The time of winter sports is fast approaching, driving athletes back to the gym and arena with the onset of Oregon rain and mud in place of fields. For many, the comedown from the football season high is quelled by basketball as will be the case at several high schools and colleges around the state. At the University of Oregon, the men and women’s teams are suiting up for a fresh start and the indoor track and field team will be in the running for another championship. And yet for the fourth winter season, the Ducks fail to open their gym doors and revive a program that once thrived in the Oregon community.
It’s been nearly five years since University of Oregon cut its wrestling team. The decision came in 2007 when the University decided to add men’s baseball and competitive cheer. Duck wrestlers, coaches, and alumni rallied to file a lawsuit in 2008 but in the end the ruling in the courtroom was that the team filed too late. Since then the team has been nonexistent but the fight to bring the program back never died.
Helping to lead the cause is a nonprofit organization called Save Oregon Wrestling. The mission is simple – raise enough money to reinstate the wrestling program at UO. Deeply involved and still passionate for the cause is former University of Oregon wrestling coach Ron Finley. Though he stopped coaching at the school in 1998, his involvement and legacy has not dwindled as he helps fight for the team’s resurrection.
Finley started coaching the Ducks in 1970, two years before landmark gender equality legislation known as Title IX was enacted. Since it was passed, hundreds of college wrestling programs across the country have been cut. Many attribute this to Title IX taking funds from men’s sports to support women.
“I don’t think it hurt us too much here because we had a few programs that needed to be updated and stuff like that – the women’s programs – and they did that. I didn’t feel too much pressure from it. We did drop some programs,” Finley said. “It was kind of between swimming, baseball, and wrestling and they dropped two of the three. Wrestling, we made sure we had the smallest budget. Because they kept saying we can’t afford it. So we made sure we had the smallest budget out of all of them and stayed.”
Despite working on a tight budget and staying afloat for forty years, the wrestling team was put on the chopping block as seems to be the norm for many programs.
“They’d been thinking about it for three or four years. But they just made the decision. There was no you know university committee ruling on it or anything like that. They decided, let’s get rid of wrestling,” Finley said.
The timing was not surprising. In 2008 the University put in a $19.2 million dollar PK Park for the baseball team and let go of the wrestling team that according to Finley operated on a $600,000 budget. A major reason for cutting the program loose was a lack of attendance and in the end this was probably true. In fact, few programs at the University draw the numbers that the nationally ranked football team does.
And yet the wrestling team at Oregon wasn’t lacking talent. In 2006, Shane Webster won an NCAA championship for the University. More impressive was the fact that 70% of the team was homegrown – more than any other school team. In fact, if you consider our state’s wet conditions, it’s no wonder that wrestling is the 5th most popular sport among Oregon’s youth.
The fact is that the loss of the University of Oregon’s program is consistent with a pattern seen nationally. In 1998 there were 363 NCAA teams and by 2001 that number dropped to 229. For every 41 high school wrestlers there is one NCAA spot open. Wrestling is becoming an endangered program and yet participation at the high school and youth levels is only increasing.
In 2008 Oregon had 6000 certified wrestlers. According to numbers that means only 146 of them could go on to play in college.
“They don’t have a place to go. Look at the wrestlers we had this year. One was a national champion and one of the best kids to ever come out of the state. He’s going to Illinois. He’s from Eugene. You know, he’s just a local grown kid. Loved wrestling at Oregon and wanted to come to Oregon. But we don’t have it,” Finley said. “That’s talent we’re losing out of the state. We should have those kids in state.”
Only three collegiate wrestling programs remain in Oregon and yet in high schools throughout the state, wrestlers are thriving. In fact, the sport is also growing rapidly for women at the national level. This year we even experienced women’s wrestling in the Olympics.
For Oregon the loss of the program is especially tragic. For one of the biggest universities in the state to not have a wrestling team is disappointing, when we’re producing premier athletes in our own backyard. It’s a natural sport for the Northwest and one that should have the green and yellow (and many other college colors) taking the mat in pride. Fortunately for those still hoping, for youngsters hitting the mat for the first time, and high schoolers competing for a state championship, the fight hasn’t ended. Save Oregon Wrestling and Finley are still at work, still battling to take back their rightful place back at the University of Oregon.
According to Finley, the cause won’t end after four missed seasons. “Well, you know wrestlers are kind of special people. They don’t quit. They just don’t give up. You don’t win if you give up. So we just don’t give up.