Monday, January 5, 2009

That was the year that was

Countless bloggers, journalists and broadcast outlets are presenting “year-in-review” analyses. Gary Abbott of USA Wrestling can be included among those with his Top Ten Stories of 2008 on No idea is too trite to steal, so I’ll join in with a couple of observations about this past year

A tale of two programs

The University of Oregon actually announced the elimination of varsity wrestling in 2007, but much of the legal battle took place in 2008. The Save Oregon Wrestling movement is still alive, but has lost the most significant court decisions. I’m not sure what the next steps are – perhaps to follow a path similar to Stevens Institute of Technology and develop a strong club program with an eye toward future reinstatement. The University will have to hire a professional educator as athletic director before there is real hope for the return of the Ducks to the mat.

In May, 2008 Arizona State University announced that it, too, would be dropping wrestling. This was particularly distressing because the Sun Devils are one of the very few schools to ever win an NCAA Division I team championship – and the only one west of the Rockies. Backers of ASU wrestling, including Art Martori, quickly raised millions of dollars to fully fund the continuation of the sport and it was reinstated only ten days after the elimination announcement.

The lesson here seems fairly obvious. It is the vital to the continued existence of college wrestling at every level that a school’s boosters engage potential donors long before the “hammer is dropped”. You just can’t sell enough tee shirts to save a team after the fact.

The emergence of a celebrity?

Henry Cejudo’s Olympic gold medal was Gary Abbott’s top story of the year – rightfully so. Is there more to this than just the victory? Are we seeing a new “face for wrestling”? Henry was very charming on his Tonight Show appearance with Jay Leno. The “chicken suit” story is now famous throughout the wrestling world. He has also appeared on programs in a variety of media outlets, including Univision. What’s next for Henry? Well – Dancing with the Stars is the rumor.

When so-called broadcast “professionals” can’t come up with a better image of amateur wrestling than Hulk Hogan, it’s time we had someone rise to celebrity status.

A negative perception perpetuated

Not all of the news from Beijing was positive. Weight management issues hampered the American performance. This wasn’t just bad for the medal count – it was bad for wrestling. Nothing keeps kids out of the sport like the perception among parents that unhealthy weight loss is rampant among wrestlers. The past few years of work by the NWCA and others to eradicate that stereotype was virtually nullified by the examples set in China by our wrestlers.

Severe and rapid weight loss is too much a “badge of honor” among wrestlers and the wrestling community. Real growth in the sport – especially among girls and women – will not occur until this culture changes.

The crowd

Last month 15,955 fans attended the Iowa/Iowa State dual meet, breaking the NCAA record for such an event. In fact this was one of the largest crowds ever to attend any non-football intercollegiate athletic event that wasn’t an NCAA championship.

So what’s the big deal? I’ve read statements from wrestlers and coaches along the lines of, “It’s about the two wrestlers on the mat, we don’t need a crowd.”

There are those who believe, as I do, that increasing the fan popularity of the “world’s oldest and greatest sport” will be critical to its long term survival as an intercollegiate sport. There is another segment that believes that attendance is an unfair yardstick to impose upon wrestling – that lacrosse and soccer are not held to these standards, why should wrestling be? In a just world that’s a reasonable question – but life isn’t always fair.

Why not aspire to greatness?! Why perpetuate the belief that wrestling is a “cult sport”? Why not believe in the greatness of the sport? Why not believe that the average sports fan can learn to love wrestling as much as you do – as I do? Come on – take a friend to a meet.

There were many more stories in 2008, some of which will play out in 2009 and beyond. Let’s keep our eyes on Terry Brands returning to Iowa City – does that mean anything other than the Hawkeyes have a new assistant coach? Is MMA helping or hurting the future of amateur wrestling – especially at the international level? Will the current economy hasten the departure of even more college wrestling programs? Regardless, it will be interesting.

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