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How the NCAA Waived Its Own Rules and Set the Stage for Controversy

Grapple on the Gridiron

This article originally ran on January 29th, 2017.  We’re running it again with Ohio State and Penn State appearing to be in a close battle for the 2018 NCAA title.  The situation remains in effect.

In 1978, Iowa took home their third national title, winning by the smallest margin in NCAA Division I wrestling history. That year, they defeated Iowa State by just half a point, 94.5-94. The two teams scored an identical number of points outside of the pigtail round, however, Mike DeAnna (Iowa) got a fall in his pig-tail match, then worth one bonus point, while Kelly Ward (Iowa State) only won by major decision, then worth half a point. That would be enough for the Hawkeyes to be crowned champions. Had either team not drawn their pig-tail, the other would have won.

Back then, a win in the pig-tail round earned one advancement point and there were no bye points, the additional advancement scored for a win in the next round after a wrestler has received a bye. That meant that drawing a pig-tail was an advantage as wrestlers could both earn additional bonus points and earn an extra advancement point to help their teams. Byes were randomly drawn into the bracket so any wrestler could draw a pig-tail. Given that seeded and unseeded wrestlers alike all had the same chance of receiving a bye, this was accepted as part of the tournament.

In 1985, bye points were introduced. While I can’t say for certain why the change was made, part of the rationale may have been so that wrestlers who advance to the same point in the bracket, beyond the opening round, would have earned the same number of advancement points. A win in the championship pigtail round would still be worth one advancement point but now those wrestlers who did not draw a pig-tail could earn that missed point by winning in the first-round. This was the most equitable solution as it rewarded wrestlers for winning a pig-tail, but also did not penalize those who did not get that opportunity. There was still an issue with pig-tail wrestlers having an additional opportunity to score bonus points, but the fact that all wrestlers could be drawn into a pig-tail kept that from being too much of an issue.

Fast forward to 2013 and the committee in charge of scoring the NCAA tournament asked for and received a waiver to the part of rule 4.4.2 that requires the award of bye points in the championship and consolation bracket. I spoke to Anthony Holman, Associate Director of Championships and Alliances at the NCAA, who confirmed the waiver remained in place and would be for the 2017 national tournament. The rule requiring bye points remains in the rulebook, but will not be enforced once again this year.

When this change was made, seeded wrestlers could still receive a pig-tail so, while there may have been some inequity involved, every wrestler entered the tournament on the same footing. However, with the introduction of 16 seeds for the 2014 tournament, seeded wrestlers were no longer eligible for a pig-tail match. This is when the waiver became problematic. Unseeded wrestlers who draw a pig-tail now get an advantage over every other wrestler in the field. Not only do they get an opening match against another unseeded wrestler, a privilege that only seeded wrestlers get otherwise, but that match scores full advancement that can never be matched by any other wrestler. Adding to the inequity is that the loser of the pig-tail gets a second bite at the apple, falling into a consolation pigtail against a round one loser. That match also scores full advancement, in this case, half a point, that other wrestlers will never have the opportunity to earn.

Imagine this scenario, Penn State and Oklahoma State head to St. Louis and battle through a thrilling national tournament across three days. The team title is still in the balance Saturday night and, in the final bout of the night, Bo Nickal knocks off Gabe Dean to win the title for the Nittany Lions by a single point. That is pretty much the ideal scenario for wrestling, right? Now, imagine how ridiculous that scenario would look if Jimmy Gulibon missed out on being seeded, had drawn a pig-tail at 141, won it, and then lost his next two matches. An inequitable rule that only applies to wrestlers outside of the top-16 at their weight would have decided the national title. This is the antithesis of what the NCAA wrestling tournament is all about.

Now, there will always be some inequity in wrestling tournaments. There is not a good solution for handling medical forfeits and anytime you have an uneven bracket, luck of the draw will have some impact. However, bye points limit the advantage of pig-tails and make more sense than ever in the 16-seed era. Frankly, when the move away from bye points was made initially, I assumed the NCAA would enact the old high school rule since changed, where a round with less than half of the wrestlers in the bracket having matches does not earn advancement at all. This is similar, in effect, to awarding bye points in that all wrestlers who reach a certain round of competition will have earned the same number of advancement points. However, this is not the case. The NCAA feels all matches should earn advancement as they are all a part of the NCAA Wrestling Championships. If that is how they feel, they should reinstate the bye points.

The scenario described above is unlikely to happen, of course. Few tournaments are decided by a single point and even fewer are decided by a single point earned in the pig-tail round. Still, two tournaments under relatively modern scoring systems, 1965 and 1978, were decided by one point or less. It is only a matter of time until something like this happens. Why wait until that happens to change this inequitable rule? Bye points should be restored, the NCAA tournament should be scored in accordance with the rules in the NCAA wrestling rulebook and all wrestlers who get beyond the first round should have earned the same number of advancement points. That won’t be the case in 2017.

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