Last week the annual AAI Award unveiled its nominees for the 2020 season. The AAI Award brands itself as the “Heisman Trophy in gymnastics” and is given to the best gymnast in the country. Normally such an unveiling wouldn’t generate much discussion, but the inclusion of Morgan Porter of Missouri as a nominee caused a bit of a stir on the Gymternet.
It resurfaced an old and hilarious Tweet that went viral on the Gymternet a few years ago. But also a controversy that was widely covered back when it occurred in 2017, but something that I feel should be revisiting in the wake of Porter’s recent nod.
In 2017 Porter pleaded pleaded guilty to passing a bad check. What made the case notable was the person she had stolen from was Storee Yzaguirre, her fellow gymnast and roommate. Porter had essentially stolen from a teammate, an egregious violation of the culture that holds a team together.
It was the way Missouri head coach Shannon Welker responded to the Porter situation that turned a relatively minor incident into a case study of NCAA gymnastics at its worst. For a state that is a factory for the Olympic program, the Missouri Tigers have completely whiffed on tapping into local clubs such as GAGE to establish a top tier college program.
Porter was the exception to that trend. Porter was not only one of the few Missourians on the team, but was destined to be the heart and soul of the program. In 2016 Porter was the SEC Freshman of the Year, the first ever in program history. As a freshman, Porter was already a staple of the team and with three more years of eligibility, was the future of Mizzou gymnastics. Yzaguirre, on the other hand, was from Texas and hadn’t yet had the opportunity to establish herself as a key member of the Mizzou lineup. Her lack of inclusion in previous lineups made Storee easily replaceable.
For Welker, the choice was clear. Welker chose to protect his star gymnast. Porter was suspended for only a single competition, one step above doing absolutely nothing. Perhaps the only reason Porter was suspended at all was because Mizzou had to demonstrate to the public that it had least done something. While Porter got a slap on the wrist, Storee Yzaguirre, the innocent victim in all of this got hammered.
By gymnastics standards this incident received considerable coverage in the local media. As part of large feature on Mizzou gymnastics for KOMU, Yzaguirre was able to tell her side of what happened next. In a meeting with Welker he:
“…basically just told me that I was never going to compete, and he wasn’t going to let me and if I wanted to do college gymnastics that I couldn’t do it here at Mizzou. I was released from the team about two and a half weeks before school started, kind of leaving me without time to transfer.”
Welker hadn’t just given his star gymnast a pass, but had specifically penalized the teammate she had victimized. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of what else KOMU found.
As part of its report, KOMU discovered Mizzou gymnastics had recently lost eight gymnasts for reasons other than injury or graduation – a startling figure compared to the rest of the SEC. The gymnastics programs of the seven other SEC schools had a median of 2.00 departures and an average of 2.42 departures in the same time frame.
Yzaguirre wasn’t so much a one-off, but an established pattern of Mizzou forcing gymnasts off its team. KOMU specifically referenced quotes from Welker claiming they left to “pursue other interests” which was said in response to three of those gymnasts. One of the those gymnasts was Jordyn Doherty who specifically cites Welker removing her from the team. In yet another case involving a fourth gymnast, Welker said the following in regards to the departure of Rachel Updike:
“I think Rachel just had some personal reasons for leaving that, quite honestly, I don’t fully understand.”
But to KOMU Updike cites a contract Welker attempted to coerce her into signing that detailed her athletic plans for the year. Examining the quotes of Doherty and Updike suggest Welker to be a compulsive liar. Routinely claiming gymnasts leave Mizzou gymnastics on their own initiative, when he is actually kicking them off the team. Going as far as to express shock and oblivion at “their” departure in the process.
If Welker’s quotes in regards to the departure of Rachel Updike were bad, this story gets a whole lot worse. Updike requested to transfer schools and finish her college gymnastics career elsewhere, but Mizzou blocked it.
To give some context: back in 2014, NCAA institutions had the ability to significantly disrupt the transfer process. They can limit who their athletes can talk to, and even prevent an athlete from earning a scholarship on the new team the student-athlete wishes to play for. To be clear, a student-athlete can transfer anywhere and even play anywhere, it is the type of rights the student has as an athlete at said new school that gets restricted.
Personally, it is the most rage-inducing aspect of NCAA athletics. On one hand, the NCAA says that student-athletes are students first and athletes second to justify not paying them. But then on the other hand, the NCAA allows athletic considerations to limit the options of someone seeking a transfer which is the biggest academic decision a college student can make.
It is perhaps the most hypocritical arrangement in all of sports that the NCAA simultaneously argues “students first, athlete second” while their transfer process puts student-athletes in a position where athletic considerations significantly restrict the biggest academic decision of their life. The NCAA claims athletics is simply a tool to promote education to justify not giving student-athletes a share of the revenue they help generate for the school, as well as running sports teams at a net-loss and using student fees to cover their losses. But the NCAA will then deny a student that “tool to promote education” in the name of catering to the whims of an athletic administration of an entirely different school.
Gymnastics fans are familiar with the movement to start paying NCAA athletes, most notably because Katelyn Ohashi is a strong supporter of it. One positive impact the movement has already done is forcing the NCAA to fix its existing flaws such as transfer restrictions to prevent having that hypocrisy brought up in court and tank their defense on a more important issue such as paying players. It is for this reason that there has been general improvement on transfer rights since 2014.
The most high profile case involving the blocking of transfers occurred with Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan. It involved a player by the name of Jarrod Uthoff being blocked from transferring to two conferences, the ACC and Big Ten. The reason those two conferences were selected was due to Wisconsin being a Big Ten school and the Big Ten having a scheduling alliance with the ACC. Wisconsin had specifically chosen only schools that had a high probability of being a future basketball opponent.
After public backlash, Wisconsin removed the restriction on the ACC. A near identical case happened with Missouri basketball where a player by the name of Johnathan Williams III was restricted from both the Big 12 and SEC, only for the Big 12 restriction to later be rescinded.
Missouri blocked Rachel Updike from transferring to any FBS school with women’s gymnastics. For comparison, the FBS level is the size of ten conferences. FBS is where all the major football programs operate and has the most luxurious accommodations for its student-athletes. Of the 32 nominees for the 2020 AAI Award, 29 of them came from FBS schools. By blocking Updike from FBS, Missouri was essentially blocking her from every major gymnastics program.
Note: Only Denver with its unique combination of having a strong gymnastics program but no football program was spared.
Wisconsin and Missouri basketball had specifically targeted schools that had a high probability of being on their future schedule to justify their actions. It demonstrated that as cruel as their actions were, it wasn’t meant to punish the departing players, but rather to prevent their falling into the hands of one of their direct rivals.
In the case of Missouri gymnastics, they completely disregarded any attempt to demonstrate they weren’t punishing Rachel Updike. There was little tactical reason for most of the schools they selected. Updike had been blocked from schools located in all four corners of the country. The lone non-FBS school Updike included on her list of potential new schools was Southeast Missouri State. Mizzou blocked that school as well under the guise of blocking her from all schools with gymnastics programs in the state of Missouri.
Wisconsin blocked Jarrod Uthoff from 6% of all Division I basketball programs and 40% of high resource NCAA conferences. It was seen as over the line and after public backlash, Wisconsin cut their restrictions in half. In the case of Rachel Updike, Mizzou blocked her from 71% of all Division I programs, and 100% of high resource conferences. Effectively working to knock her out of high level college gymnastics entirely.
In the case of Morgan Porter, Mizzou had specifically sought the smallest penalty it had available. In the case of Rachel Updike, Mizzou tried to inflict the maximum amount of damage on her gymnastics career that it could bring. Like Rachel Updike, Storee Yzaguirre also alleged that she had been removed from the team in a way that damaged her transfer prospects. For coach Shannon Welker, it wasn’t enough to kick them off Mizzou gymnastics, he tried to ruin the rest of their careers as well. Worst of all, he succeeded. Neither athlete returned to college gymnastics.
While Shannon Welker was allegedly mistreating his gymnasts in a way that was unique to the NCAA, he was also doing it in a way quite familiar at the elite level. Among the allegations in the KOMU article:
In the case of Jordyn Doherty she alleged Welker tried to push her through an injury that involved torn ligaments and was quoted as saying:
“I was trying to get across to Shannon that I can barely walk. Like I really need you to work with me here.”
Doherty would also allege she was pressured into harmful eating habits:
“I was going to the extent of taking laxatives and not eating. And when I was eating, I was eating celery, and I don’t like celery at all. But I was holding my nose just to get celery down just to get something in my body.”
The pressure to compete through injury and extreme dieting are frequently cited criticisms of Team USA’s abusive training methods during the Karolyi era. Another abuse allegation that is alleged against both Mizzou and USAG is mental abuse where gymnasts are isolated from the rest of the team. Lark Pokladnik recounted a story where she was prevented from traveling with the team and stated the following:
“He was definitely intentionally trying to keep me out. Like, just to get me off the team. Just to say that there wasn’t proof that I was contributing.“
While Mizzou was checking all the boxes of what is typically seen in an out of control gymnastics program, there was one final box to check when it came to how the school dealt with Morgan Porter. Storee Yzaguirre claimed when she brought up the incident to Welker, he told her he “wanted to have us handle this internally.”
What exactly Welker meant by that is unclear. But one thing that is clear is this alleged quote was said in regards to a very serious matter that absolutely should not be handled internally. Porter does not have a felony conviction on her record. After going through the legal process she ended up pleading guilty only to a misdemeanor. It was at the beginning of the legal process that Porter’s case was being treated as a felony and it was under that context that Welker first became aware of the events that had transpired.
Porter was initially arrested on suspicion of felony fraudulent use of a credit device and initially suspended under a Mizzou felony policy. The felony aspect of this story later went away, but that was the way it had been initially treated and how Welker should have treated it. This was a situation that from an ethical perspective, absolutely had to involve the police. It had occurred while Missouri was having some of its best results in the sport in years. As Storee Yzaguirre put it:
“I feel like Shannon is working pretty hardly against me in this case. Morgan is probably the best one on the team, so I think he’s fighting really hard for her.”
It begs the question, did Welker remove Yzaguirre from the team because it was unfeasible to keep her on the same team as Porter and have such a rift exist between two members of the same team? Or was it a punishment because Yzaguirre defied his alleged request to deal with the incident internally? The “internal” component of this story is the most alarming aspect of this case, and the most comparable to the conduct of Steve Penny.
I would like to say this is an isolated case, but there are other examples of NCAA programs having problems. A former Iowa State gymnast wrote a feature on her experiences as a gymnast that reflects quite poorly on the college system. The recent conviction of former Michigan State head coach Kathie Klages for her role in the Nassar scandal serves as the ultimate example as to just how disgusting a college coach can be.
The NCAA has a well earned reputation for being a safe haven for gymnasts who came from the club program/elite level. College gymnastics is often where former elites enjoy some of the best days of their athletic career such as Katelyn Ohashi. But that experience isn’t universal for all NCAA gymnasts.
Iowa State, Missouri, and Michigan State all have a similar profile. They are all high resource schools at the P5 level. They are also mid-level gymnastics programs that don’t enjoy the same success and thus don’t receive the same attention as the more iconic programs. Without talented rosters dominated by former big name elites. Without a talented coach who can use his or her superior coaching ability to effectively train a less talented gymnast and make her better, what happens to a college program?
The answer is often a mentality where a coach resorts to the same abusive coaching practices that are so notorious in the American Olympic program. This is not to imply that the top programs don’t have their own problems as well, only to demonstrate that we keep seeing problems pop up in these lesser known programs. The same programs that aren’t held to a magnifying glass as is the case with UCLA, but perhaps they should.
This is the final similarity between Mizzou gymnastics and USAG/The Ranch. The spotlight isn’t on Olympic gymnastics with the exception of a brief period that comes once every four years. Like USAG/The Ranch, Mizzou operates in a system where it isn’t subjected to the same magnifying glass of more popular programs. Allowing a scandal to make its rounds in the local media, but failing to lead to change or consequence for the perpetrators.
For Storee Yzaguirre, the consequences were the total destruction of her gymnastics career. Storee graduated from Missouri and is currently continuing her education at the University of North Texas. It marked Storee’s return to the same city where her old gymnastics club is located and is a few miles from where she grew up. Storee is working towards a career in pharmacy.
Storee’s legendary Tweet is just the beginning of her creativity and wit. Her Mizzou graduation cap read “future drug dealer.” In a social media post Storee posted a picture of herself in a gymnastics pose while standing on The Columns which is the University of Missouri’s most famous and recognizable landmark. The caption read:
“You can take the girl out of gymnastics.. or try to at least.“
The gymnastics legacy of Storee Yzaguirre is another example of how these athletes always seem to bounce back so well when someone or something tries to knock them down. For Morgan Porter that “something” that knocked her down was her own actions. But like so many gymnasts and like Storee, Porter bounced back.
Morgan Porter is not the villain in this story. She was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation, 40 hours of community service, and is not allowed to contact Yzaguirre. For Porter, the biggest impact this incident will have on her life is the fact the Internet is written in ink. For the foreseeable future anyone who crosses paths with Porter will be one Google search away from uncovering her past, and an unflattering mug shot to go with it.
Just two weeks after returning from her suspension Porter tore her Achilles tendon. Porter’s 2020 AAI Award nomination was the byproduct of commendable grit, hard work, and overcoming injury. The negative reaction thrown Porter’s way is what happens when a person tarnishes her own name. All Porter has accomplished since the incident which includes academic honors is still being overshadowed by a mistake from the past. Porter has no one to blame but herself. She should have known that as a renowned Mizzou gymnast, getting arrested was going to draw considerable attention and a mention in the press.
Porter’s actions can be viewed as an unredeemable character flaw that proves she doesn’t have and never will have the right moral standards. Others will view it as a mistake, a momentary lapse in judgement, a learning experience, and ultimately should be forgiven for. Porter was only 19 years old at the time of the incident. An age low enough that people frequently cite youth as a reason to not judge someone so harshly for their mistakes.
The real villain of this story is Shannon Welker and the Mizzou administration that supports his coaching style. Below I have attached five quotes from the KOMU article that give an insight as to why a school that operates in the shadow of GAGE can’t seem to tap into its domestic gymnastics resources. And at the bottom of this article is the legendary Tweet that comes with it a story of college gymnastics at its worst.
“There was not a day that I walked into the gym excited to be there. Every day I went in I was like, ‘What torture am I going to experience today?”
“I could see the way he treated other girls. I knew it wasn’t right.”
“I would want to find a gymnastics program with a coach that I knew truly cared about me as a person and I don’t think that that is found here with Coach Welker.”
“To the recruits that are coming in, don’t. Don’t even try. Go somewhere you’re gonna have an amazing experience. Go somewhere where you’re gonna get that because you’re not gonna get that here, not with Shannon.”
“I remember a girl from my club team who was visiting Missouri for like an opportunity to go there and I remember like texting her and being like ‘Do not go there.'”
Correction: The original version of this article stated Mizzou blocked Rachel Updike from 76% of all Division I programs with gymnastics. The correct figure is 71%.