As part of the wrestling community for over a half a century, my fondness for the sport has developed into a deep and everlasting respect. It has to be the greatest sport a young man or woman can participate in or a country can offer its children. In many ways it could be considered a pugilistic ballet; a combination of finesse, force and beauty. If you were ever a wrestler or spent time with those who were, you know why America needs the sport now more than ever.
Wrestling is about family, men and women, sons and daughters, responsible and resilient, individuals who are capable of persisting under the harshest of conditions, usually by themselves and never because they have to, but instead because they want to and look forward to the challenges.
Many from the sports ranks have aspired to become President of the United States, Nobel Laureates, Oscar Award Winners and astronauts, directors of orphanages, executives of Fortune 500 Companies, members of the military’s most elite fighting units, educators and of course coaches who help develop America’s next generation of citizens. We’re actually quite a diverse bunch. But regardless of the occupation, those who wrestled are always ready to give back to others just as they were so graciously given when they were young and even on occasion lost their sense of direction. This is how the wrestling community plays it forward for society.
Best of all, it doesn’t matter if the wrestler was an All-American or second string to an average wrestler on a below average team; graduates from our ranks are known for their tenacity, confidence and ability to outwork those around them and of course those who oppose them. These transformative effects in wrestling are the result of the discovery of pain; when lungs burn, muscles ache and ones self-esteem becomes challenged. That’s what the sport does better than any other; it teaches humility and how to accomplish the uncomfortable. Wrestlers learn rather quickly how to make the best of bad positions and when to cut their losses. They acquire leadership skills by first learning how to follow those who came before them and then use those skills to direct their lives and assist others with theirs.
There’s not a better sport for America than wrestling and for all its benefits it’s amazingly inexpensive. With the possible exception of cross country, its number one on the cheap meter which makes it accessible to anyone from uptown, downtown, across town or out of town, be they rich or poor, big or small, tall, short or handicapped. As long as there is a blade of grass in someone’s backyard, regardless of how many programs we lose, you’ll most likely find two boys wrestling over top of it. That’s just the way it is with children and wrestling, it’s the most natural of activities and the absolute best form of self-defense a person can learn.
All this leads us to the sports first challenge . . . we know who we are; the problem is no one else does. That has been a public relations nightmare for us; it’s as if wrestling wants to keep its greatness away from the public. We talk to one another about our sport and its significance to life but that’s where it ends.
Our survival hangs in the balance of us being as tenacious about sharing our story with the public as its athletes are in fighting off a single leg. Wrestling must win this battle because America needs as many wrestlers as it can produce. For nowhere in sport and certainly within our culture can you find individuals who have endured the level of physical, emotional and psychological stress that wrestlers go through on a daily basis. They constantly push themselves harder than any segment of society and display a mental toughness that is unrivaled in sport. Wrestlers consistently operate at higher levels of fortitude and resilience than anyone else because the sport demands it of them. And in relation to other activities, wrestling excels far beyond the norm in teaching self-control, the development of accomplishment-based skill sets and fine tuning emotional constraint.
But none of this means very much unless we can get the message out.
The next challenge we face is the seriousness of the sports decline. More and more wrestling looks like a framed copy of Murphy’s Law. This is why I’ve spent months developing this 80 page document, because the seriousness of what we’re experiencing is so vital to the sports survival that I wanted to make sure this effort was both informative and worthy of your time.
The smart play wasn’t to remind everyone how bad we’ve been at being good stewards of the sport or point out individual guilt. Instead, most everyone I spoke with suggested I consider taking baby steps in my writing style, spoon feed the readership, stay away from offending anyone while putting an extra emphasis on being agreeable. They indicated the nature of man being what it is; the only way we could win was being amiable.
But they are all absolutely wrong. Knowing the sport and its players as I do, regardless of how well this document is written, or the amount of honey used, there will always be those who carefully consider the points being made and those who never will. That’s wrestling, a bunch of fine lines that exists between the strength of tenacity and drawback of pigheadedness, the importance of persistence and the shortcoming of obstanance.
Instead I just began to type and refused to concern myself with offending those in charge because the time has come for the wrestling community to vote on how well leadership has done. To do that they have to hear the other side of the story so they can separate fact from fiction.
In my opinion, is everything leadership’s fault? Yes, absolutely. They’re the ones who have been at the helm, they’re the ones who have had the power and they’re the ones who are privy to inside information that the general population doesn’t get. Yet here we are, at the bottom of the athletic barrel about to go over the falls.
So I thought if not me, who will point the finger of blame. If not now, when?
Please understand, I don’t expect much to come of this effort but if I can help you see the sport in a different light then maybe, just maybe you as a group can affect what I don’t have a chance of doing as an individual. But if I fail in my quest, here’s a prediction.
If wrestling isn’t financially self-sufficient by 2020 it will only be an intermural sport on college campuses.
So here we go; the outcome of my efforts is before you and they consist of months and months of writing and introspection, re-writing and reflection.
In Washington DC circa 1955 a newspaper did a story on wrestling and it listed two reasons why the sport was having trouble relating to the public.
The first was spectators are thrown for a loss by the scoring system. Nothing has changed in 60 years.
How can a boy win 10-3 and only earn 3 points for his team when in dozens of other sports every point scored is a point recorded? Can you imagine LeBron James scoring 44 points in a game and then the public address announcer informing the audience that because of his outstanding effort the Heat will receive not the 44 he scored but 5 team points? That’s what we do in wrestling when a person wins his match 22-7. Why shouldn’t the team whose wrestler scored 22 points get to keep 22 points and the vanquished his 7 points? Hasn’t each athlete earned that right as a result of his effort? But actually LeBron would have never gotten to 44 points because he would have been forced to sit down after scoring 15 more points than his opponent. How crazy is that – but that’s wrestling for you!
I know; we’ve always had 3 point decisions, 4 point majors, 5 point techs and 6 point pins. Well, not really. The 4 point majors and 5 point tech falls only came into being in the 1970’s. Before that there were three scoring sequences.
- A tie which gave both teams 2 points each.
- A win by decision and regardless of how many points were put on the board the victor received 3 team points, the loser 0 points.
- A pin which was worth either 5 or 6 team points. 5 if the pin occurred in the second or third periods and 6 if it occurred in the first.
During those years it wasn’t all that unusual to see individual bouts end by scores of 25-6 or 34 -12. Wrestlers were putting points on the board trying to pin their opponent because it was potentially worth twice the number of points than a decision. Remember that as you read the next several paragraphs, every wrestler had a very persuasive incentive to score points and his coach was more than motivated to push his athlete toward the pin.
Then the rules committee decided that it made sense to reward those who put more points on the board than others and why we now have the 4 point major and 5 point tech which is similar to the mercy rule that baseball has for its little league players. That confuses me; if we’re as tough as we claim to be, why are we treating our senior athletes like little leaguers?
Let’s take a look now at the unintended consequence of the 4 point major and 5 point tech; a reduction in pinning instruction and as a result the number of pins you see today. Why would a coach want to teach or an athlete learn two completely different skill sets when knowing just one can earn 5 team points? Being a master of takedowns assured the athlete not only of victory but being able to score almost as many team points as he/she would have by way of a fall. Basically those who were proficient on their feet could rack up so many points that tech falls became takedown clinics which supplanted the need to pin someone.
Then after pinning became a non-issue, winning by tech fall also lost some of its luster. Athletes started thinking, “If a major is worth 4 team points and a tech is worth 5 points, why am I killing myself for just one additional point? It doesn’t make sense to put myself at risk of possibility getting caught on my back for minimal reward.” The philosophy of the day became:
“I’m going to have to score probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 more points to get from a major to a tech when I consider all the escapes I have to give up to get there so why am I killing myself?”
As a result, athletes began backing off technical falls in favor of major decisions given the adverse risk to reward percentages.
Then the very same “the heck with the tech” thought process started infecting the athlete’s willingness to work toward majors. Why risk scoring all those points for one extra team point when history favors (with wins) those who take a conservative approach to scoring and where we are today.
This calculated style of wrestling has crept into our mindsets so gradually over the last 35 years that it has been virtually impossible to notice the shift; first away from pinning and then away from bonus points. Today the object of wrestling is simply to get your hand raised. If that means the only sounds we hear from the stands are crickets, well that’s simply the price of winning matches as we lose the sport.
The following represents the average points scored, per bout in the NCAA finals by year. Note the continual decline in scoring since major decisions and technical falls were introduced.
Year Points Scored
Since the late 70’s, scoring has declined 282%. Still not convinced? During the 1970’s there were 10 pins recorded in the NCAA finals which works out to a 10% pin to win ratio. Since 2000, in the last 14 years, there have been 5 pins or a 3.5% pin to win ratio. That’s a 285% drop in pinning percentages over the last 44 years.
But the good news is we can reverse the trend if we want to, but there has to be willingness on the part of leadership. It’s all about incentives with the basic premise; if you make something worth doing, you’ll have people lining up to do it.
The NFL knows that, they constantly change their rules; a small tweak here, a noticeable change there. It’s all designed to increase scoring and why might I ask? Because they found their spectator numbers improved and media interest skyrocketed as points increased.
The following numbers represent the total points scored in Super Bowls for the first 6 years of the event versus the last 6 years. Notice the average has almost doubled over that 48 year period.
Super Bowl Points Scored
One way to increase the number of points being scored in a match is to increase the number of pins we see. The way you do that is make the pin worth 10 team points, or double that of a tech fall. Remember pinning for many years was exactly that; worth twice that of a decision and no one had a problem with it. So move the pin back to where it once was as king of scoring and I’m positive you’ll witness a sharp upturn in people bridging; because coaches know what will happen if they don’t start teaching half nelson’s again.
Besides increasing the pin value to 10 points, try this rule change on for size. The buzzer ending a period doesn’t stop the action if a person is on his back. The match continues until the athlete is either pinned or he fights his way back to his base.
If we want to make the pin king again, we need to put the crown in the hands of the offensive man.
The newspapers second reason why wrestling was having a tough time relating to its spectators was the rules were too complex to understand relative to the visual simplicity of the sport.
Nothing has changed there either, except now we have more governing bodies, organizations and event operators; each with their own variation of the rules and ways of handling difficult situations. That leads to each one believing their way is not only the best way but the only way; ergo the sports devastating amount of infighting over everything imaginable.
There are two things wrong with these fights:
- The pie everyone is going to war over is only getting smaller as a direct result of the battles.
- Only a small percentage of these groups actually care about the health of the sow they’re suckling from which seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the sport.
The rest of the field only wants to be positioned in a way so they’ll get more milk today than they did yesterday and if that kills the sow, so be it.
Yet despite our efforts and love for the sport, a vast majority of everything we’ve tried to right wrestling’s ship hasn’t worked. Rule changes, creative promotions, inventive marketing; they’ve all had little effect because nothing leadership has ever done was creative or inventive. All they do instead is put fresh coats of paint over decaying floor boards. It certainly makes things appear new and improved but as you can imagine, you don’t want to walk across the room.
Wrestling needs to go back to the basics and determine what it wants to be, erase most of what we’ve done in the last 50 years and start anew.
Yet it’s a testament to the greatness of wrestling, in spite of our failures we somehow manage to survive, not with exceptional growth or notable spectator interest but the word endure might explain it best. But more and more we’re like the frog who doesn’t know he’s in trouble as the pan of water he’s floating in gets increasingly hotter.
Wrestling needs a top down, not a bottom up overhaul like we do every year. We can’t win by tweaking the rules or maintaining the same mind set. That has only gotten us where we are now, bridging with Chris Taylor on top.
Chapter 2 next Sunday.