OP-ED: Protect Pennsylvania wrestling, health of wrestlers

Josh Gray
PIAA wrestling championship, 
Thursday, March 5, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

We’re parents, coaches, former wrestlers, trainers, doctors and fans who oppose the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association's weight class reduction proposal.  We’ve come together to protect Pennsylvania wrestling from reducing its participants and putting student athletes' health at risk.  

Pennsylvania high school wrestling stands at a tipping point. The PIAA wants to reduce the number of weight classes from 14 to 13 at its June 15 meeting by eliminating an upper-weight class, which threatens the future of the sport for countless student athletes — and their health. The plan, designed to reduce forfeits and ties, would attempt to achieve this by changing 170-, 182-, 195- and 220-pound weight classes to 172, 189 and 215. 

So far, thousands have come out against this proposal by signing this petition:

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Josh Gray

But the lightest and heaviest weight classes will still have high forfeit rates compared to all others (106 pounds — 58% forfeits; 113 — 50%; 120 — 41%; and 285 — 41%).  Instead, the PIAA targets weight classes that aren’t the most heavily forfeited.

Some will say it’s just one weight class, but it’s so much more than that. It’s lost opportunities and potentially significant health issues for high school wrestlers. There are more than 400 wrestling programs in Pennsylvania. If this proposal passes, hundreds of student athletes will lose life-changing opportunities every year — and thousands in only a few years. For what? The new proposal will likely increase the percentage of forfeits versus wrestled matches in each season. 

The PIAA’s proposal not only lacks balance among the weight classes that contribute to forfeits, it also creates a huge weight disparity of 17 pounds from 172 to 189, and 26 pounds from 189 to 215. This places all the burden and significant health risks on student athletes, which unfairly penalizes juniors and seniors, who typically wrestle at these weights. 

With the PIAA plan, we will see wrestlers begin focusing on dramatic weight loss in the days and weeks leading up to the season to fit into new weight classes that aren’t their normal weight. The current system allows for more natural growth in weight as a high schooler ages. And that’s the point. These student athletes are still growing adolescents, who will be forced to take drastic action to gain or cut weight just to have a spot on the team. Some will just quit. Others will suffer terrible health consequences.

Changes in weight by student athletes to meet the new weight classes severely jeopardizes their health, including the threat of hypohydration and increased risk of ischaemic heart disease and stroke. That is why doctors strongly object to such changes.

For those who participate in the newly proposed weights, they will face higher risk of knee, shoulder, elbow, neck and spine injuries from the increased occurrences of physiological disparities. The PIAA could have shifted all the weight classes slightly and shared the burden among all the weight classes, thus minimizing health risks. Instead, it chose one spot to place all the burden to minimize Pennsylvania weight class differences between it and the national weight classes supported by other states in the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The current proposal also fails to put any responsibility on the coaches and athletic directors for their role and contribution to forfeits. Instead, the forfeit proposal penalizes a narrow group of student athletes and schools with full rosters. We believe the proposal should include an incentive to fill the lineup at every weight. Upon conclusion of any dual meet competition, if teams are tied, the winner should be the team giving up the fewest forfeits.

We’re asking the PIAA to delay its proposal and come up with a plan that is creative and balanced among the weight classes — one that maximizes participation and truly addresses forfeits. At this moment, the PIAA is so intent on going to 13 weight classes, it fails to see the cost. 

We believe there are creative solutions that can address the forfeit issue and maximize opportunities for student athletes. This is not just about the elite athletes, but wrestlers at all levels. The self-confidence, self-worth and self-discipline that our state's wrestlers garner will impact them for a lifetime.

The PIAA also must acknowledge that circumstances in society have changed. We are in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, which already has caused depression and anxiety for students. Eliminating a weight class and forcing extreme weight changes on students is unconscionable. At a time when parents are already worried about their children and school athletic participation, any change by the PIAA that increases health and safety risks for student athletes is unwise.

— Josh Gray is a businessman and proud wrestling parent. He resides in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.