Finn: Time for everyone in wrestling to speak up

Updated: April 19, 2011

By Mike Finn, WIN Editor

One of the things that was mentioned most often when Philadelphia earned the right to host the 2011 NCAA Division I Championships was that the sport might be introduced to a much different audience than that which had attended the annual event in Midwest locations like St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Ann Arbor and Kansas City.

At first I found that odd considering many believe the birth of college wrestling in this country took place near the City of Brotherly Love. But prior to Penn State’s team victory last month, the first by a Division I school east of Michigan since 1953, Eastern wrestling was confined to how many individual champions and All-Americans it produced … as well as how many of those stars left the East to wrestle in states like Iowa and Oklahoma.

But the one thing that the East has always had is people. While it is true that California and Texas combined make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population, eight of the next nine largest states in terms of residents were from the Eastern time zone according to the 2010 census. New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey make up nearly 40 million people. Iowa and Oklahoma combined were about seven million.

What’s important about locations with more people are those are locations where more people will talk … and as was the hope of having the NCAAs in Philadelphia … about wrestling, especially at a time when the wrestling community needs to speak up.

Within two weeks of the 2011 NCAAs, such a thing happened when a Wall Street Journal published an editorial, entitled: “Wrestling, Sport for Our Times.” I’m sure by now you’ve heard about it or seen it. I know I was bombarded by many people, saying, “Did you see that column in the Wall Street Journal?”

Published on March 30 and written by James Freeman, he talks about how wrestling compares to today’s tough times.

“Since the financial crisis, many Americans have talked about a return to traditional values like thrift, prudence and hard work,” Freeman wrote. “You can’t get more traditional than wrestling. Even before Odysseus and Ajax grappled to a draw in Homer’s Iliad, even before wrestling was a fan favorite at the ancient Olympics, cavemen scrawled images of prehistoric bouts.

“Prudence? Experience in this sport teaches that one small mistake can result in a wrestler being thrown to his back. As for thrift, many competitors and coaches weren’t even spending money on shampoo, their shaved heads gleaming under the lights of the Wells Fargo Center. Hard work? These guys have to train for “man’s oldest form of recreational combat” on a diet.”

Everyone in the wrestling community knows what is good about wrestling, but we do a poor job of telling people outside the sport. Why else would today’s athletic directors be so quick to kill a sport where character counts and teaches its athletes to literally get off their back and fight again.

As you may have read in my recent Q&A with Dan Gable, he reminds us that no other sport creates a toughness that is also necessary for this country’s defensive needs. No, I don’t expect all wrestlers to join the military, but their hard work in wrestling rooms provides a great example of what is needed to keep everyone safe.

I would hope that today’s Division I coaches — Penn State’s Cael Sanderson now has a great opportunity to be a spokesperson as he owns the bully pulpit considering he returns a team that should win again in 2012 — would all do their part in spreading the word, but frankly some seem reluctant to do so. There are some coaches who can’t see the problems outside of their own wrestling room.

Also, the wrestling community must avoid destroying itself, especially the many organizations that offer opportunities for young people but become upset if not everyone follows them.

There was indeed a buzz that came out of the Philadelphia experience. Let’s just make sure that buzz continues beyond the borders of the normal wrestling community.