It has been 12 years since the Yale wrestling team lost its varsity status. But recent Washington, D.C. stirrings have revived a Yale campaign to reinstate wrestling as a varsity sport.
In 1991, the 91-year-old Yale varsity wrestling program became a club sport. The Athletics Department’s decision was because of budget cuts and compliance with Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972.
The status reduction affected a sport with a storied past at Yale. The 27th U.S. President William Howard Taft, class of 1878 and a seventh generation wrestler, was Yale’s first intramural heavyweight wrestling champion. George S. Dole, class of 1906, was Yale’s first collegiate gold medalist in 1908.
By Feb. 28, the federal Commission on Opportunity in Athletics will send a formal report recommending looser standards for Title IX compliance to U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in all aspects of education, financial aid and athletics at public and private schools that receive federal funding, but critics argue that it discriminates against male athletes.
In the 1990s, cutting wrestling programs to comply with the Title IX proportionality clause was a popular move for universities across the nation. Steve Caruso, the president of the Committee to Save Bucknell Wrestling, said 400 colleges have cut wrestling since 1972.
“Given the behind-the-scene politics of Yale’s administrators and the alienation this decision caused back in the early 1990s under Benno Schmidt’s presidency, the subject of Yale wrestling seems to be a difficult cause to fight for,” said James Gutierrez ’99, former co-captain of the wrestling club. “There is much enthusiasm among alumni to bring Yale wrestling back, even if it means raising outside funds to do so.”
Yale’s 1991 decision to take away the wrestling team’s varsity status remains nebulous. At the time, the University did not enumerate reasons for its resolution, and Yale’s athletics director has since changed. And three NCAA wrestlers died during the 1991 season, raising questions about the sport’s training.
“I took over in ’94, and the wrestling club was already doing well,” Athletics Director Tom Beckett said. “I am sure that the original decision to cut the program was thoroughly assessed. There were many issues to be considered, and Title IX probably weighed in heavily.”
Vincent Panzano ’04, co-captain of the wrestling club, said Title IX is a necessary law, but he disagrees with its application.
“I am disappointed that our program was removed to conform to legislation and quotas, especially since many men still desire to participate,” Panzano said. “Athletes want to wrestle for Yale, but a varsity opportunity is nonexistent.”
Operating on a meager $4,000 annual budget, the club cannot afford a coach. The funds come from the dual endowment of the Yale Wrestling Association and the University. By comparison, Yale’s most highly-funded varsity sport, football, had 2002 operating expenses of $404,059.
Currently, the Yale Wrestling Association is suing the U.S. Department of Education over the Title IX legislation. The other plaintiffs are the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the Committee to Save Bucknell Wrestling, the Marquette Wrestling Club, and the National Coalition for Athletics Equity.
Since 1991, the wrestling club has struggled to find practice space in Payne Whitney Gymnasium and fund a full-time coach.
“We had a coach last year, a Princeton alum, Ryan Bonfiglio, but he donated his time just because of a desire to help out,” Panzano said. Bonfiglio is now working at his alma mater, leaving Panzano and Farrell as player-coaches.
As a club, the team is also not permitted to recruit players or use the varsity weight room.
Even with such limitations, the team has shined. In 1998, the Bulldogs competed against 32 university club squads at the inaugural National Collegiate Wrestling Association Championship in Dallas and came home with the title. Gutierrez and his co-captain Todd Scott ’98, who also captained the football team, were named Coaches of the Year at the event.
Taking the momentum from that championship win, Gutierrez and his teammates went before the Faculty Committee on Athletics to request that wrestling regain varsity status.
“Their request was denied because the committee looked at the menu of activities offered at Yale and felt that the University already offered a number of sports that best met the interests of the student body,” Beckett said. “Yale’s 35 varsity teams is extraordinary; most Division I schools don’t have a comparable number, with the majority in the high teens and low twenties. Students at Yale have an exceptional plethora of opportunities available to them.”
But the recent Washington debate over Title IX once again has piqued the interest of Gutierrez and other Yale alumni.
Currently, Yale and Dartmouth are the only Ivy League schools without varsity wrestling. Princeton’s program is a non-university-funded sport, run solely on donations. Gutierrez maintains that a similar approach could work at Yale.
“If budget becomes an issue, why doesn’t the university openly challenge wrestling alumni to foot the bill?” he said. “If [the University] is worried about alumni contributions to Yale’s endowment, they have underestimated the effect that slashing Yale wrestling had on alumni [donations] among wrestling alumni.”
At Yale, though there is an alumni push to reinstate the wrestling program, Beckett does not foresee any change in the near future, even with changes to the Title IX legislation.
“I don’t have a crystal ball before me, so I can’t be positive about any such decision,” Beckett said. “The University is aware of the interest, but we have to be mindful of many factors, and I really don’t see that wrestling will be added to the menu of Yale sports soon.”
Panzano said it will take time for Yale to welcome varsity wrestling into its athletics program again.
“We would need to build up the status of the club — get a coach, recruit, get a serious program going — before we could argue the need for reinstatement,” Panzano said. “The team has been neglected for too long to be able to instantly reinstate it.”