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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Round-off Roundup: Athletes deserve functionality in their attire.

It’s time to ban backless leotards in college gymnastics.

The Round-off Roundup.jpeg

The NCAA gymnastics national championships are coming up in April, and there’s one thing we’re certain to see  leotards with completely open backs. These sorts of leotards have become standard issue in college gymnastics. On the one hand, an open back makes it possible to see the athletes’ muscles and appreciate how strong they are, especially on bars. However, there is one major issue with this design choice: the vast majority of backless leotards make it impossible to wear a sports bra.

Florida and UCLA are by far the worst offenders, but almost every team in the NCAA sports has at least one leotard missing a back. Just this past week, as schools competed at their conference championships, almost half of the top schools chose leotards that made it difficult or completely impossible to wear a sports bra.

When they are required to wear a backless leotard for competition, athletes are forced to use a number of unacceptable alternatives to a sports bra. At UCLA, for example, athletes use a complicated setup of athletic tape in lieu of any sort of bra. Major leotard manufacturer GK Elite sells what they call an Appears Backless bra, which includes a piece of clear plastic that wraps around the neck and a strip of clear plastic to secure the bra at the bottom. For most women, this bra wouldn’t even provide enough support for daily life, let alone for high-level athletics.

Above all, these backless leotards present a safety hazard. Many of the skills the gymnasts are performing are skills that can result in paralysis or death if gone wrong. Athletes shouldn’t have to be worrying about whether the tape on their chest will hold up. It’s a major distraction and therefore an issue of safety.

The obvious solution is to require leotard construction that facilitates athletic, supportive sports bras. Elite and club gymnastics recognize this need and have rules in place to limit backless design choices (for USA Gymnastics competition, the open area can’t extend lower than the “vertical midpoint of the scapula”). The NCAA should institute a similar rule, or at least have a standardized sports bra design with which all leotards must be compatible.

If colleges really can’t part with the backless leotards, an acceptable alternative is to include a matching sports bra in the uniform. The University of Alabama debuted a bright red backless leotard during the 2019 season but included with it a white strappy sports bra that intentionally showed through and matched the white detailing on the back. It looked great and, more importantly, it was functional. Of course, teams may run into the issue of different athletes needing different levels of support, but it’s still exponentially better than not being able to wear a sports bra at all.

Instead of trying to make leotards interesting through cutouts and keyholes, colleges should be interesting through patterns. Lean into school spirit and go retro  UCLA, Auburn and Clemson all have a leotard in the rotation with the school name featured prominently and bold stripes along the side. Schools can use unique prints related to their mascot (Clemson’s recent tiger stripe leotard fell into the category of “so bad it’s good,” and Stanford has a campy “Fear the Tree” number with a bedazzled pine tree). Alaska even had a leotard that had a northern lights theme. Backless designs add nothing to gymnastics and take away a lot. It’s time to return to basics.