Monday, May 19, 2008

Where does it all end?

Where does it all end?

Wrestling has been a part of education for 2,500 years. Socrates said, “I swear it upon Zeus, an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler.” Last Tuesday, May 13, 2008, Arizona State University eliminated wrestling (along with men’s swimming and men’s tennis) from its’ athletic opportunities. Here is a link to the university’s press release from Lisa Love, Vice President for Athletics.

Heritage doesn’t matter.

The Sun Devils are one of only eleven teams to ever win the NCAA Division I team championship – and the ONLY team west of Oklahoma to do so. They have produced numerous All-Americans, several NCAA individual champions a World Freestyle champion and a couple of Olympic Silver medallists. Former NFL defensive star, Curley Culp, won an NCAA heavyweight championship for ASU in 1967.

Apparently a rich tradition is not enough to save a sport.

Here’s 7X US Freestyle champion, 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist and Arizona State graduate, Zeke Jones, winning his 1991 World Freestyle Gold Medal.


As you would expect, the wrestling community is shocked and outraged. In an interview appearing in Wednesday’s (5/14/08) Des Moines Register, Bobby Douglas, the man who coached the 1988 Sun Devils to their NCAA team title was quoted as saying, “More than anything, if Arizona State goes, the West goes. In an interview in Thursday’s Iowa City Press-Citizen, Douglas also said, “I’m really frightened for wrestling. We don’t have that many friends. Wrestling is not a favorite sport of many athletic directors …” In the same Press-Citizen article legendary, former University of Iowa coach, Dan Gable, said, “To me there is no program that’s totally safe…”

Longtime Arizona State wrestling booster and benefactor, Art Martori (founder of Sunkist Kids wrestling) was quoted in Wednesday’s Arizona Republic, "When they commissioned that building (the Riches Wrestling Complex), I shook Lisa Love's hand and said in my speech that hopefully ASU would never use Title IX as an excuse to get rid of wrestling," Martori said. "All these schools have a book on how to drop sports and which ones to drop so they don't push back. Talking about an endowment now is absolute (expletive) after you've let all the horses out of the barn instead of coming to us before. We asked her to please come to us if she ever wanted to cut it. I know three people who would have put up a minimum of $50,000 per year."
Of course, the internet is abuzz on both sides of the issue. The relative importance of college athletics is a frequent topic of posts.

“Eliminate all sports from academia. College is for learning, not playing games.”

“Put the money they spend on sports into education and there would be more successful human beings.”


Some historians claim that Socrates’ most famous pupil, Aristocles, was renamed Plato because of his broad wrestling stance.

One of the most influential scientists of our time, Nobel laureate, Dr. Norman Borlaug, has frequently cited his high school wrestling coach as being the educator that influenced him most by teaching him tenacity and perseverance.

Novelist, John Irving (a former college wrestler) has said, “The discipline of wrestling has given me the discipline to write.”

Just what is opportunity?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." It was landmark legislation that changed the landscape of American education. One of my daughters played college tennis and graduated from law school – two things that would have been far more difficult without Title IX.

Every time a wrestling program is dropped Title IX is roundly criticized by the sports’ advocates. The law is a good law – its’ interpretation has gone awry. Proportionality is one of the guidelines of Title IX compliance. The concept is that participation opportunity percentages for each gender should mirror the gender percentages of the general student population of a particular school. In other words, if 56% of the students at Whatsis University are women, then 56% of the athletes representing Whatsis should also be women. Without question, this has lead to far more opportunities for women to compete in intercollegiate athletics. Traditional sports like softball, swimming and volleyball all exploded in popularity. Colleges added teams in field hockey and soccer. Some colleges got creative and added things like competitive cheer and rowing (in a corn field). More recently, women’s lacrosse has started to spread west into the heartland and is providing even more young women an opportunity to experience intercollegiate athletics.

However, in these challenging budgetary times many college athletic directors have given up on trying to increase opportunities for women. Instead they take the easier road – the elimination of men’s teams. It’s not just wrestling – look at the roster of sports teams at many colleges and universities and you’ll find women’s tennis – but not men’s; women’s gymnastics – but not men’s; women’s swimming – but not men’s; softball – but not baseball. Title IXs’ most vocal proponents will point out – accurately – that even with the reduction of men’s teams the gender participation gap remains.

At first blush, the proportionality guideline seems straightforward. However, the question that is never allowed to be answered meaningfully is, “Are enough women interested in intercollegiate athletics to fill all of the roster spots needed?” Title IXs’ most powerful advocacy group, The Women’s Sports Foundation, vehemently opposes interest measurement in any way.

Let’s look at this in another way. In 2005 20% of all undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees were awarded to women. Is this because engineering schools are discriminating against women? On the contrary, they are investing heavily in trying to recruit female students. But it appears – after 30 years of universities and professional engineering societies trying to attract more women to the field – women are not interested in engineering at the same level men are. If colleges and universities were forced to apply proportionality to this discipline as they are with athletics then Title IX would be mandating the closure of most engineering programs.

At what point do you bring educational opportunities for Arizona high school students into the argument? Over 5,400 students participated in high school wrestling there last year. Those students now have no opportunity to have wrestling as a part of their education at a major university in their home state. In fact, these young people now only have Embry-Riddle and Grand Canyon University as home state options if they want to continue wrestling. The backlash from this is down the road. Youth and high school wrestling continue to grow in popularity. Who’s going to teach and coach these kids ten years from now if the most likely candidates are forced to go out of state to compete in the sport they love while earning a degree in education?
Wrestling is the most democratic of sports. You don’t have to be 6’7”, or weigh 300 pounds, or run a fast 40 to win a championship. The athlete that works the hardest, learns the most and perseveres almost always triumphs. In what other sport would you find an athlete with one leg come within one overtime match of standing on the medal stand at his sport’s major college championship? Anthony Robles, Arizona State’s freshman 125-pounder did just that. Anthony embodies everything that is great about wrestling and had always dreamed of being a Sun Devil. He must now look elsewhere.

And then there’s the money

Most institutions of higher learning – especially state schools – are under serious financial pressure. Declining tax support, increased enrollments and shifting demographics are straining budgets everywhere. Almost no wrestling programs generate enough revenue to support themselves. Only the University of Iowa has averaged over 7,000 fans in attendance the past two years. Schools like Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Minnesota will average in the 3,500 – 4,500 range. With only six or seven home meets a year at most schools, ticket sales contribute little to the finances of the wrestling programs. Many schools earn additional money operating wrestling camps. The success of these camps largely depends on the success and profile of the school’s coaching staff and the popularity of youth wrestling in surrounding areas. But when it’s all tallied, almost all wrestling teams are “in the red”.

So what do we do – quit?

Haven’t you been reading? That’s not what wrestlers do.

I’m just a fan, but I have some suggestions.

We need a leader.

Many people play leadership roles throughout the sport. However, most of them have their own particular constituencies and agendas. We need someone with a high profile who’s out there on the front lines and has the power and ability to pull disparate factions together for a unified cause. I nominate Dennis Hastert. He has taught, coached wrestling and has retired from congress. I don’t know who would be better. Congressman, will you do it?

Add more opportunities for women.

Athletic directors need to address the real mission of Title IX and work harder to offer more women’s sports. May I suggest women’s wrestling? A few schools have added women’s teams in the past two years and the National Wrestling Coaches Association has added a women’s division to its’ National Dual Tournament. This is going to be hard work. We have to start by giving girls more exposure to wrestling.

We also need another Division I NCAA school to add a women’s team. High school wrestling is exploding in Texas and it is one of the few states with separate boys and girls championships. If one of the Texas Big XII schools would add both men’s and women’s wrestling we would make great strides.

Win in the court of public opinion.

Here’s my dream scenario – Anthony Robles, bi-lateral amputee and 2001 NCAA Division III national champion, Nick Ackerman, and Olympic medallist Patricia Miranda are all on Oprah talking about the world’s oldest and greatest sport. More than the wrestling community must care about the future of the sport.

Make wrestling an urban sport.

According to Al Bevilacqua of Beat the Streets more than half of America’s middle school and high school students have no opportunity to wrestle interscholastically – primarily in our nations’ largest urban areas. Someone needs to take the lead in Detroit and Chicago the way that Al and his associates have done in New York. Urban wrestling participation will put greater pressure on colleges to offer opportunities commensurate with the needs of their constituencies. It will also grow the sport’s support base.

Endow – and how!

As the week has progressed the feeling has grown that, just maybe, ASU made this announcement to blackmail major donors into endowing the program. I don’t know if that’s true or not. However, one way to turn the fortunes of college wrestling around might be to permanently endow the sport at as many colleges and universities as possible. There’s no guarantee that will work. Alumni at Marquette University fully endowed their program and it was still dropped. But – I would suggest that it might go a long way to reversing the current trends.

Oh yeah - don’t wait until the elimination announcement has been made before you decide to save your favorite team! Do it now!

I have used a lot of resources to write this blog.

Jason Bryant’s blogs have been a major help.

As previously cited, I have used articles from The Des Moines Register, The Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Arizona Republic.

I also relied heavily on John Irving’s 2003 New York Times essay, “Wrestling With Title IX”.

Folks, if you really love wrestling - athlete, coach or fan – we have to spend less time arguing about who’s to blame and a lot more time advancing the cause.


Horse said...

Excellent post, Jim.

But I see this less of a Title IX issue than a byproduct of the college football/basketball arms race. The over-emphasis on football and basketball has left athletic directors with proportionately less to sustain other sports--and less of a mandate to do so.

What if football and basketball spending were capped? I don't think Oregon's football season ticket sales or TV revenue would fall one bit if UO coach Mike Bellotti's salary were less. In fact, the UO gave him an annual $900K raise shortly after stating that they could no longer afford $650K per year to keep wrestling.

Good idea about the Oprah show. Someone ought to formally pitch that show to her.

Jim Brown said...

horse - thanks for reading. As we now know - Arizona State re-instated the wrestling team when enough money was pledged to endow the sport.