Gophers coach Robinson critical of the NCAA’s actions

Allison Younge

Since the NCAA implemented its revised rules on cutting weight, Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson has come under heavy scrutiny for his outspoken criticism of the changes.
“We have no studies, no scientific data,” Robinson said. “They’re getting ready to change the weight classes, based upon what — what they think? That’s the thing that bothers me, to change just to change isn’t going to solve anything.”
The deaths of three college wrestlers in 33 days late last year prompted the NCAA to take emergency rule-changing measures. In his 12th year as Gophers head coach, Robinson said new rules are reactionary and do not deal with the root of the problem.
College wrestling is divided into 10 classes, separated by the individual wrestler’s body weight. As long as that is the case, Robinson said, cutting weight will remain a part of the sport. The new rules don’t take human nature into account — if a wrestler knows that he can win in a lower weight class, he’ll find a way to make it happen.
“Everybody’s fine with it now because everyone is up a weight class,” Robinson said. “But what happens next year, when the guy at 34 can’t win at 34. Now, he either goes to 26 and even though he wrestles terrible he wins, or he stays at 34 and loses. I’ll tell you where he’ll go.”
“Dropping down” has been a common practice for wrestlers in search of gaining an edge over their opponents. Being able to wrestle in a lighter class with a bigger body frame usually proves to be advantageous to those who can accomplish it. While wrestlers and coaches have been the at the center of recent weight-cutting controversy, Robinson thinks that the responsibility is more widespread.
On Jan. 13, the NCAA safeguards committee enacted new rules in hopes of ending the deadly trend that occurred at the beginning of this season. One of the rules stated that a wrestler could weigh-in no more than two hours before the scheduled meet.
In years past, wrestlers weighed in a maximum of five-hours before a college match. In April 1996, however, the NCAA altered the weigh-in timing period. The new rule stated that a wrestler could weigh-in no more than five hours before a match, “unless mutually agreed upon” by the coaches.
In tournaments, the weigh-in time was determined by the tournament committee, but was usually set for 24 hours before the match. For dual meets, most coaches agreed to allow their wrestlers to weigh-in the day before as well.
Recently, the NCAA has felt pressure to explain why the change was made. Marty Benson, playing rules liaison for the NCAA Wrestling Committee, said the ultimate decision on when to weigh-in rested with the coaches, not the governing body.
“It seemed that most coaches agreed that it would take place 24 hours before the match,” Benson said. “So other than in tournaments, the 24-hour rule that seems to be quoted in many places (as being implemented by the NCAA) really didn’t exist.”
But while the 24-hour weigh-in rule did not exist in actuality, the lengthy weigh-in period was permitted by the NCAA Safeguards Committee — the group established to promote the safety and well-being of college athletes. This permission led coaches to believe the practice was safe. If the NCAA instituted night-before weigh-ins prior to its own tournaments, what harm could come from weighing in the night before dual meets also?
The 1996 change prompted wrestlers to attempt to cut more weight, knowing that they had time to rehydrate and rejuvenate their bodies before their matches. In turn, that rule modification might have contributed to three fatal cases of excessive dehydration — an issue that has been cleverly sidestepped by the NCAA, Robinson said.
“One of the reasons why the NCAA wasn’t thinking of changing the rules at first was they were worried about being sued,” he said. “It went to their legal department and their legal department said, ‘If we make major changes now that’s an admission of guilt.’ So here you’ve got the NCAA not enacting anything because they’re not worried about the kids, they’re worried about themselves.”
Throughout the past month and a half, the Gophers coach has not held back when speaking about college wrestling’s governing body. In the past 70 years, not one death has been recorded as a result of cutting weight in college wrestling. The only rule change made within the past half century was the night-before weigh-in rule permitted in dual meets and implemented in tournaments by the NCAA.
“Are they taking any responsibility for this? No. They’re trying to dump it on the wrestling community,” Robinson said. “So I am the lone voice because everyone else is worried about repercussions. Here’s an organization that made this change, the change brought about excessive dehydration, three people have now died possibly because of it. Whose fault is it? (Wrestling) never had any (deaths) before this, but nobody wants to touch the NCAA.”
While Robinson is unhappy with the way the sport of wrestling has been criticized, he called the three deaths a tragedy and is sensitive to the thought of losing an athlete.
An active member of the wrestling community for nearly 40 years, Robinson said he’s seen the dark extreme of weight cutting. To avoid it, he works to instill a sense of personal responsibility in his athletes as they work to shed weight. But even Robinson says there are no guarantees.
“What you try to teach you guys is here are the parameters, but it’s not an exact science. Every guy’s body is different. People want guarantees, but there are no guarantees in life,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
With the new rules in place, Robinson will continue to argue that studies should be done to find out the most efficient method of cutting weight without suffering adverse effects. What Robinson wants immediately is for the NCAA Safeguards Committee to step forward and explain its reasons behind the new rule changes.
“I’m not opposed to making rule changes, I’m not opposed to doing what’s best for the athlete — I think I’m just the opposite,” Robinson said. “I think I’m the one that really wants to find out what’s best for the athlete, instead of just making a bunch of changes, just to make changes.”