A Different Kind of Fight: Title IX and MMA

By Jake Rossen Jul 29, 2007
The pugilistic pride of Oklahoma State University, UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture (Pictures) originally began his college studies at Washington State in 1981.

Had he stuck to his intention of completing his education there, the mixed martial arts Hall of Fame might be short one member.

"They dropped the wrestling program at Washington State," remembered Couture. "Fortunately, I had already left and gone into the service and stopped my matriculation clock. It would've made a difference in my wrestling career.

"They cut it for two reasons. One, the coach was a knucklehead. Two, Title IX was their excuse and a way to get rid of wrestling."

Title IX -- a law created in 1972 to promote gender equality among high school and college pursuits, including athletics -- has in its 35-year history become a point of contention for critics who say that the policy has the ironic effect of discriminating against men and for advocates who believe that opportunity should be equal to enrollment.

The sport of wrestling has been one of the most notable programs to be wounded by the law's edicts, which state that there must be as many slots for female athletes as there are female enrollees. Since 1972, 448 colleges and universities have excised wrestling from their curriculum. Of the 146 Division I wrestling teams in 1981, only 87 remained in 2001.

And while the list of casualties has stabilized in recent years, grapplers continue to hemorrhage high-profile camps from Division I schools like James Madison, Eastern Illinois and Oregon*, which recently announced plans to cut wrestling in favor of baseball and women's cheerleading.

While the wrestling community has long maligned the trend, mixed martial arts fans have equal reason to be concerned. With fewer wrestlers at the collegiate level, the increasingly lucrative world of the combat sports might see fewer and fewer Greco-Roman and freestyle specialists, numbers that once helped elevate the expectations for athleticism in the sport.

"I'd say probably 30 percent or more of the guys I work with have a wrestling background," said Couture. "It's hard to imagine one without the other. I definitely saw MMA as an outlet for all the skills and tools and training that I'd developed through 30 years of wrestling."

The Title IX Debate

In order to receive federal funding, universities must comply with Title IX's gender equality mandates in one of three ways: typically, athletic slots must match the number of male and female students. If a school has a 60 percent female population, then 60 percent of its sport opportunities should be available to women. Colleges can also comply by displaying that its female students are satisfied with the current ratio, or by continuing efforts to maintain proportionality.

Because the latter two guidelines are vague in nature and can be easily challenged by Title IX supporters, schools usually opt for a head count of male and female athletes. In order to balance what is likely a disproportionate level of male interest, athletic directors have responded by eliminating less popular programs like men's wrestling, gymnastics, or tennis.

To add to the confusion, while 57 percent of the country's students are female, some are re-entries (adults who have returned to academics and display little propensity for athletics). Of the nearly 10,000 new female enrollments in fall 2005, roughly 42 percent are aged 25 years and over.

Donna Lopiano, Ph.D., the Chief Executive Officer for the Women's Sports Foundation, countered concerns over the erased programs by stating that the overall number of male athletes has grown in recent years.

"While wrestling and men's gymnastics have declined, new opportunities for men in lacrosse, soccer, and football have totally outpaced those for women," she argued. "Title IX does not tell schools how to comply."

But it does tell schools to make college athletics largely a case of counting heads, countered Gary Abbott, Director of Communications at USA Wrestling.

"They're basing whether discrimination happens based on a numerical quota that doesn't reflect on interest, but on actual enrollment," he said. "It allows for the elimination of opportunities for men, rather than the creation of new opportunities for women."

Billy Baldwin, an actor and former wrestler at Binghamton University who fought to save that school's wrestling squad, believes high-profile erasures like Oregon act as inadvertent sanctioning for other NCAA programs to follow suit.

Said Baldwin: "The sport of wrestling is an endangered species."

‘America's Martial Art'

Like his father, Casey Olson (Pictures) grew up a wrestler.

A North Regional Champion at Fresno State, Olson decided to pursue mixed martial arts. With four wins in five fights he credits collegiate grappling for the necessary work ethic and discipline needed to become a combat artist.

"It's a huge background to have as a skill," Olson said. "I've always told people it's easier to teach a wrestler how to fight than it is to teach a fighter how to wrestle. It's about years of learning how to use your body, your weight distribution. MMA is the next step up."

The sport's short history bears Olson's beliefs out. In addition to the five-time decorated Couture, wrestling has produced Dan Henderson (Pictures), Matt Lindland (Pictures), Mark Coleman (Pictures), and a laundry list of other mat artists who parlayed their superior athleticism and ground skill into title belts and profitable careers.

"There's a natural tie there," agreed Abbott. "Thirty percent of the International Fight League's athletes have a wrestling background. Wrestling is America's martial art. It's the one combat sport that's in our schools, junior high through college. If we're strong on the youth and college levels, it'll mean more successful wrestlers in MMA. It goes hand in hand."

While coaching at Fresno and prepping a fight career, Olson witnessed the effects of Title IX first hand. One summer, he received word that the school would be eliminating wrestling entirely. Worse, colleges had already done their recruiting for the following season.

Athletes had two options: they could either stay on to continue their scholarship while losing their reason for being there or find the money to continue wrestling at another school.

"We had some seniors who could've been very good, even All-Americans, but all of a sudden they had to decide did they just want to go to school, or did they want to try and transfer somewhere and finish up their wrestling?" Olson remembered. "Doing that for one year is a very hard thing, especially at the end of the year, when most colleges don't have money for a late transfer. And they have to make sure all their credits are transferable. It was just a really bad scenario."

Though Abbott believes elite-level wrestlers will continue to find outlets for their talents, it's the high school-level competitors who have yet to come into their own that may suffer the most.

"Where you see lost opportunities are the kids who don't have the financial means to be able to manage the situation if they're not given support," Abbott said.

"There are a lot of ‘Rocky' stories out there in wrestling, guys who were good solid high school wrestlers but were really able to excel at the college and international levels," the wrestling advocate continued. "By having fewer opportunities, you're not allowing that possibility for a number of people."

The Business of Wrestling

Nowhere is college spending on more elaborate, bombastic display than in their football programs. Coaches routinely command salaries in excess of seven figures; one school constructed a $300,000 lighting scheme for a practice field and then never used it.

Lopiano argues that it's this kind of gross over expenditure, not Title IX, that's killing fringe sports.

"How can you justify any one sport eating up 85 full scholarships and spending $2 million on a coach and sacrificing wrestling? Women are getting the raw end of that deal, too," she said.

While Abbott and others counter by saying football helps subsidize both men's and women's sports, the numbers don't bear that out. Because of such costly investments in cultivating winning teams, most NCAA football and basketball squads operate at a deficit: 60 percent of teams average losses nearing $4 million per year.

In contrast, wrestlers are able to forgo expensive travel schedules and equipment in favor of a mat. Many Division I teams could operate on an annual budget in the low six figures. Yale, which took away its varsity status in wrestling in 1991, had an expense cap of $4,000; their football program, $400,000. As an added insult, wrestlers were turned away from the varsity weight room.

Despite the cost of what Lopiano has dubbed the football "arms race," schools are still hesitant to accept contributions from fervent supporters of wrestling that raise funds to help programs stay viable. Princeton refused a $2.3 million grant to keep its 90-year-old wrestling legacy afloat, a sign that schools aren't concerned with money so much as they are the head count.

Lopiano believes that there's simply a lack of interest in wrestling -- "It's gone out of popularity" -- while Abbott bemoans the lack of support at the collegiate level for a surging high school base.

"You have entire states that have strong high school wrestling, like Florida, that have no wrestling programs," Abbott said. "Washington State has no Division I wrestling. It's not reflective of what's going on the sports community. It's a travesty."

The MMA Effect

Should Title IX's ramifications continue unhindered, MMA could conceivably see a shift in how bouts are contested.

"The Olympic and collegiate world-class wrestlers that stepped in to MMA early on raised the level of expectation of athleticism," said Couture. "Guys like Dan Severn (Pictures), Mark Coleman (Pictures), Don Frye (Pictures) and myself all came in around the same time, within a year or two of each other. It definitely influenced the sport.

"I think guys who have participated in wrestling have skills and a mindset that translate very well to fighting and MMA. It depends on the individual what they do with it."

Watching early events from embryonic promotions like the IVC reveals the extent of the wrestler's conditioning influence in the fight game. Fighters often wave off bouts not because they're hurt, but because their lungs are burning too hard to continue. Early UFC events were a showcase for paunchy weekend warriors in t-shirts, a gas tank prepared to take them no more than a few minutes.

"They didn't have the battle conditioning or the cardio conditioning," said Abbott.

For adolescents who someday dream of being a Las Vegas fight attraction, the only school-sanctioned outlet for developing those skills is in a high school gymnasium. But without support from the collegiate level, argued Abbott, the crucial level of ability needed for MMA won't be properly cultivated.

"I would contend that a lot of the athletes who want to become the Coutures or Hendersons realize they need to pursue the world or Olympic level," he said. "They need to be NCAA All-Americans. If wrestling is a core skill in MMA, the higher level of wrestling success you have should translate into a higher level of MMA success. That's going to be part of their career progression."

Olson, who has been featured in Strikeforce and the WEC, agrees.

"It's a sad thing to see," he sighed. "Josh Koscheck (Pictures) is a national champion. These guys won't have that kind of experience to get into MMA."

A combat sport without a substantial wrestling base, Olson continued, is going to be less dynamic. "It'd be like K-1. All stand-up, and then you'd have submissions," he speculated. "That's exactly how it would be. I think it's a lot more exciting this way because now guys who are wrestlers are becoming so well rounded and can mix other skills with wrestling.

"It makes for more of a show. You never know what's going to happen, if they're going to stand-up or get a double-leg and slam their opponent."

Solutions

Title IX has withstood several challenges in court, most notably from the National Wrestling Coaches Association, a coalition of mentors who decided to commemorate the law's 30th anniversary in 2002 by suing the Department of Education for men's discrimination.

Federal court rejected the suit, claiming that educational entities are still at liberty to cut or cap athletic endeavors for reasons unrelated to Title IX.

Nonetheless, Abbott says the recently formed College Sports Council is continuing an advocacy and educational response at the political level: "There are people out there who are educated and have all the best interests of the student athletes in mind that are trying to go out there and do battle in the political field and in the public realm on the issue."

Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, an ex-wrestling coach, has gone to bat for threatened programs by attempting to refine Title IX, though with only mixed results. But it's the communities, not the bureaucrats, who make the biggest difference, suggested Abbott.

"One of the main things wrestling can do on a college level is continue to have strong programs with good fan attendance, good alumni support, and to have coaches and athletes that represent the school and sport with dignity," he said. "You have to entrench every single program on campus so it's indispensable to that community."

Recently, USA Wrestling and the team-based IFL formed a partnership that will allow each organization to boost the profile of the other in the eyes of their two slightly disparate audiences. "They'll be doing some promotion of USA Wrestling through their media outlets and at some of their events," Abbott said. "And we'll be exposing people in wrestling to the opportunities in the IFL, trying to get people interested in the League."

Lopiano, who insists wrestling is a casualty partially because of the expensive football programs, believes that regeneration can start by examining the exorbitant coaching salaries found near blocking sleds and basketball hoops.

"The wrestling coaches are afraid to take on football," she charged. "Wrestling coaches should be crying for an antitrust exemption that would allow the NCAA to cap the football and basketball coaches salaries, which have become obscene. We're working on the exemption because we don't see any way to comply with Title IX if they're going to throw all the money into football."

While some argue money isn't the issue, and the quota is, more available funds would seemingly create as many women's opportunities as men's.

"If they do that, they're going to keep all the wrestling teams and they can comply with Title IX, too. But the college presidents won't do it," said Lopiano, because colleges who want to allocate funds to marquee sports like football can use Title IX as a scapegoat.

Baldwin, who drummed up support for Binghamton University's program, believes that even rival schools have cause to fight possible cuts in their conference. "If I were a wrestler on Oregon, I would literally go to every other university in the conference that we competed against," he said. "It's easy to rally these guys because they know the entire existence of the sport is being threatened.

"A couple of my friends wrestled at other universities, and some of the guys at Penn State supported Binghamton. To this day they keep writing checks to support the coach there. And I'm not talking 50 bucks. I'm talking $500, a $1,000."

Colleges also have the option of enlisting an intermediary like Valerie Bonnette, a former employee at the Office of Civil Rights who has an extensive history in Title IX education. She now operates Good Sports, Inc., a consulting form specializing in helping schools achieve gender equality without sacrificing tenured programs.

According to Bonnette -- who has recently authored a plain-English manual on Title IX compliance -- wrestling programs have been sacrificed due to a simple case of ignorance on the part of educational institutions who find complying with the other "prongs" of Title IX too involved or confusing.

"There are many programs in the country where women are under-represented and yet they're complying with Title IX," she said. "So the idea that schools have to drop men's teams is just wrong. They're making a choice. And in my opinion, many times it's an uninformed choice about what their compliance options are."

Schools, said Bonnette, typically choose proportionality only because they're fearful that they can't sufficiently prove compliance with the other options if challenged in a court of law. "Test one is very easy to understand. The idea that they can select numbers and protect themselves from a lawsuit is very enticing. There isn't a lot of clear explanation out there on how (the other two) work.

"But we have clients that are meeting test three and we could show that in court if we had to. Some of our clients have a student body that is 50 percent women, with 38 percent of them being sports participants. But they're complying, because they're offering everything for which there's interest, ability, and competition."

Looking Ahead

While wrestling continues to thrive at the high school level, offering combat sports experience to adolescents, women's advocacy groups are eyeing the disproportionate number of male athletes with intent to change it.

"There are many special-interest groups that are trying to enforce Title IX with the proportionality quota at the high school level," said Abbott. "Right now, there are about a million more high school boys competing than girls. If they put that into effect, you'd have to cut a million opportunities for boys in sports that compete."

Among that number could conceivably be the next Henderson or Sean Sherk (Pictures).

For Couture, normally so genial, the Title IX debate is cause for outrage. As a coach at Portland State, his program was on the chopping block twice due to Title IX concerns. Thanks to public support and outside funding, it was exempt from the guillotine.

"There's a huge contingent of high school wrestlers that now have to go out of state and seek other opportunities to compete in their sport," he said. "Olympic sports like wrestling take in the shorts to comply with gender equity quotas based on Title IX and that's not what it was intended to do. Rather than go out and raise money and create opportunities for women, they cut programs and take those funds and put them in women's programs to maintain the quota that Title IX lays down. It's not fair to the men.

"In my opinion, it's kind of a chickens--t way out."

For comments, email jrossen@sherdog.com

*Sherdog.com incorrectly identified Oregon State University as cutting wrestling for baseball.
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