You know what we say in America. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Also, your sprinters and triple jumpers, midfielders and goalies, swimmers and divers, and just about any kid with a backhand good enough to rank him or her among the top 500, worldwide. We'll take 'em all. We'll take them because we are a good and generous nation, and we believe in the universality of man and the benefits of cultural integration. We believe, too, in the importance of—and this is just an example—the SEC track and field championships. We believe very much in that.
This is an article from the June 6, 1994 issue
In case you haven't noticed, we have taken enough huddled masses that college sports have become a melting pot, each school's admissions office an Ellis Island unto itself. You might not notice it in the so-called revenue sports, football and basketball, which are the games that U.S. athletes are most keenly interested in (although 35 foreign basketball players dotted the rosters of teams in the men's NCAA tournament this year), but in sports like golf, soccer, swimming, tennis and track and field, the college scene is decidedly international. For instance:
•In last week's NCAA tennis championships 33 of the 64 players in the men's singles draw were foreign. An American, Mark Merklein from the University of Florida, was the winner, but the other three semifinalists all came from overseas.
•The winning team at last week's NCAA women's golf tournament, Arizona State, included on its roster the top junior players from France, Mexico and Sweden.
•Sixteen of the 31 swimmers on this year's Arizona State men's team were foreign, as were 12 of the 25 male swimmers at Nebraska.
•The University of New Mexico's men's and women's ski teams, which together had 22 members, were dominated by 19 athletes from other countries.
•When Track & Field News previewed the NCAA track championships, which begin this week in Boise, Idaho, of the 168 men it predicted would score points, 54 were foreign-born, as were 43 of the 152 women.
•It's not just the big schools that are searching for talent abroad. For one example, of the 17 tennis players on the men's and women's rosters at Northeastern Louisiana this season, only two listed a hometown in the U.S. (They were Nhut and Anh Diep, of Houston.) Likewise, Barber-Scotia College, a historically black school of 400 students in Concord, N.C., had an all-Nigerian tennis team that was ranked nationally in the NAIA.
All this importation of talent is done by certain schools to stay competitive. Ask why NCAA track and field qualifying standards are nearly as high as those of the Olympics, and Alabama track coach Doug Williamson will tell you, "It's these young people [read: foreigners] who have elevated the level of competition."
But while foreigners have elevated the level of competition in college sports, their importation has become so pervasive and purposeful that the phenomenon has gone beyond being interesting to being controversial. Some Americans are tolerant of their international brethren only as long as the neighbor boy, who has gone to all those tennis camps, for god's sake, doesn't get cut out of a scholarship at, say, Mississippi State, which this year reached the national semifinals thanks largely to four players from France. That's when Americans start to worry: Why do so many schools feel they need to be powerhouses in a nonrevenue sport like tennis? And did U.S. women fight so hard for Title IX just to give all that opportunity to foreigners? And how many competent U.S. athletes are relegated to intramural teams because their athletic departments are hellbent to win titles?
Perennial Olympian Carl Lewis thinks U.S. universities ought to buy American almost exclusively. "We're putting tax money into people who then beat us [in international competitions]," he says. "By recruiting foreigners, we are taking away scholarships from American high school kids. We are excluding no telling how many of our own athletes, and they have nowhere else to go."
But college coaches say, Get real. Many of them, especially at smaller schools, insist that they cannot draw top U.S. talent to their programs but that they are nevertheless driven by the same competitive pressures that are applied at big schools. Barber-Scotia's tennis coach, William Madre, says that his team, which was discontinued after this season, was all Nigerian because he had nowhere else to recruit: "You have to understand that the [American] black tennis player won't come to Barber-Scotia. We don't have the exposure or facilities for them. The best will go to the big white schools, just like basketball and football players."
Predictably, proposals to cap scholarships for foreign-born athletes have started to crop up. The Intercollegiate Tennis Association recently voted in favor of a proposal that would require schools to give 50% of their scholarships to Americans. (The ITA has hired lawyers to find out if the rule will hold up legally; if it does, the ITA will try to get the NCAA to adopt the proposal as legislation.) The National Junior College Athletic Association has gone further: In 1992 it passed a rule that allows schools to give only 25% of their yearly scholarships in all sports to foreigners.
The practice of recruiting top foreign players by phone may be widespread now, but smart coaches were doing this years ago. Back in 1971 Washington State track coach John Chaplin dialed up a tavern in a small town in County Kerry, Ireland, where distance runner Daniel Murphy lived. The lady at the pub asked Chaplin to hold while she hiked over to fetch Murphy, who had no phone. Chaplin, who ran up a $147.50 tab on that call, says the athletic department raised hell about the charge, but then, Murphy did become a three-time All-America for the Cougars.
Another track coach undaunted by overseas phone rates was Ted Banks, perhaps the pioneer in international recruiting, at UTEP. He lured all manner of distance runners from Africa and won a slew of NCAA titles in the 1970s. Annoyed rivals couldn't argue with his success so they nagged him about the ages of his runners, some of whom were in their 30's. The NCAA finally passed a rule in 1980 that set some age limits. It took away a year of eligibility for every year of organized competition the athlete had participated in after the age of 20.
Nowadays recruiting overseas is easier than it used to be. In those sports in which many of the biggest stars are not Americans—golf, skiing, soccer, tennis and track—colleges can easily establish pipelines to even the most remote outposts. No sooner will a school attract an athlete from a foreign country than word of mouth will prompt legions of the athlete's countrymen to begin badgering the importing coach for scholarships.
There's no better place to see how all this works than the state of Alabama, which to judge from its athlete population is more international than a house of pancakes. Visits to several schools there, big and small, showed that it's just about impossible to wander about the athletic facilities without hearing a Jamaican lilt or the clipped British accent of Africans along with the traditional Southern drawl. There are Germans, Swedes, Spaniards and Egyptians at Alabama colleges. There are Turks, Poles and French. There are Australians and Mexicans and Brazilians and Israelis. Name a country. Sri Lanka? Well, there's Aasiri Iddamalgoda, who plays tennis for Division II Jacksonville State.
The track team at the University of Alabama has more than its share of these exotics. Williamson, who admits he was a flag-waving chest thumper when he was a high school coach, saw the light after he got to the college level and realized what it took to compete. It took foreigners. "I'd love to recruit just in Tuscaloosa," he says, "but if I have to go to Birmingham because there's a better athlete, I will."
He must mean Birmingham, England. In building a track power, Williamson has gone even farther than that. Like to Ghana. He was invited there in 1989 to stage a clinic, and he made enough friends to establish a recruiting network. There has been no looking back (or going back, for that matter; another trip to Africa isn't in the budget). The imports work hard, study hard and seem to appreciate everything that's given them—they're coaches' dreams, in other words. "You have to understand that this is the opportunity of a lifetime for them," says Williamson. ' "They're not about to misuse it."
The chance to play sports and thereby get an education is a powerful attraction to any student from a developing nation. Even so, it takes an adventuresome youngster to leave his or her family and travel across oceans to a new land. There are so many things to get used to in this strange American life. "Like pizza," says Alabama's Andrew Owusu, a long jumper from Ghana. "My second week, they took me out for pizza. But I tried to put the wide end into my mouth, not the pointy part. They laughed at me for weeks."
While only 13 of the 52 athletes on Alabama's men's and women's track teams are from countries outside North America, 11 of those 13 have been All-Americas. This is how the level of competition gets ratcheted up. "We could have only Americans," says Williamson, who is disturbed by the antiforeign sentiment among fellow coaches, "but we'd be back to breeding mediocrity. I guess that's the American way."
At Jacksonville State (enrollment 8,200) the top spots on the men's and women's tennis teams this year belonged to foreigners. But this is how it is in almost all of collegiate tennis. Because there is virtually no college tennis in any other part of the world, any junior not quite good enough for the pro tour—ranked lower than 300 among the world's players, say—is available to an American university. That's quite a pool of talent.
The coaches say they need these foreigners to fill out their teams. "We almost have more scholarships [than top-quality American players to fill them]," says Scott Novak, the tennis coach at South Alabama, where the men's and women's teams are dominated by South Africans.
As for the foreign athletes, most do not look at the college system as an extended tennis clinic—take the classes and run, once that serve is perfected. Iddamalgoda, like many in the international set, has no illusions that he'll have a pro career, no matter how well he does at Jacksonville State. He plays tennis in exchange for an education. "In my country, there are not so many universities," he says. "Not everybody can go, like here. There is a good chance I would not have qualified." And he willingly makes sacrifices, beyond attending tennis practice, to get that education. Like many men tennis players at all colleges, he has only a partial scholarship. His family must send him money to keep him in school.
At Alabama A&M (enrollment 5,500), in Huntsville, the soccer team is about half African. Always has been, probably always will be. Soccer development in the U.S. will never match that of countries in which soccer is the national sport. Salah Yousif, a native of Ethiopia who came to Alabama A&M as an economics professor in 1976, noticed a surprising number of foreigners on campus and persuaded the school to allow him to begin a soccer program for them. The track coach gave him $25, which he used to buy mesh jerseys for the players; that was the soccer team's entire athletic budget that season. The next year the Bulldogs won the Division II championship. They kept wearing those jerseys for two more seasons. "Listen, my friend," Yousif says, "we didn't have a soccer field, didn't have goal posts, except for two trash cans. The players didn't see goal posts until we played a game."
The program, such as it was, would never have attracted any decent U.S. players. "Believe me, my friend," Yousif says, "I can't show them any carpeted locker room." So he recruits from his home continent. Word of mouth is enough to keep him fully supplied with Ethiopians and Ugandans. And 90% of them have graduated, most of them with degrees in engineering and computer science. Most then return home.
For years it was popular to complain about programs like Yousif's. Joe Morrone, who built a powerhouse soccer program at the University of Connecticut with U.S. players, admits to having looked askance at Alabama A&M, which nearly beat his Huskies for the national championship in 1981. Morrone felt it was unfair to use imports, players so advanced in soccer and so driven to excel that their U.S. counterparts from the more comfortable suburbs could never match up with them.
But lately Morrone has noticed that athletic directors are starting to pay attention to the nonrevenue sports, too. "There's more pressure to win," he says. "I'm starting to feel it now. Coaches are being encouraged to leave. It's all different. For me, well, during the 1980s we'd been in the tournament nine of 10 years and in three Final Fours, and we won one national championship, staying with the American player. Last four years, we haven't been in a tournament. I'll be frank with you. Next year we just may have a player from abroad."