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Wrestling's Dirty Secret
David Fleming
December 29, 1997
The NCAA should be called on the mat after three collegians died trying to shed pounds
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December 29, 1997

Wrestling's Dirty Secret

The NCAA should be called on the mat after three collegians died trying to shed pounds

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He died crawling to the scale. Glassy-eyed and pale, his legs too weak to hold him after he had shed nearly 17 pounds in three days, Jeff Reese collapsed and expired on the cold floor of a locker room in Crisler Arena on Dec. 9 in Ann Arbor.

Reese, a junior at Michigan trying to make weight in the 150-pound class for a wrestling meet against Michigan State, spent the last two hours of his life in a plastic suit, riding a stationary bike in a room in which the heat was cranked up to 92�. He was the third college wrestler to die in 33 days. Billy Jack Saylor, a freshman at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., and Joseph LaRosa, a senior at Wisconsin-La Crosse, died in November while cutting weight. Though the official causes of their deaths varied, Reese, Saylor and LaRosa died of the same thing: the self-inflicted torture of drastic weight loss, college wrestling's ugly secret.

For me—as for most former or current college wrestlers—Reese's death serves as a horrible reminder of the many times during my career I peeled off my plastic suit and slumped near a scale, too exhausted to move. Once, after cutting 16 pounds in two days much the same way Reese had—through starvation and dehydration—I was hospitalized in Rochester, N.Y., with a clogged salivary gland that had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. To prevent that from happening again, my coach said upon my return to campus that he was putting me on the Jesus Christ diet. "Forty days and 40 nights in desert conditions without food or drink," I remember him saying. "That ought to get you down to weight."

Dangerous weight loss has long been the norm in college wrestling. In fact, the amount of weight you can cut is a wrestler's warped, macho badge of honor. During my four years at Miami of Ohio, I saw wrestlers using laxatives and diuretics, while others suffered from bulimia or starved themselves. It was not uncommon for some of them to work out to the point of delirium. The only time I witnessed a coach supervising wrestlers' cutting weight, it was my impression he was there not as a precaution but to make sure we kept working out.

In its wrestling rule book, the NCAA strongly recommends that such practices as fluid deprivation and the use of diuretics, impermeable suits and hot rooms "should be prohibited," but it doesn't ban any weight-loss techniques. That fecklessness, coupled with a shrinking number of scholarships (in the last 15 years, 48 Division I schools have eliminated wrestling) and an already intensely competitive sport, fosters risk taking. Reese, a natural 170-pounder who was a highly successful high school wrestler in Wellsburg, N.Y., hadn't been able to break into Michigan's lineup this year until a spot opened at 150 pounds. So he killed himself trying to make that weight.

A week after the third death, five organizations active in wrestling, including the NCAA and USA Wrestling, did the typical public two-step. They held a 21-person conference call during which a joint committee was formed to address weight management in the sport. (A day later the FDA decided to look into whether the use of the dietary supplement creatine played a role in the deaths.) This lack of immediate action is cowardly. It's time to admit that if wrestling didn't all but encourage participants to exercise and diet to exhaustion, all three of these young men would still be alive.

For starters, the NCAA must ban plastic suits. Also, college wrestlers must no longer be allowed to weigh in 24 hours before matches, as opposed to the day of the match, because having a day to recover from excessive weight loss only encourages them to lose pounds in less time. Finally, the NCAA should institute random specific-gravity urine testing at weigh-ins, which can detect dehydration.

For the most impact, though, the NCAA should follow the lead of some state high school athletic federations. In Michigan, for example, all high school wrestlers must have their body fat calibrated before the season. Then, using a medical formula, a wrestler is given the minimum weight at which he is allowed to compete. Schoolboy wrestlers in Michigan are no longer emaciating themselves. The sport is thriving.

On the other hand, college wrestling is gradually disappearing. If schools continue to drop wrestling at the current rate, the sport will be finished at this level within 15 years. I used to think that would be a tragedy. But if wrestling can't do a better job of protecting its own, then maybe it deserves to perish. Better an entire level of competition than one more college athlete.