Getting it Wrong on Women’s Wrestling

In this morning’s edition of the New York Times, reporter Katie Thomas tried to take a closer look at the growth of women’s wrestling at the collegiate level.

Unfortunately for the readers of the Times, this look at the sport fails to tell the whole story, falling back on tired old stereotypes and slanders against male coaches who have actually worked hard to promote the sport in the first place.

When you read the piece, it seems as if the reporter is surprised by the development of women’s wrestling, as if the only way women get interested in sports is through the application of Title IX, rather than by young women exercising their own choices.

In the end, the real reason women’s wrestling isn’t growing faster is because Title IX’s strict proportionality standard has led colleges and universities to add sports with large rosters whether women are interested in these sports or not
Instead of pointing the finger at wrestling coaches who have worked to develop the sport and get it established at the NCAA level, perhaps Thomas should have more closely questioned the NCAA and certain of its policies that are holding the sport back:

High school participation has increased more than threefold from a decade ago, when 1,600 girls wrestled during the 1996-97 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The sport has grown fastest in Hawaii, Texas and Washington — states that created separate state championships for girls, according to USA Wrestling, the national governing body.

What the reporter fails to mention, but was told by the College Sports Council in interviews, was that it was wrestling coaches in those same states that pushed both for state championships and for inclusion in the Summer Olympics — not gender activists. Why aren’t these men — and yes, these wrestling coaches are exclusively male — getting any credit for creating an opportunity for women to compete?

More high school girls participate in wrestling than in archery or equestrian, which have been officially recognized as “emerging sports” by the N.C.A.A. At least 10 N.C.A.A. member colleges must express interest in a program and at least 20 must offer it as a varsity or competitive club team before a sport can be classified as emerging.

“Sometimes being on the emerging sport list can provide momentum in and of itself,” said Karen Morrison, director of gender initiatives for the N.C.A.A. But to be considered, she added, “you really need to show us that you’re on a path of steady progress.”

That’s an odd statement, isn’t it? Here we have a sport, women’s wrestling, which is larger than both archery and equestrian and has tripled in size over the last 10 years. If that’s not “steady progress,” I’m not sure what would be.

Sounds to me like it should be incumbent on the NCAA to adjust the definition.

To the reporter’s credit, she does get around to pointing a finger in a direction where it deserves to be pointed — right at Title IX:

Counterintuitive as it may sound, one of the major impediments to the growth of women’s wrestling at larger universities, some argue, is Title IX. Colleges have struggled for decades to ensure that female athletic participation is proportional to women’s enrollment. But some critics say that the law hurts women’s wrestling because it tempts colleges to bypass sports with small rosters — wrestling typically fields about 20 to 30 women — in favor of sports like rowing, with teams of up to 60 members.

What’s left unsaid here is the name of the group that makes this argument — the College Sports Council. What’s also omitted is the fact that many schools have extreme difficulty finding enough athletes to fill out those large rosters — rosters they have trouble filling because the interest simply isn’t there.

To get a real idea of what’s driving young women to wrestle, you’d figure it might make sense to talk to some of those teenage girls who are swelling the ranks of the sports, something Thomas neglected to do. Instead, here’s a short video report out of the Bay Area that was filed back in 2006. What you’ll find is a group of young women who just want to compete, and aren’t interested in the sort of red tape and gender warfare the NCAA and other activists would like them to engage in.

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