Grappling With Equality: Is Women’s Wrestling Headed to the NCAA?

Grappling With Equality: Is Women’s Wrestling Headed to the NCAA?

Helen Maroulis of the U.S. celebrates her win against Tunisia's Marwa Amri in the women's freestyle wrestling 58-kg category final of the FILA World Wrestling Championships on Aug. 23, 2017, in Paris.

SourceThomas Samson/Getty

Why you should care

Because women are shooting for a 4-point near fall. 

In late August, wrestling fans from all corners of the globe descended on Paris to witness greatness at the 2017 world championships. They weren’t disappointed. In a sport of constant grappling, one American proved untouchable in the arena on Boulevard de Bercy. Helen Maroulis captured her third consecutive international title to go along with a world championship in 2015 and Olympic gold at Rio in 2016. In Paris the 25-year-old native of Rockville, Maryland, breezed through five competitors by a combined score of 53-0.

So, why doesn’t the NCAA let her wrestle?

Two months before Maroulis won her third world title, women’s wrestling received a major push when University of Iowa head coach Tom Brands wrote to the NCAA Board of Governors in support of designating women’s wrestling as an intercollegiate sport. The letter named 11 NCAA institutions — including Division I men’s powerhouse Arizona State — that also pledged their commitment to elevating women’s wrestling, before the start of next season, to what’s known as emerging sport status. According to Brands’ letter, it is “long overdue for women to share in the opportunities afforded by this great sport.”

It’s a great time for women’s wrestling.

Jacque Davis, head girls’ coach, Beat the Streets New York

An NCAA emerging sport is one that’s on track to achieve full NCAA championship status. Perhaps the campaign shouldn’t require a masculine mouthpiece, but Brands’ backing is consequential. In a largely grassroots sport built on respect and hard work, Brands is a tone-setter — head of wrestling’s premier college program with a legion of followers behind him.

But wrestling men are not calling for change simply out of altruism. In the quest for women’s wrestling legitimacy, both sides have plenty to gain. “[Attaining emerging status] is going to help grow opportunities for women,” says Cary Kolat, head men’s wrestling coach at Campbell University in North Carolina and a volunteer coach on the Team USA women’s freestyle squad. “But it will also be huge for [men’s wrestling].” To maintain Title IX balance, Kolat says, schools will “start to add both men’s and women’s programs.”

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University of Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands watches one of his grapplers during the 2011 NCAA championships at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Source Hunter Martin/Getty

Women’s wrestling is enjoying a period of growth, but the current unsanctioned NCAA status presents numerous hurdles. First, the 33 women’s college programs competing in the Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association simply don’t entice enough youth wrestlers to stick with the sport. California and Texas boast the highest concentrations of female high school wrestlers, but the WCWA consists mostly of small institutions scattered across the country. “It’s a great time for women’s wrestling,” says Jacque Davis, head girls’ coach of the youth sports program Beat the Streets New York and a board member of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Davis notes the WCWA’s growth from just 11 programs when she wrestled at Silicon Valley’s Menlo College in 2010. “Coaches are recruiting heavily to fill their rosters. But do you want to go to a liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere?”

To be clear, the NCAA — sanctioning body of Divisions I, II and III college sports — is unaffiliated with international wrestling. But most Team USA members master their craft in college before moving into elite international competition. The entire national men’s freestyle squad wrestled Division I, and only 2017 world champion Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) and Penn State’s Zain Retherford are still in college. But with a markedly shallower talent pool, top female wrestlers typically bounce between the WCWA and Team USA, navigating the massive talent gap. “There’s a huge overlap between college and Team USA because we don’t have as much depth,” Davis says. “If you’re serious and a women’s wrestler, you’re wrestling at USA events.”

Since 1994, the number of female high school wrestlers has exploded from 804 to more than 11,000. The sport was recognized as an Olympic event in 2004; today, eight states sponsor women’s high school wrestling championships. Yet the sport continues to struggle to gain acceptance even as it sees crew, fencing and skiing, all with lower participation rates, get NCAA support.

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Helen Maroulis of the U.S. (in blue) competing against Sweden’s Sofia Magdalena Mattsson in the 53-kg freestyle semifinals at the Rio de Janeiro Games. Maroulis went on to win the U.S.’ first Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling.

Source Julian Finney/Getty

But reason for hope exists. The growth is clearly there, and women’s rugby — which rivals wrestling in U.S. participation numbers and aesthetic — gained emerging status in 2002. Still, the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association wages war: Women’s rugby hopes to gain full championship status by 2020.

On Aug. 1, Wrestle Like a Girl, which was founded last year by two-time world bronze medalist Sally Roberts and hosts empowerment camps and clinics, submitted the proposal for emerging status to the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics. Never known for prompt decision-making, the NCAA has at least agreed to hear Roberts’ presentation at its September board meeting. The situation is reminiscent of 2002, when USA Wrestling convinced the International Olympic Committee to add women’s wrestling to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. From there, the sport stuck, and growth has continued.

Still, Kolat believes that wrestling’s high global participation made the sport an easier sell to the Olympics. To gain NCAA acceptance, he says, further unification and support is necessary. “More programs have to get on board and be vocal,” says the former Olympian. “Whether that means writing a letter or getting in the trenches and coaching, we need more of it. We’re so worried about making sure our programs are climbing the rankings that we forget this helps [men’s wrestling] too. We have to look at the ‘big picture.’”

The most dominant female wrestler in the world did it without the NCAA. What’s bigger than that?

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