Like in past years, the NCAAs attracted enough fans for a six-session sellout and provided a number of wrestling community-based storylines as well as one or two that seemed primed for national pickup. And yet, the championships once again failed to make any notable impression on the sports market in terms of real-world conversation. (The NCAAs were widely watched, followed, instagrammed and tweeted about.)
Maybe that can't be controlled, but in the crowded calendar the NCAA could help the sport succeed by moving the championships away from the NCAA basketball tournament. Even the ever-so-slightest bump to a week before could create more buy-in from the mainstream media and allow for more sports fans to witness the action for themselves.
However, when they do tune in, are we sure that the product that they saw in Pittsburgh is the one we want to represent the hard work and sacrifice of these young men? Is the sport today the best and most accurate representation of the sport that we remember? I'd argue that it isn't representative, and while the athletes are incredible, the rules and the management of the challenges have failed the coaches, athletes, former athletes, families, and friends.
Out sport is greater than a headgear pull, awkwardly reviewed takedowns, and penalty calls so dragged down in minutia and detail that no casual fan could ever hope to understand why one wrestler's hand was raised and not the other.
Fans around the sport seem to agree that major changes need to take place, and a lot of readers asked detailed questions this week about those and much more. Let's hop in.
To your questions …
Jack Mueller celebrates after beating top-seeded Sebastian Rivera in the NCAA semifinals (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Q: Favorite moment of the NCAAs?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Jack Mueller winning his semifinals match over top-seeded Sebastian Rivera. Most sports are built off loyalty to a location or school and it was a special moment to see a Virginia wrestler enjoy such a wonderful moment. I'm sure he'd have preferred to win gold, but it was nevertheless fantastic to take in his accomplishment and subsequent celebration.
Q: You saw Mekhi Lewis at the ACC Championships. Did you have any idea that he would do what he did two weeks later?
-- Mike C.
Foley: I did. There was an efficiency in his movement and certainty of choice that we rarely see out of freshman wrestlers. There are/were few positions in which he isn't confident and that translates to winning big matches.
However, I didn't predict Lewis would win in any of my pools, so you'll just have to trust me that deep down I REALLY believed he could win the whole thing! Though to be fair I may have mentioned on air that I thought Lewis was a title contender.
Q: What referee call (or non-call) from the NCAAs had you the most upset?
-- Mike C.
The no-takedown call in the Hayden Hidlay vs. Jason Nolf match left me with smoke coming out of my ears. Absolute malarkey. There was clear evidence that it was a takedown. Cael acknowledged it to Nolf DURING THE MATCH (as they went to review), and Nolf acknowledged it afterward. If this were the Russians getting the call against the Americans, more wrestling fans would be supporting the Mueller probe.
There were at least a dozen calls where I thought that I might not know college wrestling rules well enough because surely what I saw was a clear takedown, or locked hands, or stalling, etc. Twitter helped me realize that it was not my failure in rule-knowing, but a larger systemic issue with how the sport is being called match-to-match, tournament-to-tournament, conference-to-conference and event-to-event. There needs to be significant and immediate change.
The referees shouldn't really take the blame. In my experience the NCAA referees are judicious and fair minded. But the rules are too ambiguous and subjective leaving me also feeling
Why have we accepted this hodge-podge of interpretations for control? Wrestlers can gain control via reversal without their opponent ever putting their hand on the ground -- but from neutral there is more control to be established. There are 14 (or so) rules governing how you can safely return an athlete to the mat from a control position, but no regard given to a wrestler intentionally pulling on a toe in order to turn their opponent's knee and prevent a takedown.
The entire rulebook has become so open to interpretation that the simplest motions are muddle. Without clarity the problems will only get worse and a patchwork of solutions being offered as in year's past will only work to further dampen the pace of the matches and result in an unrecognizable mish mash of high -flying action, lengthy reviews, and constant restarts.
Q: Now that Spencer Lee and Yianni Diakomihalis are both 2-for-2, who do you see as the more likely four-timer?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Spencer Lee. I love his style and mat intelligence and believe that he is one of the best wrestlers we've seen in 30 years. Even through his tough season I stated again and again that he was the favorite to win. He is the guy. He has the x factor. He's the man.
That is not to take anything away from Yianni who I think will also win four NCAA titles and become the USA Olympic freestyle team representative at 65 kilograms in 2020.
Q: Who will win this year's Hodge Trophy?
-- Gregg Y.
Foley: Bo Nickal! I'd have thought the co-Hodge was possible, but with Jason Nolf's tight semifinal victory over Hayden Hidlay the edge goes to three-time champion and pinning specialist Nickal.
Q: According to Tom Ryan, lack of independent review cost Joey McKenna an NCAA championship.
Joey McKenna lost the 141-pound NCAA title on a questionable takedown late in the final period. Independent review could have corrected the call.
-- Jeff N.
Foley: Tom Ryan is absolutely correct. There is an immediate need for an independent review committee at the events. The international styles utilize this method to ensure that the referees are not simply covering their own tails when a bad call happens to be made. These officials can/would oversee the challenged calls and make the final assessment.
The other aspect of the review is that there needs to be something disincentivizing the coaches from challenging, like losing a point for a lost challenge. However, that can't happen until the reviews become independent and the video tape that is being reviewed is shown to the audience at home and in the arena.
Transparency should be the obvious standard as there should be no incentive to keep anything from the athletes and coaches who are most intensely invested in the outcome of the decision. To say nothing of the fans who would also like to see exactly what the referees are slowing down and speeding up. When reviews are visible (and the rules are clear) a lot of the tension and anger created in the situation dissipates. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.
Coach Ryan is only mistaken in that Yianni maybe should have been awarded a takedown earlier in the match, but an equally bad call and review cost him points. All the same, the review process has been proven to be faulty since the NCAA is asking the referees to admit fault, which is always less likely than an independent body's assessment of the call.
Q: The TV commentary could not be worse. Every other sport has real men discussing their sport. Even my wife said, "Where did they get these wimpy dudes!?"
-- Jeff N.
Foley: I don't agree. I think that a professional on the mic is always welcome and I don't think I heard many poor takes during the TV version of the ESPN broadcast.
I know you weren't referencing him, but in my opinion, Shawn Kenney is the best play-by-play wrestling announcer in the country and maybe the world. He's got an incredible voice, but what sets him apart is his dedication to research. Absolute legend!
Q: I watched last Friday's semifinals on TV with a few friends. None of them had wrestled, but are fans of sports and competition, and were more than game. As the night went on, though, I began to hear comments like "Is the ref going to make them wrestle?" Or "Is that guy going to do anything?" And "Can they just run off the mat?
These were valid complaints. Wrestlers are some of the world's best athletes, but that wasn't the product we saw on the mat. Sure, there were good matches, and as a fan already I enjoyed it. But it made me self-conscious, and think about three ways to fix it:
1. Call stalling consistently. No referee wants to decide the outcome, but there are rules in place. Reward action and make them wrestle.
2. Put wrestlers back to neutral if neither is improving their position. No points awarded. The bottom wrestler can earn a point with an escape, and the top wrestler can work for a turn, but they have to stay active and show progress. You can even keep riding time to reward the active top wrestler. But if no one is at any risk of scoring, stand them up.
3. I've come around on the pushout rule. Too much fleeing from a position you don't like (e.g., Anthony Cassar vs. Gable Steveson), or working the edge. I know a lot of people don't want to make folkstyle into freestyle, but this puts wrestlers in the center and forces the action.
Lastly, the team race storyline also fell flat to my audience. With Penn State having won eight of the last nine, and essentially having this year wrapped up after the quarterfinals, there wasn't much of a story. Either you need to have more interviews and features highlighting individual wrestlers or give some thought to having a national dual tournament.
What are your thoughts on any of these ever happening? And I won't get into the replay system. I figure someone else will ask about that.
-- Dave B.
Foley: I agree with all your insights! There is a (fast-fading) chorus of fans who hate the idea of folkstyle adapting to some freestyle rules simply because they seem to think there is a lot of tradition in the current rule set. There is a lot of tradition, but for the most part the scholastic style has adapted to norms and best ideas. There have been major rule changes every decade for the past 50 years and there is no reason to stop tinkering, especially if you're only looking to borrow proven rules and techniques from a similar style.
There is far too much fear of change in the wrestling community. A pushout rule, killing riding time, and more aggressive stall warnings would make the wrestler engage with each other more often in the center of the mat and force action for seven full minutes. As a sport we should view our rules a failure every time a match is tied 1-1 with 1:45 to go in the third period. That is a wasted 5:15 where the rules should have been incentivizing the wrestlers to perform offensive actions. Instead it's become all too common of a score, with an equally troublesome habit of ending in 2OT, or on a questionable referee assessment of five seconds on the leg, stalling, headgear pulling, hands to the face, and on and on and on.
Good rules give the more aggressive wrestlers an opportunity to wrestle. By incentivizing those wrestlers a number of the problems bubbling up after the national tournament would be nullified because there would be much more scoring and dynamic wrestling.
Q: How do you feel about unlimited time in neutral to decide overtime matches in tournaments and/or duals? This would eliminate interpretation of rules/stalemate gifts. It would also encourage more of the best part of our sport … innovative setups and attack-style shooting.
-- Mr. J
Foley: Unlimited overtime would push more matches into the overtime period as wrestlers would look to score a one-point advantage via gamesmanship rather than wrestling for a takedown. Also, without a firm out of bounds fans would witness some very lengthy matches only to have the outcome decided by the aforementioned fleeing the mat or stalling call.
Also, from a TV perspective the unlimited overtime rule would jeopardize their scheduling. That's vital to the growth of the sport as nobody who is new to the sport would watch two college wrestlers push each other around for 11 minutes. Total momentum killer!
The most important factor is that the matches already need to be shorter. As is, there is a lot of time wasted re-centering athletes and restarting them from top and bottom.
Criteria would quicken the pace of the matches, always put one wrestler in the offensive position, and create much more drama and on a more consistent basis.
Q: I watched the NCAA finals from home and wasn't able to hear many of the walkout songs. I think a wrestler's song choice can say a lot about their experiences and personality. Do you know where I can find a cumulative list of this year's walkout songs? If not, did any mailbag readers that were in Pittsburgh happen to keep a running list?
-- Ethan S.
Foley: Hey readers, let's create a list in the comments!
A fan's love for Drew Foster
By Bruce D.
I am a college wrestling fan. I love what Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal have done. And Spencer and Yianni may end up four-time time champs. But Drew Foster now is my 2019 favorite. Most NCAA finalists are multiple state champions. He never won a state championship in a small state with three classifications. Yet now he is a national champ. To me he epitomizes what the sport is for most everyone who wrestles. As Winston Churchill said: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts."
And so he did, and so do so many wrestlers. Yet they are better for it.
Now we wait another year for the greatest championship in sports!