NCAA men’s gymnastics: Air Force vs. Oklahoma Week 2 meet nullified for use of improper format

By Patricia Duffy | February 7, 2024
Oklahoma head coach Mark Williams at the 2022 NCAA Men's Gymnastics Championships.
© Amy Sanderson/Gymnastics Now

The results of the January 13 meet between Air Force and Oklahoma’s NCAA men’s gymnastics teams have been nullified, Gymnastics Now learned Tuesday.

Oklahoma head coach Mark Williams was notified on January 30 that a complaint was filed with the NCAA Rules Committee pertaining to the format of the meet (traditional block rotation vs. head-to-head), and as a result, the committee had voted to nullify both Oklahoma and Air Force’s team scores while individual athletes could continue to use their scores for national rankings.

“At our home opener on January 13th, a dual meet with Air Force, we competed using a traditional block, rotation format (one team on floor, the other on pommel horse, then switching and continuing through all events in Olympic order), with a traditional two-minute, one-touch before each event,” Williams said. “We did this because I erroneously believed we could, as coaches, agree to format changes for our regular season events, in the same way equipment changes are allowed in our rules. This was an error on my part, as a recent rules modification dictates all regular season dual meets MUST be run using the head-to-head format (both teams competing on the same event, alternating athletes), without exception.”

Williams appealed the decision on January 31 and was notified yesterday, February 6, that the appeal was rejected and the penalty would stand.

“While I disagree with the severity of the penalty, I accept and respect the Rules Committee’s decision,” Williams said. “I am sharing this solely for transparency and explanation purposes as we move on with our season and do not plan any further comment.”

In Williams’ appeal below, he expressed concerns about the head-to-head format despite its adoption to seemingly improve the meet experience, including athlete safety and fans leaving during the longer shared warmup period, as well as judging concerns.

Mark Williams’ appeal to the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Rules Committee on decision regarding Air Force vs. Oklahoma meet results

I am in receipt of your letter regarding meet format, and, with respect, would like to submit a formal appeal of the committee’s decision. As explained in my previous email,  we didn’t use the head-to-head format in our home opener on January 13 because I mistakenly believed that clearing the meet format with the opposing coach, in writing, a week prior to the meet, was what was required, conflating it with our rules about equipment changes and earlier drafts of the rule I’d voted upon as a member of the College Gymnastics Association. 

I acknowledge, as I have previously, that was an error on my part. I should have consulted the formal rulebook, rather than just my memory, but the integrity of the meet, and its result, was in no way compromised by running the competition via the traditional format—the same meet format used by every single non-dual contest on the NCAA men’s gymnastics calendar. There was no competitive advantage, or disadvantage, for either team in the meet, nor any other team competing across the nation. Judging was exactly the same, and the meet WAS run with each athlete going one at a time in order for the audience, in the arena and on television, to watch all routines without overlap, just as they would have used for a head-to-head competition, which I believe is a relevant distinction, as I was absolutely abiding by the spirit of the rule.

The penalty applied–dismissal of our team score–seems wildly out of line with a small, technical infraction that had no impact on the outcome of the event. There is also nothing written in our rulebook that dictates this specific, or any, penalty for not following the head-to-head meet format, which is not used anywhere else in the gymnastics world. As a sport, we have multiple regular season tri-meets, opens and invites, as well as all post-season events, run in exactly the same way as our meet was conducted. Will also reiterate that I wasn’t intentionally flouting any rules, as our meet was nationally televised, so was in no way attempting to conceal or keep anyone from being aware of how our meet was conducted.

To briefly summarize our reasons for using the traditional competition format over head-to-head…All our meets are nationally televised, and the producers informed me in the weeks leading up to the broadcast, that they preferred the two-minute touch warm-ups before each event to accommodate planned commercial breaks and avoid dead/down time in the broadcast. 

At that point, I discussed the meet with the opposing coach, Josh Loeser, and we agreed that we preferred a two-minute touch before each event of the traditional format, each expressing concerns about athlete safety in the extended and shared warm-ups dictated by head-to-head competition. The combined warm-up time is simply insufficient when split between teams, particularly on parallel bars and high bar where bar prep and setting is something you can practice among your own team for a two-minute touch, but not with another, with the end result of far more wasted time, and everyone rushing and feeling as if they didn’t get a real feel for the equipment. This makes it difficult for everyone, but particularly disadvantages an opposing team, who is naturally less familiar with the equipment and venue set-up. For example, this past weekend, I had two athletes peel off high bar in one-touch, in large part because they did feel rushed, with no time left to remount and then an extended period before they were able to compete on the event. As athlete safety should always be our top priority, this is a legitimate and ongoing concern.

From an anecdotal perspective, though the head-to-head format was ostensibly adopted to increase audience engagement, we’ve found the extended six or four-minute warm-up break is not only bad for TV broadcasts, but also our in-arena audience, as we see a noticeable number of people leaving early during that lull in competition, even with fan engagement activities in place. There is also some question about the variance in judging quality, as head-to-head format dictates just one judge in charge of assessing the difficulty (D) score vs multiple judges in the traditional format, who can conference if their totals didn’t match. With separate D-judges evaluating each team, you can have one that is relatively liberal in their assessment of a skill’s achievement, with another more strict, leading to substantial score asymmetry, even on the same floor. The execution (E-panel) may also assume borderline skills were credited, and make execution deductions accordingly, without knowing if they actually were, as they’ve already moved on to evaluating the next routine. As execution can’t be queried, that becomes a fairness concern. Even D-score inquiries become a one-on-one assessment, vs multiple judges being able to jointly consider an appeal in the traditional format.

In conclusion, despite the above misgivings, I do now clearly understand that, per our current written rules, head-to-head competition is not optional, and the rest of our dual meets this season will be held per the prescribed format. I did not set out to, and never intended, to flout any of the written rules, and am happy to formally apologize to the committee for my misunderstanding but do feel a written warning would have been a more just outcome for both my own team, and Air Force.

Our sport is on the precipice of extinction, and, if closely examined, many, perhaps even most, of our contests would reveal small, technical, and almost always inadvertent, violations that have little or no impact on the meet’s outcome. Spending our time litigating these issues seems counterproductive and not where we should be focusing our combined energy. That having been said, there have been multiple other meets, including this season, where competition format was not followed to exact written rules, with no similar penalty applied.

I appreciate your consideration of this appeal and apologize again for my initial error.


Mark Williams

Head Coach Men’s Gymnastics

University of Oklahoma