By Matt Foley
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 and National Wrestling Hall of Fame Distinguished Member 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.”
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 Distinguished Member 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.”