Zane Richards gets interviewed by Jordan Blanton at Rumble on the Rooftop (Photo/Justin Hoch, jhoch.com)
By almost all accounts Rumble on the Rooftop, a series of matches held on a Chicago rooftop and wrestling's first public event since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March, was a success with regard to the matches and the sport. But that's not the full story.
The event was also being watched closely as an example of how wrestling could return while keeping athletes, coaches, fans and staff safe from coronavirus transmission. In that regard, even Bryan Medlin, the head coach of the Illinois Regional Training Center and a key player in organizing the wrestling component of the event, admitted there were problems.
"There might have been some failures, but this is something to build on," said Medlin. "The organization made a noble effort to make sure the event was as safe as possible."
FITE TV secured an outdoor venue in Chicago (Photo/FITE TV)
That effort from FITE TV, the company that produced and streamed the event, included several precautions, according to Medlin. FITE TV secured an outdoor venue rather than an enclosed space such as a gym or arena. It limited the number of people at the location so the total number involved was capped at 50, as required by Chicago and Illinois under its phase four reopening rules. Prior to the event it placed seats and tables at a socially-distanced six feet apart. Mats were cleaned between each match. And staff asked everyone as they arrived to sign a waiver and to wear a mask. Wearing a face covering in public is also a requirement of the city and state's reopening.
While some spectators and coaches wore masks, the vast majority did not (Photo/Justin Hoch, jhoch.com)
But many of the planned precautions fell apart or were ignored once people arrived at the event. Coaches, announcers, referees and the vast majority of fans did not wear masks. Fans moved chairs and tables to be next to each other. And the plan for a handshake-free event except between the wrestlers fell victim to old habits for athletes, coaches, announcers and once or twice for the referees.
Laurie Ouding, a registered nurse at Chicago's Rush Hospital where COVID-19 patients have been treated since the outbreak began, said good intentions aren't enough to keep people safe. Ouding watched part of the event and didn't mince words.
"This could be an outbreak waiting to happen if one person is positive and doesn't know it," said Ouding. She noted the announce team specifically as a place where safety was compromised unnecessarily.
Ouding said the three announcers, Ryan Warner, Mike Powell and Jordan Blanton, should have been socially distanced and should have worn masks to keep each other safe. She added that Blanton was at the highest risk because of his mat-side interviews where there were handshakes, no distancing and a microphone being held close to their mouths and going back and forth between Blanton and the winning wrestler.
Powell, the executive director of Beat the Streets Chicago, which was a recipient of some of the proceeds from the event, described his role on the announce team as, "chiming in." Powell, who suffers from a muscle wasting disease called polymyositis, said he brought a mask for himself and many extras for those people who didn't have one. In regard to the safety of the announce team, he said he did have regrets, "I didn't speak up and probably should have."
The wrestlers interviewed didn't have the same concerns. As Zane Richards of the ILRTC put it, "We're all adults and all taking care of ourselves."
Nick Dardanes, who also wrestles at the ILRTC, echoed that. "I feel good, healthy and I'm trusting they're (his opponent) healthy too."
But Ouding noted that it's not always the case that younger, healthier and even athletic people don't get the disease or only get a mild case. Even if they do carry the virus without symptoms, they put higher risk groups such as parents or grandparents in danger.
Right now, cases of the virus are surging in many states such as Arizona, Texas and Florida. The U.S. has reported 2,496,628 cases and 125,318 deaths as of June 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Because of that Ouding suggests testing for all athletes before any event.
And she made other suggestions for wrestling going forward. They include:
Bryan Medlin coaching Joe Rau at Rumble on the Rooftop (Photo/Justin Hoch, jhoch.com)
Medlin cited the difficulty of this, especially in regard to fans, but agreed more security and a stricter policy that is emphasized as soon as someone buys a ticket could help.
Social distancing and mask wearing should also be mandatory for the announce team, as well as for the person doing mat-side interviews. Broadcasters use boom mics or long poles with their microphones attached to do socially-distanced interviews. Ouding said anyone conducting after-match interviews should do so as well.
She also said mandatory meetings with athletes, coaches and refs to reiterate the precautions, to emphasize their strict enforcement and to make sure everyone involved is aware of the local and state requirements are necessary.
Gary Abbott, Director of Communications for USA Wrestling, points to local COVID guidelines as the road map for all future wrestling events. He said that's been the consistent message from USA Wrestling -- to follow the guidelines.
But Abbott also noted that wrestling is like no other sport when it comes to dealing with such challenges. "Wrestling is uniquely positioned to tackle this. We have medical checks, we've changed regarding weight management, science and medicine are already part of the sport."
Now more than ever the wrestling community will have to follow the science and medicine to make sure the sport moves forward. If it doesn't there's much more at stake than the viability of wrestling. As Ouding said, "It's lives that are at risk."