Wrestling is the world's oldest sport. It was part of the ancient Olympic Games. It is the sixth most popular boys' high school sport, and its participants at the national high school championship level maintain a 3.0 grade-point average.
Unfortunately, at the collegiate level, wrestling has been "pinned" under the weight of tough decisions caused by legislation and tight budgets.
To comply with a key aspect of Title IX (requiring equitable accommodation of the interests and abilities of both sexes), many universities nationwide have striven to achieve "substantial proportionality" – that is, having women represented among all varsity athletes to the same degree that they are represented among all students at the school. This has forced those institutions to cut male sports or strip them of varsity status.
Since Title IX was enacted in 1972, more than 1,000 men's college sports programs have been eliminated. College wrestling programs have been particularly hard hit.
According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, more than 430 college wrestling teams have been cut nationwide, including 34 in Pennsylvania alone. Swimming and tennis also rank high among discontinued men's college teams.
Being able to offer many sports to meet the varied interests of male and female students and still provide equal opportunities as required by Title IX is a challenge. Private gifts and the wise use of them are one way to maintain as many sports as possible for both males and females, generally to improve collegiate sports programs, and to avoid diverting scarce resources from other educational efforts.
At Bucknell University, we worked for years to reshape our athletics program to reach compliance with Title IX and the principles of gender equity. We added women's teams and tightly managed men's roster sizes.
One of the most difficult steps we took came in 2001, when we chose to discontinue wrestling and men's crew as varsity sports and reclassified them as club-varsity, meaning they would not draw direct university support.
We regretted that this step disrupted the plans of students, some of whom chose to leave Bucknell to continue collegiate wresting careers elsewhere. Yet, we were able to achieve "substantial proportionality" under Title IX, with men's and women's participation rates of 51 percent and 49 percent, respectively.
Last month, we were pleased to announce the acceptance of a $5.6 million donation by William Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of The Graham Company in Philadelphia.
The gift, split equally between men's and women's sports, will provide for restoring wrestling as a varsity sport, growing the novice component of women's crew, and better supporting other women's sports.
Ironically, this infusion of funds for women's sports has enabled Bucknell to reinstate men's varsity wrestling.
Philanthropy is a great way to help prevent particular sports programs from losing varsity status and generally to bolster athletics programs. Our experiences with Mr. Graham suggest several steps to take:
Educate likely donors about your needs. Mr. Graham, a 1962 graduate, was an outstanding wrestler and team captain at Bucknell. He is a longtime supporter of sports programs here. But while his interest in wrestling was deeply rooted, we also were able to help him understand that by assisting women's programs, he could help perpetuate men's opportunities as well.
Make sure the effects of donations follow Title IX guidelines. We will add a comparable number of athletes in wrestling and women's crew during the next four years.
Don't close doors. Bucknell worked hard to keep the door open for an act like Mr. Graham's, facilitating club-varsity wrestling even when varsity status could not be maintained.
Subscribe to the scholar-athlete model. Bucknell led all the nation's colleges and universities with a 100 percent graduation rate among student-athletes last year, and it ranks third in Division I in producing Academic All-Americans. Keeping athletics in perspective not only is best for students, but also appeals to enlightened donors such as Bill Graham.
Donors' generosity can be integral to the improvement and success of collegiate wrestling programs.
The need exists for more Bill Grahams to step up to support women's programs so that worthy endeavors like wrestling are not affected.
With the right amount of planning, the impact of working with donors can lead to maximum benefits for collegiate wrestlers and many other student-athletes over a long period of time.