I have had many conversations with people after they find out that I am a wrestling coach about the weight cutting that occurs in our sport. Unfortunately for our sport, this is one of the only aspects of wrestling that people have heard of before. This is no doubt due to the extreme measures wrestlers went through in the past in order to make weight. Many people have friends from high school or college who wrestled and have heard stories of wearing rubber suits or spitting in cups to drop a few ounces of weight. No doubt the deaths of three college wrestlers in 1997 helped fuel this image of wrestling as a dangerous sport. Just read the New York Times article about the deaths and it is easy to see that the concerns are legitimate (Litsky, 1997). However, that was in the past. Wrestling has cleaned up this aspect of the sport and today athletes are not cutting weight to this extreme anymore. Nevertheless, this image of wrestling still persists. This post is not necessarily about cleaning up that image, rather about how those outside the sport have reacted to that image. This post is also about how that reaction created an ethical climate within the wrestling community that promotes cheating.
This may seem like a bit of a paradox, wresting has cleaned up the weight cutting problems in the sport but we are more likely to cheat now. But this is exactly what has happened in our community. Following the deaths in 1997, the NCAA implemented new weight cutting regulations for our sport. These included, hydration testing, weight lose plans, and body fat analysis of each wrestler (Hendrickson, 2013). While most high school governing bodies did not mandate these changes immediately, the national wrestling coaches association adopted all of the changes except for the hydration testing. The reason for not adopting the hydration testing was because of the expense of the equipment and training. The end result of these changes was that wrestling was safer for high school athlete and extreme weight cutting was eliminated. Fast forward about ten years and we see the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) get involved in wrestlers hydration levels. Following several football players deaths in 2008, some linked to dehydration, the NCHSAA mandates hydration testing for wrestlers and a strict monitoring of wrestlers weight loss through a state monitored database.
Wrestling coaches were suspicious of the motivations of the NCHSAA leadership when they implemented these changes. The timing seemed to coincide with football related injuries and not wresting related. Furthermore, the stakes were very high for failing to comply with the new rules. If a wrestler was not hydrated on January 15th, they were ineligible for the remainder of the season. This January test was also a one attempt only test. Wrestlers who failed the test could not go and rehydrate and test again. It is important to note that most teenagers do not drink enough water and teenage wrestlers, athletes and non-athletes fail a hydration test the first time. Additionally, the state monitored database recorded the wrestlers weight to the one hundredth of a pound and wrestlers could not compete if their weight was lower than what the state said it should be. Coaches were required to weigh in their wrestlers daily and upload those weights to the state database for oversight. If a wrestlers weight was too low, the state ruled the wrestler ineligible to compete. The exact calculation went like this, a wrestler could lose 1.5% of their body weight per week (not to go below 5% body fat). For example, if a wrestler weighed 200.00 pounds on Friday, they could weight 197.00 the following Friday. Put another way, they could lose roughly .42 pounds per day. However, if that wrestler weighed in on Monday following a weekend off from wrestling weighing 199, they could not weight in at 197 on Friday because they did not lose weight at the strict rate of .42 pounds per day. Their Friday weight could now be 197.3 meaning they could not wrestle in the 197 pound weight class. If you head is spinning, imagine how every wrestling coach in North Carolina felt when these rules were implemented. Not only had weight cutting problems long since been resolved in the sport, now we had to explain to kids that they could not have a large dinner with their families on Sunday night because we had to make sure they were not .3 pounds over their weight loss plan on Monday even though they were not weighing in for a match until Friday night. In the end, the wrestling coaches began to cheat. If we were honest, and recorded the weight on Monday as 199, the wrestler would not be able to wrestle at 197 on Friday. However if we cheated and recorded the weight at 198.6, the wrestler would be eligible. Either way, the wrestler was only losing three pounds, not the large weight cuts wrestlers of the past performed.
This type of cheating in my opinion was a direct result of the culture that the NCHSAA leadership created. By implementing these rules on wrestling so long after wrestling had cleaned up the sport showed that the leadership did not have a good understanding of the sport they managed. Additionally, by reacting after the deaths in a different sport, it appeared to the wrestling coaches that the motivation of the leadership was not the safety of the wrestlers, but rather the preservation of their own self-image. By implementing these weight cutting rules, the association could appear to be taking a tough stance on athletes hydration. Understandably, the wrestling coaches behaved in much the same way as the leadership and became motived to preserve our self-image. Rather than allowing wrestlers to become ineligible due to rules that are difficult to understand, we would cheat and not follow the rules.
Hendrickson, B. (2013, October 09). Wrestling away from a troubled past. Retrieved April 20, 2016, from http://www.ncaa.org/champion/wrestling-away-troubled-past
Litsky, F. (1997, December 18). Collegiate Wrestling Deaths Raise Fears About Training. Retrieved April 20, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/1997/12/19/sports/wrestling-collegiate-wrestling-deaths-raise-fears-about-training.html?pagewanted=all