By Drake Toll | Broadcast Managing Editor
If you told me three days ago that acrobatics and tumbling is a sport, I would have stood firm in disagreement. To me, there was so much that pointed to A&T being an activity — designed as a pastime, not made for primetime. Even with Baylor’s five straight NCATA (National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association) titles and a No. 1 overall preseason ranking, I doubted. And yet, here I am, defending the sport for what it is: a sport.
Collegiate A&T, designated specifically for women, began just a decade ago with the intent of “combining the technique and power of tumbling with the grace and balance of acrobatics gymnastics,” according to a Baylor press release. Felicia Mulkey, Baylor’s head coach, said the formation of A&T was also intended to offer a fulfilling bridge between competitive cheer and more skill-developing athletic competition.
“My passion for the sport of acrobatics and tumbling comes from watching so many women train in the different disciplines of gymnastics over the years only to be left with nothing to do as they entered college,” Mulkey said in an opinion piece in The Guardian.
At its start in 2011, the sport had just six charter schools (including Baylor), yet the NCATA has now expanded to 32 teams for the 2020 campaign. Over the course of nine seasons, the NCATA has held an annual national championship meet in which six universities have hosted title meets and two major universities have claimed rings.
Yet, even with all of its uniformity and success, I’ve stood firm against the idea that A&T is a sport considering the NCAA’s reluctance, or lack of initiative, in sanctioning it. Another hindrance in my support is the lack of disparity among the top teams in the nation since the sport’s conception.
Over the course of the nine years, just two schools, Baylor and Oregon, have won every championship as the Ducks claimed the first four and the Bears own the last five.
Want another interesting nugget?
Felecia Mulkey has been the head coach of each title-winning team. In fact, Mulkey is 53-1 as the Bear’s head coach and has dominated all five national tournaments in her tenure, pairing nicely with her four championships at Oregon.
So, the lack of disparity amongst contenders, minute amount of participating schools, missing NCAA status and even the existence of similar sports such as competitive cheer and gymnastics made me a doubter. And, yes, here I am, still with the goal of convincing you that A&T is undoubtedly a sport. Here we go.
Just because the NCAA does not sanction something, that doesn’t mean it is not a sport. If the lack of NCAA status constitutes not being considered a sport, then rugby, sailing, cricket, snowboarding and field hockey are just physically stimulating activities — and that’s simply not true. Even if you do need the approval of the NCAA to convince you, they have recently voted to make A&T an emerging sport on Division II and Division III levels.
As far as the lack of member schools, that’s rapidly changing. On average, three schools make the major financial decision to add A&T programs every year. At this rate, the number of member universities will double by the end of the current decade and the NCAA’s support will surely aid participation even more.
As Coach Mulkey noted, the invention of A&T also bridges the sports of gymnastics and cheer. It gives athletes the opportunity to partake in a more athletically developing sport than competitive cheer and offers more team opportunity than gymnastics.
And when it comes to the dominance of just two programs, there’s an easy explanation: Coach Mulkey is the best in the nation at her job. Even in an atmosphere of frequent change and adaptation, Mulkey wins based on her unmatchable ability to coach the sport. An 86-3 record in NCATA play and nine national championships overall isn’t due to lack of capability across the board; it’s simply a testament to Mulkey’s skill.
After being a naysayer for so long, I’ve come to grasp that A&T cannot be denied the label of sport. Between the NCAA’s concession and acceptance, the added athletic opportunity not offered in other gym-based sports, the growing participation and dominance of Coach Mulkey due to personal skill more than lack of competition, A&T deserves the respect of a legitimate sport.