests, “The solution only becomes clear if we as a nation take a step back and realize we’re all working towards the same goal. We need to help each other instead of getting in each other’s way and actively preventing success. Increased transparency and candid communication would be a good starting point.”
While we’re at it, let’s play to our strengths and score all the free stuff we can.