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Mitch Rupert on wrestling: Removal of weight class a divisive topic

The vote was so matter of fact. The way the PIAA Board of Directors blew through voting on agenda items during Wednesday’s meeting, it was almost as if the idea of the history created by their votes was lost.

For the first time in the body’s history, it took a weight class away from high school wrestling. The vote to approve the change on a third and final reading was unanimous. None of it was surprising. This is what has been expected to happen since the PIAA Wrestling Steering Committee presented the recommendation to the Board of Directors in April.

Now that it’s a reality, it’s created quite the response. It’s a divisive topic, often hammered with two specific responses: Getting rid of opportunities to wrestle is not a way to grow the sport, and this should help the growing number of forfeits.

Neither side is budging from their line of demarcation either.

The most important question the PIAA Board of Directors had as it considered this proposal throughout the voting process was whether or not condensing five upper weights to four created a health and safety hazard for the wrestlers. The board passed the proposal to the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee early in the process to hear their take, and SMAC unanimously approved of the recommendation, saying it did not pose a health or safety risk, at its June 1 meeting.

“I’m glad the board sent it there because you couldn’t have a more educated group and the conversation we had at that meeting was second to none,” PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi said at the Board of Directors’ June meeting. “They didn’t leave anything unturned.”

An historic vote which should have provided some closure to the argument Wednesday seemed to fuel more dissent from the sport’s fans, coaches and participants as they derided the loss of opportunity.

But as Lombardi pointed out during a Q&A session with members of the state’s media following the meeting, more than 90% of last year’s dual meets featured at least one forfeit. And as FloWrestling’s Brock Hite, who wrestled at Bloomsburg University and coached at Central Columbia, mentioned on Twitter on Thursday, “Sometimes opportunity doesn’t mean growth.”

It’s an interesting thought. Is the sport truly growing just because there is opportunity? Doesn’t the opportunity become moot if it’s not being taken advantage of?

Consider this: Over the last 10 years data is available through the National Federation of High Schools, there are more schools than ever offering wrestling as a varsity sport. At the same time, the number of male participants nationwide hit its lowest mark since the 2004-2005 season in 2019, and has decreased in total by nearly 10% in the last decade.

In Pennsylvania, a peak of 500 schools offered wrestling during the 2007-08 season. That number was down to 473 in 2018-19. Male participation in wrestling has decreased 5% over the last 10 years in Pennsylvania.

Even as the reason for the reduction is dissected and understood, it still leads to the next question as to whether or not the steering committee got the distribution of the new weight classes correct. Leaving a 17-pound gap between 172 and 189 pounds is absolutely going to leave some wrestlers in limbo, needing to either cut too much weight or give up size. Neither option is fair to the wrestler, but it’s what we’re left with.

And that’s where the PIAA could have done much better. Leaving each weight class from 106 through 160 pounds untouched forced steering committee to take drastic measures in the upper weights. A more equal weight distribution throughout the lineup could have alleviated some of the stuck-in-between-weights headaches which are going to come from the new classes.

It’s easy to yell your displeasures or yell your support regarding the PIAA’s new weight classes. But a better idea is to sit back and wait to see what happens and see how this influences dual meets.

One thing Lombardi pointed out Wednesday is the plan for these weight classes is currently just one year. The PIAA was expecting guidance this past spring from the NFHS regarding changes in weight classes or elimination. That guidance never came as the organization tabled their discussion until next year. The steering committee felt it needed to take action and they have.

Is it perfect? Far from it.

Is it unreasonable? Not at all.

Make no mistake, the rest of the country is watching, including the NFHS. If it works as intended, expect the NFHS to make a similar adjustment next spring. If it doesn’t, expect them to make adjustments for a plan which fits better. But it’s going to take patience to see how this all works out.

Mitch Rupert covers wrestling for the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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