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Participation In High School Sports Is Falling ... But Not In Girls' Wrestling08:53
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Despite the decreasing participation in most high school sports, girls wrestling has been booming. (Jim Bryant/AP)
Despite the decreasing participation in most high school sports, girls wrestling has been booming. (Jim Bryant/AP)

We're amid this era in which participation in high school sports is going down. And you can blame concerns about concussions or helicopter parents, and you can blame those video games. We love to blame video games. But the numbers don't lie. They're stark.

Across the board, participation in high school sports is down — region to region — across the United States, except in a few specific instances. And my colleague, Rachel Bachman at The Wall Street Journal, has found one: girls' wrestling.

That's right. At a time when participation in high school boys wrestling is flat, going down, girls' wrestling is booming. It grew by close to 30% last year alone. Half the states in the country are gonna have a girls' wrestling tournament this year. So, I asked Rachel, to come on with us at Only A Game to tell us about this delightfully surprising story.

JG: First of all, how did you learn about this? Who's your deep wrestling contact here?

RB: Well, I've always loved to track trends in sports. And especially high school sports, because that's when most Americans get exposed to them and really get involved. And I saw the numbers of girls' wrestling, and I about had to rub my eyes 'cause they're just so counter to all the other trends.

JG: So, there have always been young women who've come out for high school wrestling. However, they've been told, "All right, you gotta be on the boys' team." And that's not the most hospitable environment, right?

RB: It's not. It's downright awkward. And, of course, we're talking about teenagers, right? Who are squaring off against each other at the most awkward time of their lives. So, yeah, it's been less than ideal.

JG: And there have been controversies. I mean, there have been situations, right, where you've had girls' wrestlers who have competed with boys, and then boys who are so unwilling to wrestle them that they forfeit matches.

RB: Yeah. I mean, in fact, you know, just last winter in Colorado at the state tournament, a boy refused to wrestle two girls he was on track to wrestle against. And he cited sort of personal and religious reasons for doing that. And those girls end up finishing fourth and fifth in the state in the boys' state tournament. So that shows, one, the lingering stigma of wrestling against girls for some boys, and also that there are girls who still stick in there and wrestle against boys.

JG: Sure, of course. So, what we're talking about here is this momentum with girl-specific teams, and where is this coming out of? Is there a state or a region of the country that has really embraced this and pushed on it?

RB: There have been some groups like Wrestle Like A Girl, a non-profit that's really pushed this, and USA Wrestling that really recently has advocated for schools to add teams and for states to add state tournaments. But Texas and Hawaii were really the pioneers. They had girls' state tournaments in the late '90s, and that was even before women's wrestling was added to the Olympics, which was in 2004.

As you mentioned, high school sports in general are really stagnating. So, any potential area of growth, schools have to look at. And also, you know, boys' wrestling for various reasons has sort of ebbed and flowed, and adding a girls' team can really bolster the boys' program.

JG: Oh, that's interesting. So you're saying that when you have this healthy girls' team, it actually creates a situation where more boys are going out for the boys' team?

RB: Yeah, I mean, everyone wants to be in the place to be, right? And so the more athletes on a team, the more exciting it is for everybody.

JG: Now, you note in the story that it's taken quite a while for schools to figure this out. But this is not a case of Title IX happening, and everyone just throwing together a girls' wrestling team. We are more than a generation removed from that. What was the delay all about here?

RB: That's a great question. It really was this chicken and egg situation, where girls' teams didn't exist because not enough girls came out to justify them. And then girls weren't comfortable coming out for high school wrestling because there weren't separate girls' teams. And it really did take some advocacy groups and USA Wrestling to say, "Hey, we've gotta stop this cycle and really create some places for girls to go."

JG: There are a couple references in the story to kind of old male attitudes about this: the idea, like, "We can't let girls wrestle. What are you talking about?" Did you encounter much of that when you were doing this?

RB: Yeah, absolutely. This is a very old, relatively conservative sport. For instance, there was a long-time volunteer and wrestling dad in Indiana who said his daughter wanted to wrestle, and he really balked at that. He saw wrestlers as hard-nosed and gritty and not the things he saw in his daughter. But after she started, he acquiesced,  and he saw her confidence go up and her will to succeed. And she became more decisive, and she got good at it. And he just did a 180.

JG: So he just saw all these benefits.

RB: Absolutely. And, you know, of course, it was still wrestling. I think that was the other thing. It sort of demystified that — you know, he thought maybe this is gonna be a totally foreign form of the sport. It's still wrestling, you know?

"He thought maybe this is gonna be a totally foreign form of the sport. It's still wrestling, you know?"

Rachel Bachman

JG: Well, boundaries are dropping across combat sports, it seems. You know, we see with mixed martial arts and certainly in women's boxing, there are getting to be big names, sometimes household names, from those sports. And these were sports that less than a decade ago said, "We'd never, ever do this in a million years."

RB: Yeah, things have changed really quickly. And, of course, with the speed of the Internet and social media, there's a whole generation of girls who are seeing that. And these things are just normal for them now.

JG: And I imagine there's no substitute for actually seeing it in action. And I'm sure you got the opportunity to watch some high school girls' wrestling. And what is the atmosphere like?

RB: I mean, it's very similar. You know, a lot of the times the meets coexist — like state tournaments. Things like that are held in the same place. So, there's a lot of the same kinds of energy. And remember, you know, moms and dads, they have girls and boys, of course. And so a lot of them have one kid on one team and one kid on another. And so, because it is such a tight knit sport, there really is less and less this sort of harsh division between the girls and boys.

JG: I have a son and a daughter, and they can both outwrestle me now, and they're both under 10 — sadly for me. What happens to women wrestlers who are competing after high school, when they want to go on to compete at the next level in collegiate wrestling? As far as I can tell, it's not a sanctioned NCAA sport as men's wrestling is.

RB: That's right. It's not an official sport that the NCAA holds a championship for. But that is starting to change. A committee at the NCAA actually voted to make it an emerging sport, which essentially means it's up next to become official.

And of course, there are many, many women in college. In fact, in many places, there's more women than men. And so, many colleges want more sports that women can participate in. So they're welcoming new sports, certainly, with open arms.

JG: Rachel, it wasn't that long ago that the Olympics were considering getting rid of wrestling, which is sort of unimaginable considering it was one of the original Olympic sports. But it's back now. Is it safe?

RB: Yeah, I think it is safe. And it was really shocking when it was cut from the Olympics. And it never — to be clear  —  it never actually missed an Olympic Games. But it was going to be dropped for 2020, believe it or not. These were gonna be the first games that there was no wrestling.

The International Olympic Committee really wanted to send a message to wrestling that it needed to have kind of clearer rules and [a] more exciting format. And it also needed to include women more. I think they're gonna find, particularly with with Japan being so strong in women's wrestling, that this is really a popular sport at the Tokyo Games.

JG: Are there lessons here, Rachel? Bigger lessons about the ways that women's sports can be expanded?

RB: Yeah, I think one is having role models. Although the girls I talked to didn't bring her up specifically, I think the fame of Ronda Rousey and female MMA stars have normalized the idea that women and girls could do combat sports and win with aggression and lose with grace and, you know, all these things that boys and men do, too.

So, one is models. The other is just creating an environment where girls feel welcome. Making sure that, if one girl comes out for the wrestling team, maybe trying to recruit another girl, so she's not completely alone. Or recruit a female manager, just to make her slightly more relaxed and not the only one in the room. You know, little things that the people who are advocating for girls wrestling have found can make a huge difference in a girl sticking around or leaving after a day or two of feeling pretty left out.

This segment aired on January 18, 2020.

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Jason Gay is a contributor to Only A Game. 

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