Colleges import athletes
from abroad to compete


If you visited me in South Carolina and went along with me to see a tennis match between Coastal Carolina and Winthrop--the colleges with the two top teams in the Big South Conference—you would have heard loud cheering from both teams.

But unless you knew Spanish or Portuguese, you wouldn’t have understood what the Winthrop players were saying. All 15 are foreigners—nearly all from South America.

How come no Americans? First, you should know that the Big South is really a misnomer. It is composed mostly of smaller schools in the Southeast. And it is a weak conference. To be more precise, it should be called the Little South.

Cid Carvalho, Winthrop’s successful coach for the past 20 years, says the only way he can get first-rate players is by looking abroad. He ought to know. It works for him.

Carvahlo's school won the Big South tennis crown in 2003 and 2004. This month, his team made it in three in a row. His players won the 2005 conference championship tournament on April 16 without hardly dropping a set.

Even so, he says recruiting Americans remains a problem. “The level of (American) players I’m looking for want to go to the big schools,” said Carvalho, a native of Brazil. “The top players dream of playing for schools like Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Duke. Nobody dreams of playing for Winthrop…We don’t overlook the Americans. The Americans overlook us.”

Located in the little town of Rock Hill, S.C., Winthrop may be the only Big South school that stocks its entire team with players from abroad. But, by no means, is it the only school importing foreign athletes.

Five of the eight conference schools have more foreigners than Americans on their tennis squads. High Point has 13 foreigners and only 4 Americans, Charleston Southern is 12-3, Liberty is 10-5, and Coastal is 9-6. (At Charleston Southern, all eight players on the men’s team are foreigners.)

Importing athletes—one writer referred to the practice as the “brawn drain”—does not violate NCAA rules. There are no limits.

In fact, the presence of foreign athletes is significant on college varsities all over the country. And the number of foreigners is growing in most college sports—on women’s teams as well as men’s.

When the women’s hockey team at the University of Minnesota Duluth went to the White House after winning its third straight NCAA championship in 2004, the players could say, “Pleased to meet you, President Bush” in six languages.

You’ve heard people put down the New York Yankees by saying, “They have the best team money can buy.” In the years ahead, you might be hearing the same thing said about college teams with foreign athletes.

The NCAA could not immediately provide an up-to-date count of foreign student-athletes in the U.S. But in 1991, its records showed that 8.5 per cent of college athletes were foreigners. By 1996, that percentage had almost doubled and stood at 17.1 per cent. College coaches say they think the numbers are even higher now.

What’s wrong with that? After all, many foreign student-athletes are serious students. They add diversity to a campus. They give it an international tone. They are also often adept at their sport and so raise the level of competition.

“It’s great for American students to have the opportunity to race some of the best in the world and not have to leave their country to do it,” said Karl Byrne of Ireland. Now back in his native land, Byrne ran for Coastal in 2000 and became the Big South 1500 meters champion. “Like the economy, if you take away competition, you’re taking away the quality.”

That’s fine. But foreign athletes also take away the limited number of athletic scholarships from American kids. Every scholarship going to a foreigner means there is one less available for Americans

The irony is that when the foreigner attends a U.S. school, more often than not it is the U.S. taxpayer who is subsidizing his scholarship, which can run up to $35,000 a year. A second irony is that the best of them usually return to their native land to compete against us in the Olympics.

The reality is that recruiting foreign athletes is a way to produce a winning team. That has become the bottom line for many athletic programs.

How do coaches explain that? “We are a country who loves a winner,” said Jody Davis, Coastal’s tennis coach for the past nine years with an over-all 124-51 record. And, he says, it is a fact that coaches in lesser known schools have a tough job recruiting the top American players.

“So they have to look outside of our borders to find good players to compete at the (NCAA) division one level,” Davis said. “I am a patriotic guy. But I’ll tell you the truth: If it comes down to winning, you are going to do what you have to do to win. We are paid to put the best team and the best representatives on the court."

At the same time, Davis says, his foreign players are the “cream of the crop” of international students.”They are great students. They have all graduated. Some have stayed and contributed to our society. I think it’s a complement to our system that they want to be here.”

Ann Dielen of Birmingham Southern, the only Big South tennis coach whose team is made up entirely of Americans, has another outlook. Dielen, women’s coach since 1977, finished third in the conference standings this year with five wins and three losses behind Winthrop (7-0) and Coastal (6-1).

“There is a different kind of pleasure and satisfaction in coaching a team besides winning and going to the NCAA,” she said. “We (coaches) are not here just to win a tennis match. We are here to create a good experience from being on a team--working hard and striving to get better, learning to communicate and deal with all kinds of people.”

However, she added, it all depends on the school’s president and athletic director. “There are a lot of schools where if you don’t win, you’re fired,” she said. “We have a different philosophy at Birmingham Southern. I never felt I’d be fired if I didn’t have a good season, I might have felt I’d be fired if my kids were not going to class or doing well. That’s why I have been able to hang in there for 28 years.”

So there are the pros and cons. What’s the answer?

In my view, there should be a compromise. Allow schools to import foreign athletes--as many as they want--but cap the number of scholarships open to them. No more than 10 or 20 per cent. Everyone is free to apply and come if they meet admission requirements. But they have to pay their own tuition. That would keep a lot more athletic scholarships open to Americans.

What are the chances of that happening? Slim or none, unless a high revenue sport with big media exposure like basketball is involved. But it's not impossible for that to happen.

I’m thinking of a situation where a team with foreign players making up four of its five starters gets to the NCAA tournament finals. The game, of course, would be on national televison.

Then, watch the eyebrows shoot up, and the fur start flying.

©2005 by David Zinman. The Zinman caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.This column first posted April 18, 2005.

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