NCAA Wrestling

Rule Change Recommendations Include Leg-Pass Punishment and Optional Headgear

The annual NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee meeting took place this week and their recommended rule changes for college wrestling were released yesterday. Each of the recommendations must be approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel during a teleconference on June 13th. Among the issues at which the committee took aim are wrestlers lying on their back during a neutral scramble, mandatory headgear, facial hair, video review and the weight management program.

The headline for anyone who closely follows college wrestling is the recommendation that a wrestler in the neutral position who becomes stationary on his back will now be verbally warned by the official, a count will commence, and then, if the wrestler has been unable to get off his back by the time the count reaches three, a takedown will be awarded. The standard for being on your back in this instance is 90 degrees. This will be especially applicable in leg pass situations where the rules struggle to keep pace with technique. Now, there is a defined way to earn a takedown when your opponent tries to pass the leg that does not require establishing what has traditionally been defined as control.

This is going to take some getting used to as there is no doubt we will see takedowns awarded next season, assuming this change is approved, in positions that would have never been deemed control in the past. However, if both wrestlers understand that finding yourself on your back and being unable to get out of danger will be punished, there will certainly be an element of control to keeping your opponent in that situation. Often this season, we saw wrestlers defending a shot trap their opponents arms and force them onto their back using the leg that was attacked. This typically resulted in an odd position where one wrestler had a leg but was also clearly being held on their back by the defending wrestler. Sometimes that position was given as a takedown and nearfall, sometimes it wasn’t. This rule makes what is happening there crystal clear. Expect an adjustment period while wrestlers, coaches, and officials feel out the best ways to use this rule and defend against it, but with the verbal warning and a three count, there should be ample time to adjust in most cases. Those positions where wrestlers can’t escape that quickly will soon become positions to avoid.

Freedom of choice seemed to be the theme for the committee as they recommended making headgear optional and allowing facial hair up to a half-inch in length. These will no doubt be popular changes with the wrestlers themselves. The committee continues to recommend that head gear be worn in both practice and competition but believes that college athletes are to the point where the decision should be in their hands. Given all the times when a wrestler can train and compete without headgear, this is understandable regardless of where you stand on cauliflower ear. Those who wish to keep wearing it for protection are free to do so. Those who would simply cast it aside during freestyle or during non-school sanctioned workouts will no longer be forced to deal with it covering their already damaged ears.

The facial hair allowance is in a similar vein. While there could be some issues with abrasive stubble, those are easy enough to remedy at weigh-ins with a quick check and, if necessary, an encounter with a razor. Longer beards won’t pose that problem and there really is no good reason to continue banning them. The requirement that the skin beneath them be visible for skin examination could cause some differences of opinion, but overall I don’t see this as anything but a good thing.

One of the hot topics of the off-season has been video review and the suggestion that a third-party get involved in reviewing challenged calls. The committee recommended that this be allowed as an option for duals and tournaments, but did not recommend making it mandatory. This leaves college wrestling in a sort of limbo while we wait to see what each school and event will do. The budgetary concerns of hiring someone to review challenged calls are legitimate. However, if it isn’t required, who is going to feel so strongly about it as to take on that extra cost? If the NCAA tournament did so, that would be big news, but until we see what happens, this is squarely in the wait and see category.

The committee also recommended the challenge block system that we see in freestyle be implemented. This seems like a small change from the current system of walking to the scoring table, but it puts more onus on the coaches to make a timely decision on whether or not to throw the brick. If they wait too long, the challenge could be denied. In international wrestling, the athlete can refuse to challenge after the brick has been thrown. However, in college wrestling, once a coach challenges a call, that challenge cannot be withdrawn. I expect that once a brick is thrown, there will be no withdrawing it. Considering coaches had previously had the time it took them to walk over to the table to change their minds, this could increase the number of questionable challenges we see.

The weight management program also saw several recommended rule changes from harsher penalties for those violating the protocols, including for coaches and athletic directors, to changes in the timelines of when wrestlers need to certify as well as be at their lowest-allowable weight class. The biggest news here is the elimination of the February 15th deadline to reach a wrestler’s lowest-allowable weight class. The 1.5 percent weight loss per week limitation made this deadline superfluous, but eliminating it means we could see a wrestler at his post season weight for the first time at his conference tournament. I don’t expect that to happen much and that wrestler wouldn’t be able to earn an allocation for nationals for his conference, but it adds a little more flexibility for the rare case when it becomes necessary.

Overall, these recommended rule changes are good, though the glaring omission of any further clarification on the out of bounds stalling rules to potentially include a step-out rule will be questioned by some. Still, we asked for better guidance in the rulebook on leg pass scrambling and that has been addressed. The headgear requirement and facial hair prohibitions were unnecessary given we’re talking about adult athletes and they now will be gone. The challenge changes at least allow the possibility for good and added flexibility, where it makes sense in weight management, is also a positive. It will be interesting to see if any of these recommendations are rejected by the Oversight Panel, especially for headgear which likely few outside of the wrestling world will understand. Regardless, this is good work by the rules committee and should make for an interesting start to next season.