Coral’s Quarrels: Gymnastics regular season merits same judging as postseason to ensure fairness
Coach Chris Waller and No. 3 UCLA gymnastics lost to No. 4 Utah by .050 points in their matchup on Sunday afternoon. But each of the two judges gave the athletes from both schools drastically different scores on many routines. (Tanmay Shankar/Assistant Photo editor)
By Coral Smith
February 26, 2020 12:13 am
When Nia Dennis stuck the landing on the final pass of her floor routine Sunday, the junior dropped to the floor as the crowd demanded a perfect 10 for her performance.
But one judge disagreed.
Gymnastics is an inherently subjective sport to judge, but the NCAA should be doing more to ensure fairness across competitions.
When No. 3 UCLA gymnastics (5-2, 3-2 Pac-12) faced off against conference rival Utah on Sunday afternoon, the Bruins trailed by just 0.075 points as both squads approached their best, and final, events – UCLA on floor and Utah on beam. The Bruins’ season-high score of 49.800 ended up being just shy of what they needed to overcome the Utes, who rode a perfect 10.0 to a victory by just .050.
But within the small margin of victory were some discrepancies in the scoring of many routines for both teams, in that the two judges didn’t seem to agree how many points some routines were worth.
NCAA dual meets are judged by a panel of four judges who each cover two events, meaning that two judges cover each event. Each judge scores the routine and then the average score between the two is the gymnast’s official total.
Disagreements between judges are not uncommon in gymnastics, as the nature of the sport means that many possible point deductions are debatable. One judge might think a gymnast took a small hop after a vault, which usually deducts .100 from the score, while another might think it was a large step, which can be worth a larger deduction. And beyond that, there’s always the possibility – however unlikely – that a judge will simply miss a mistake and overscore a routine.
While some of the differences between judges’ scores can seem minimal initially, those minimal disagreements can add up, resulting in drastically different team scores.
The Utes’ floor rotation earned them a team score of 49.475, but when each judge’s scorecards were added up separately, it reveals that the head judge gave the five counting routines a combined score of 49.350. The other judge awarded a drastically higher score of 49.600 – a difference of .250.
A single gymnast’s routine was marked as a 9.700 by the head judge, but was given a score of 9.900 by the other judge, making the averaged score a full tenth of a point different from each of their individual scores.
This disparity was also seen in UCLA’s floor rotation, as the two judges’ scores turned out to be different by .100 points. Three Bruins got 10s from the head judge but a 9.950 from the other.
With the overall margin of victory for Utah being just .050 points, these scoring disagreements might have made the difference in a meet that could have huge postseason implications.
And that’s coming from just one event.
The purpose of having two judges for each event is specifically to reduce the possibility of bias or mistakes, but in reality, having just two judges can still cause huge differences in scoring and spark debates on which team truly deserved a win.
But this occurrence is not an issue during the NCAA championships, because once teams get into the postseason, the judging system changes.
Instead of averaging two scores, postseason competitions have six judges who score each routine. The highest and lowest of the six scores are discarded, and the remaining four are averaged for the gymnast’s final score.
By taking out the outliers of the scores, this system of scoring is more effective at accounting for mistakes and biases that might drastically change the score, and having four scores counted instead of two further balances things out.
Since the solution to this problem is readily available and has been used, the NCAA only needs to implement it during regular-season meets.
The most likely reason for the NCAA not bringing in six judges for every meet is the increased cost of having to fund triple the judges. But it’s only fair for the gymnasts to be able to be scored the same way throughout the year, postseason or not.
While the reasoning for having more judges in the postseason is generally attributed to the relative importance of those national-scale competitions, dual meets such as this last weekend’s can hold almost equal importance in determining teams’ postseason futures.
Only 36 teams make the postseason, and each team’s ranking can determine who they face in regional competitions down the stretch. With UCLA and Utah coming into Sunday’s meet tied for No. 3, this was a matchup that was expected to have far-reaching implications for the rest of the season and the relative ranking of these conference rivals.
Occasional differences in judging are unavoidable, but it’s the responsibility of the NCAA to implement all protocols necessary to decrease their possible impact on the subjectivity that can affect the integrity of the sport.