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Foreign Legions
Richard Hoffer
June 06, 1994
U.S. colleges are recruiting so many foreign athletes in nonrevenue sports that their rosters now resemble the roll at the United Nations
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June 06, 1994

Foreign Legions

U.S. colleges are recruiting so many foreign athletes in nonrevenue sports that their rosters now resemble the roll at the United Nations

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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.

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?

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