In the past year or so, there’s been considerable discussion on whether singlets, the one-piece uniform that’s been a standard uniform for just about every level of amateur wrestling from youth through international competition, have outlived their usefulness and should be replaced.
One common thread to some of the opposition to singlets: they are too revealing.
Incredibly, it was concerns about “revealing too much” that helped fuel NCAA rule changes in the mid-1960s that ultimately led the move to singlets later in that decade.
Until about fifty years ago, the standard wrestling uniform in high schools and colleges was trunks, with shirts and tights optional. At the time, singlets were not permitted by NCAA rules or governing bodies of prep sports in most states. However, it was in the early 1960s that the NCAA mandated that wrestlers wear shirts. The 1963 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Kent State University in Ohio was the last to allow wrestlers to compete stripped to the waist.
By the late 1960s, one-piece singlets with tights started to make an appearance in college wrestling. (Look at the uniforms of the two wrestlers in the 142-pound title match at the 1970 NCAAs between University of Washington’s Larry Owings and Iowa State’s Dan Gable. Owings wore a singlet; Gable, a sleeveless shirt, trunks and tights.) The singlet-with-tights uniform quickly became the standard in high school and college in the mid-1970s.
What was the problem?
What drove the decision to require shirts? Two great wrestlers from the late 1950s provided this writer with different reasons for the rule change that sprang from concerns about being too revealing.
Shelby Wilson, 1960 Olympic freestyle gold medalist and, before that, Oklahoma State All-American, said, "I don't know what the reason for the changes. I've heard different reasons thrown out there. One I heard was that we needed to be more modest and that we were showing too much skin. To use the word modesty for the reason for the change seems ridiculous in light of what athletes wear at swim meets and track meets."
Another great wrestler of the era, Les Anderson, provided an even more direct explanation for why the rules may have been changed. The two-time NCAA champ for Iowa State (1958, 1960) recalled seeing a heavyweight match where one of the wrestler’s genitals were exposed (though, in keeping with Anderson’s tell-it-like-it-is style that was a hallmark of my talks with the wrestler-turned-Cyclone-assistant coach, he used more colorful, slang terms to describe what he – and the fans – witnessed).
The explanations provided by Wilson and Anderson correspond with the wording used by the NCAA in its rule requiring shirts, “to prevent unseemly exposure.”
The irony is that some of today’s singlets may be nearly as revealing as any mid-match “wardrobe malfunction” like that described by Anderson. Today’s synthetic fabrics, especially in some colors such as gold or white, leave little to the imagination in terms of a wrestler’s, um, equipment, as seen in the above photo from the 2003 NCAA 197-pound finals.
Almost exactly one year ago, the idea of replacing singlets gained considerable media coverage. In mid-May 2013, in its efforts to return wrestling to the Olympics, FILA, the international governing organization for wrestling, had proposed to the International Olympic Committee that Greco-Roman wrestlers compete in trunks or fight shorts, without shirts, in an attempt to help differentiate that form of wrestling from freestyle, and perhaps take advantage of the exploding popularity of mixed martial arts competition (think UFC -- Ultimate Fighting Championships – and other MMA promotions) where trunks, no shirt is the uniform of choice. FILA president Nenad Lalovic said of the idea of bare-chested Greco grapplers, “We think it will be more interesting and better for the spectators.” At the same time, two former wrestlers-turned-wrestling-writers – InterMat columnist T.R. Foley, and novelist Joe Reasbeck – both weighed in with their reasons as to why it’s time to ditch the singlet, and perhaps go back to a uniform that resembles what the all-time great wrestlers up to the 1960s wore on the mat.
NCAA: A history of changing rules to fix problems
The NCAA nixing shirtless wrestling – while changing its mind about singlets to permit the once-banned uniform for use in collegiate wrestling – is just one example of how the organization has had a history of revising rules to solve a perceived problem.
Back in the 1930s, the NCAA outlawed the keylock which had been a painful hold used by two-time NCAA heavyweight champ Jack Riley of Northwestern (1931-1932) to force opponents onto their backs for a pin. In the late 1940s, the NCAA implemented what became known as the Koll rule after Bill Koll, three-time NCAA champ at Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa), would lift opponents high overhead then bodyslam them onto the mat, sometimes knocking them unconscious. About the same time, the NCAA changed the rules to allow off-the-mat officials to override a referee decision they considered to be wrong, after a referee denied defending NCAA heavyweight champ Dick Hutton a last-second takedown, and his third title, at the 1949 NCAAs. (Back then, if there was a tie score at the end of regulation, the ref determined the winner. There was no overtime.)
Sometimes, the rule change may not be in response to a specific individual or incident, but what is viewed as a larger problem. In the early 1960s, a number of Oklahoma State wrestlers tended to rack up the score with their “take ‘em down and let ‘em up” style, rather than maintain control of their opponents on the mat. The NCAA decided to reduce the value of each takedown after the first one in a match from two points down to one point. The one-point takedown rule was in effect only about three or four years, with all takedowns restored to full two-point value.
The drive to revise wrestling rules continues. In the past year or so, the NCAA has presented proposals for new rules to reduce stalling and encourage more offensive scoring, as well as plans to incorporate a dual championships (in addition to the existing Division I Wrestling Championships) to help determine team titles.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with the NCAA revising rules to solve a perceived problem. It may be no different than, for example, a local community lowering a speed limit in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents on a particular road, or a governmental body enacting laws to combat a specific type of crime. However, new laws or rules can sometimes have unintended consequences.
About the photo: This image captures the 197-pound championship match at the 2003 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships between University of Minnesota’s Damion Hahn (gold singlet) vs. Jon Trenge of Lehigh University. Trenge had been winning when Hahn scored an edge-of-the-mat takedown with three seconds left to take the lead, win the match, and his first of two national titles.
The photo also shows just how revealing modern synthetic-fabric singlets can be, especially in colors such as gold, white, silver or light gray, where the material can be more translucent than opaque. Factor in sweat, and the fabric almost becomes see-through, resulting in the dreaded “unseemly exposure” that was a reason that the NCAA eliminated shirtless wrestling in the mid-1960s.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Hobieka for AmateurWrestlingPhotos.com, used with permission.
Meet the people and the gear mentioned in this article: Take a look at the evolution of the exposure factor of amateur wrestling uniforms over the years, with this photo-album…