One year after the International Olympic Committee first decided to eliminate wrestling from the Olympics (only to reinstate it on a provisional basis seven months later), the general consensus is that freestyle and Greco-Roman competition is now more exciting to watch, thanks to rule changes made in 2013.
In contrast, three respected wrestling writers think college folkstyle wrestling has become more boring because of less scoring and more stalling.
InterMat columnist T.R. Foley, Andy Hamilton, who covers wrestling for the Des Moines Register, and Bryan Van Kley, publisher of WIN (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine), all addressed the issue in their columns this week.
In his Foley’s Friday Mailbag column posted Friday, Feb. 14, the former University of Virginia All-American, summed up the collegiate/international mat comparison by writing, “Wrestling has gotten stale at the NCAA level, even as it has become arguably the most exciting it's ever been at the international level… For the first time ever FILA's rules seem to work better than the NCAA's at creating scoring and excitement.”
In his Feb. 12 column – written on the first anniversary of the IOC Executive Committee’s decision to take wrestling out of the Olympics – Hamilton wrote, “College wrestling is becoming tedious. Scoring is down. Inactivity is up.
“It’s a dangerous combination for a sport that dodged the Olympic death sentence it received 365 days ago. Yet college wrestling seemingly isn’t learning from the missteps that jeopardized the sport at its highest level.”
Hamilton put the issue in sharp relief, citing the two programs that have won the most NCAA team and individual championships. “When Oklahoma State scores two takedowns in an entire dual meet and a couple weeks later Iowa follows it up with five, there’s a problem. And it’s not a problem isolated to the two most storied programs in the sport.”
Here’s how Van Kley addressed the problem in his “The Inside Trip” column for the Feb. 10 issue of WIN: “I don’t remember seeing so many matches without a takedown, and high-caliber guys doing so little to turn their opponent.” He went on to say, “Stalling is really bad for the sport and it’s incredibly boring to watch, even for hard-core fans.”
The problem that's causing the problem
While the National Wrestling Coaches Association and some head coaches argue about the importance of dual meets, the trio of award-winning wrestling scribes see stalling as a more significant issue.
All three writers suggest that part of the problem is that mat officials are reluctant to call stalling for a variety of reasons, including not wanting to risk being the deciding factor in determining the outcome of a match (and, ultimately, the dual itself)… or fears that they won’t be asked back for future events if they call against the host coach’s team.
However, the trio put most of its focus not on the referee, but on the action – or, more accurately, the non-action – of some wrestlers themselves.
InterMat’s Foley cites Hamilton’s column for the basis of his own analysis of the problem, writing, “He makes several fantastic points, but none are more true than his assertion that dropping to a knee, or going into a deep squat, has hampered action.”
“The idea of stopping your opponent's action by not engaging and by taking a knee or deep squat is meant to stall the action, but the reason we've seen it more in 2013-14 is because for the first time in NCAA wrestling the advantage is now to the defensive wrestler,” Foley continued.
“The current methodology of top wrestling is to game the rules by having the referee perceive your action as aggressive, while simultaneously playing it safe,” according to Foley.
Or, as Hamilton put it, “Wrestling has essentially evolved into a game of who can camouflage stalling the best while the riding-time clock ticks.”
To emphasize his point, Hamilton sought out the opinion of no less an expert than Dan Gable, Iowa State mat champ, Olympic gold medalist, and coaching legend at University of Iowa.
“That’s not what our sport is looking for,” Gable told the Des Moines Register wrestling writer. “Our sport is looking for growth; our sport is looking for entertainment; our sport is looking to get into the top core sports in the Olympic Games. And we’re not going to do it by standing around and looking at each other.”
In concluding his analysis of the problem, InterMat’s Foley wrote, “The international rules are somehow now more exciting than the NCAA's and to improve the collegiate version of the sport the decision-makers in Indianapolis need to understand that defensive tactics and risk-averse riding are slowly killing the sport.”
Is there a way out?
Van Kley admits there’s no easy solution, no quick fix. But he shared possible rule-change idea put to him by former Penn State head wrestling coach John Fritz: reward offensive takedowns more than defensive ones. For example, if an offensive takedown is worth two points, award just one point for a TD scored from a defensive position.
Failure on the part of mat officials to call stalling isn’t a problem that suddenly emerged during the 2013-14 wrestling season. As a college wrestling historian, this writer has seen plenty of articles addressing referees’ lack of stall calls in NCAA Wrestling Guides, newspapers and books from 50, 70 and 90 years ago. This is not to dismiss stalling as an intractable, age-old problem that will always be with us; rather, it emphasizes the need to enforce existing stalling rules, and be open to considering new rules to fix the problem once and for all.
In aviation, stalling can cause an aircraft to lose forward momentum, forcing it to crash into the ground. Without solving the stalling program, college wrestling may suffer the same fate.
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