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Wrestling champ, writer, referee weigh in on NCAA’s new stalling rules

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On Thursday, the NCAA.org website announced four new experimental rules intended to reduce stalling and inactivity during college wrestling matches. Two of the new rules go into effect at the start of the 2014-15 season, while two others are being implemented only during the 2014 NWCA (National Wrestling Coaches Association) All-Star Classic, traditionally the kickoff event for the season that brings together the two best wrestlers in each weight class.

What do experts think? An NCAA wrestling champ, an NCAA All-American who’s now a wrestling writer, and a collegiate referee offered their analysis of the new NCAA anti-stall rules.

UVa All-American, now wrestling writer T.R. Foley

InterMat columnist T.R. Foley was asked by a reader about the new rules in his Foley’s Friday Mailbag last Friday. The 2004 NCAA All-American and two-time ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) champion at University of Virginia responded by saying, “YES! A million times YES! You think these guys are reading our mailbag?! No more #snoreride for the fans to suffer through and no more 3-second criteria wins for an NCAA title. I'm happy.”

“The quasi pushout rule will be pretty interesting to see implemented. What constitutes defense on your feet? Couldn't a downblock be seen as active defense? Also it sounds like they won't allow a simple drive forward, but that isn't easy to gauge either,” continued Foley, who is the author of the book “Full Circle” a words-and-photos chronicle of the fight to return wrestling to the Olympics.

“Overall, I'm the happiest I've been in years with the committee's idea for change.”

Illini mat champ Matt Lackey

Matt Lackey, 2003 NCAA Division I wrestling champ at 165 pounds for the University of Illinois, responded to the College Wrestling Examiner article on the new NCAA stalling rules with this post at this writer's Facebook page Sunday: “I like that they are trying to address an issue but referees don't know how to call stalling now, let's not make them interpret more. What exactly constitutes an action or inaction is solely up to an individual referee at the time which could influence the outcome of the match.”

“Just know that I'm not bashing refs,” Lackey clarified in a follow-up interview with College Wrestling Examiner. “I truly think there is no consistency to stalling now, so let's improve interpretations of stalling now and not put more on their shoulders, reduce the variables.”

In addressing another aspect of the new rules, Lackey said, “The side headlock should just be called locked hands and be done with. It's the same result as if someone locked their hands around the body so why not just classify it as the same penalty?”

“The rule in which you can let an opponent up after a takedown is absurd and I hope gets thrown out. Part of becoming a champion is learning when to get takedowns, such as the end of the period when they can be worth more if an escape isn't earned. This completely negates that.”

The former Fighting Illini titlewinner added, “As for the so-called push out rule that's not a push out rule, now referees are going to have to decide if someone is backing up or being pushed. What happens if it's both? Are they both stalling?”

Lest you think Lackey is completely against the new NCAA anti-stalling rules, the Moline, Illinois native said, “I like the five seconds on a leg. It becomes more black and white which is good for everyone involved. (Two current lightweight wrestlers) have become bad with this position and it makes me cringe as a fan to watch.”

College wrestling official Fred Feeney

Fred Feeney, president of the Mid-State Wrestling Officials Association – an organization of over 100 officials in seven states, serving 35 NCAA Division I, II and III schools – who also officiates collegiate matches himself, in an exclusive interview with College Wrestling Examiner, said, “I believe stalling is an art form. Coaches teach it, wrestlers learn it at an early age. It’s getting harder and harder for officials to call it.”

“There are tough, tough situations when the score is 2-1 with time running down, and the wrestler in the lead wants to preserve that lead. Even if that means essentially doing what most would consider stalling.”

“The NCAA wants more aggressive wrestling,” Feeney continued, making it clear that he speaks as an experienced official, and is not an official NCAA spokesperson. “With these new rules, the NCAA is trying to make it easier to call stalling.”

“Instead of hitting the wrestler with a stall call that may seem out-of-the-blue, we’re now saying, ‘Hey, wrestler, I think you’re stalling’ – then provide a five-second warning. The verbal and visual signals – counting down those five seconds – make it easier for the wrestler to stop stalling. It makes it more obvious for the wrestler to do something.”

“The NCAA is making it easier to call stalling, which should lead to more action.”

When asked why the NCAA is labeling all four of the new rules regarding stalling as “experimental” – especially the rules that will be in place only for the All-Star Classic -- Feeney responded, “I surmise this is a way to test these rules, with the idea, ‘if we like it and think it’s working, we can explore adding it.’”

“Realize that the (NCAA) rule book is good for two years,” Feeney added. “Once a rule book is ‘printed’, it’s ‘printed.’ It’s difficult to change.”

Feeney also pointed out that there may well be other reasons why the NCAA decided to test two of the rules at the 2014 All-Star Classic. It’s a once-a-year event, at the beginning of the season, involving the top college wrestlers in the nation. It’s closely watched by the college wrestling community, so the NCAA, wrestlers, coaches and fans can see how the new rules work.

In addition, the All-Star Classic is an exhibition. Results don’t count towards a wrestler’s record, nor are they supposed to be a factor in determining wrestler rankings.

Regarding the rule for the All Stars which focuses on wrestlers who are in a neutral standing position and, to quote the NCAA press statement, “not actively engaged in an offensive attack, or a defensive counter to an offensive attack, while their feet are out of bounds,” – which, under this new rule, is stalling – Feeney said, “I think the NCAA wants wrestlers to get away from the edge of the mat. They want the action to be towards the center of the mat.”

In addition to his role as a real-life official and president of an organization for collegiate wrestling officials, Feeney also portrays an on-the-mat referee in the new film "Foxcatcher" about wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. The film, directed by Bennett Miller ("Moneyball", "Capote") stars Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz, Mark Ruffalo as Dave Schultz, and Steve Carell as John du Pont. "Foxcatcher" is scheduled to open in U.S. theaters November 14.

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