New NCAA wrestling rules for 2015-16 season
Posted by Mark Palmer on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 1:42 AM UTC

The 2015-16 college wrestling season is about to start … and with that new season, some new rules to address issues such as injury timeouts, concussions, stalling … along with clarification as to how to deal with scoring or timeclock issues like those in the 157-pound quarterfinals match between Cornell’s Brian Realbuto and Kent State’s Ian Miller at the 2015 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships last March.This year, the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee approved rules for the next two seasons governing NCAA Divisions I, II and III. Wrestlers, coaches, officials and fans can read the 148-page “2015-16 and 2016-17 NCAA Wrestling Rules and Interpretations” book, and watch a 45-minute video that explains and provides demonstrations of some of the new rules.

In addition, we thought it might be helpful to provide deeper insight into the new rules and the thinking behind them … so we contacted Chuck Barbee, named secretary-rules editor for the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee this past September. The former head coach of the Army wrestling program graciously agreed to provide an explanation of the most significant rule changes and what they might mean to the sport, its participants, and fans.

Neutral-position stalling

The first issue Barbee addressed was rule 5.9.2 regarding stalling. In a nutshell, when wrestling action is halted in the neutral position when both wrestlers go out of bounds, the mat official is obligated to make one of three calls: a) stalling on one or both wrestlers for leaving the wrestling area; b) stalling for pushing or pulling the opponent out of bounds; or c) wrestling action is taking place.

Barbee described the rule change as being an “interesting and exciting rule” and as “a positive change,” adding, “The goal of the rule change is that, as wrestlers approach the edge, hopefully they will circle back to the center and continue wrestling” — all with the idea of maintaining action, and eliminating unnecessary delays.

“The rule is designed to benefit the well-conditioned, well-nutritioned athlete,” Barbee continued. “People want to see actively engaged wrestling. We’re trying to encourage wrestlers to be aggressive and remain on the mat … We hope this will help wrestlers ‘let it fly.'”

“This rule change is intended to maintain the core values of folkstyle (collegiate) wrestling yet make the sport innovative,” said Barbee, addressing the idea that some within the college wrestling community who have lobbied for some sort of pushout rule like those featured in international style wrestling. “We’re trying to think outside the box.”

Waist and ankle-ride stalling

Continuing on the subject of stalling, Barbee then addressed another type of stalling — what he referred to as “waist and ankle ride,” or what rule 5.9.3 refers to as “Stalling — Offensive and Defensive Position.” To quote the NCAA rule book: “When the offensive wrestler positions himself with one or both hands below the buttocks of the defensive wrestler, the referee shall immediately start a verbal and visual five-second count. The referee shall stop the count when the offensive wrestler improves his position, moves his hold back up above the buttocks of the defensive wrestler, or releases the hold. If the referee reaches the fifth count before the offensive wrestler improves his position, moves his hold back up above the buttock, or releases the hold, the offensive wrestler shall be called for stalling.”

“We’re trying to get the offensive wrestler to do more than just hang on,” explained Barbee. “The idea is force the top wrestler to be more active, and help the bottom wrestler escape.”

Injury timeout

Barbee then addressed rule changes regarding two different sets of injury timeouts, one for situations where a possible concussion is NOT an issue (rule 6.1.2), and the other, where one of the wrestlers may indeed be suffering from a concussion during a match (rule 6.2.5).

Barbee stated that these rules are the result of an NCAA Sports Science Summit, where the focus was “how can we improve health and safety for wrestlers.”

In an injury timeout where a concussion is not suspected, the injured wrestler cannot be coached. “A coach can initially help calm his wrestler down,” according to Barbee. “Once the kid has calmed down, the medical professional needs to be able to do his job.”

“The focus needs to be on the injured wrestler and the medical professional.”

“There is a 90-second window for treatment of an injury,” Barbee continued. “The referee won’t start injury time until the medical personnel is able to attend to the wrestler on the mat. This gives athletes a chance to be properly evaluated.”

As for concussions … the topic has received considerable coverage in recent years, especially with regards to all levels of football, from peewee to professional. However, it is also a significant issue in amateur wrestling as well … perhaps most notably in the 2011 NCAA Division I heavyweight finals, where Columbia’s Ryan Flores appeared to exhibiting signs of having been concussed (such as staggering on the mat), but the match was not stopped.

Barbee shared a statistic that demonstrates the significance of ensuring that wrestlers who may have suffered a concussion get a proper evaluation and care: wrestling has the highest rate of concussion in sports … higher than football.

“In football, a player can be taken off the field, be evaluated on the sidelines or behind-the-scenes, while a substitute takes his place, and action continues,” said Barbee. “You can’t do that in wrestling.”

The new rules make clear that a mat official can suspend a match, and the athlete who may have been concussed can be evaluated properly, without an injury timeout, and without any penalty, even if that means a match delay of 6-8 minutes, according to Barbee. As he put it, “a medical professional can usually tell if there’s a serious concussion within 60 seconds of examining the injured wrestler.”

Barbee made clear as to how a concussion evaluation can be requested, saying, “The referee or medical professionals are the ones who can request a concussion timeout. The wrestler who suspects he may be concussed may also ask for a timeout. Coaches cannot ask for this.”

The evaluation may take place on the mat, or on the sidelines, or even away from the mat, for example, in an examining room within the facility hosting the event. Again, there’s no time limit for a concussion evaluation. Once the evaluation is complete, there are one of two outcomes: the wrestler can pass the evaluation and continue to compete … or, if he indeed has suffered a concussion, the match concludes, and an injury default is declared.

Nearfall point values

NCAA rules have been modified to add a four-point nearfall (rule 2.9.2) in addition to the two-point nearfall, where, if the offensive wrestler has the opponent in “controlled pinning situation” within four inches of the mat while in bounds, near-fall points can be awarded, based on the length of time the offensive wrestler has his opponent nearly pinned — two points for holding the opponent for two seconds uninterrupted, four points for holding the opponent for four seconds uninterrupted. The referee must provide a verbal count — and, when possible, a visual hand count — to make clear to all that a nearfall is taking place.

“We’ve taken away the ‘hold guy down’ stalling tactic,” explained Barbee. “The top guy will be motivated to work on turns and pinning combinations, while the bottom guy will be motivated to work to get out from under.”

Clarifications and “points of emphasis”

Some aspects which may be visible to astute fans in the upcoming season aren’t necessarily full-blown rule changes, but, more accurately, clarifications of existing rules … or highlighted as a “point of emphasis” by the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee within the actual rule book and in the 45-minute explanatory video.

One of these is the result of the 2015 NCAA Miller-Realbuto quarterfinals bout at 157, where the scoreboard indicated an incorrect score, which eventually sent the match into sudden victory, ultimately resulting in a win for Cornell’s Realbuto, who advanced to the finals. During the quarterfinal round, Kent State coaches protested the result; however, at the time, the NCAA ruled that they did not challenge the score during the match, therefore the result would not be reversed.

In explaining the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee clarification for 2015-16, Barbee said that coaches can approach the scoring table if there’s an issue with either the time on the clock, or the score of the match on the scoreboard. “All match disputes must be resolved during the match, before the wrestlers leave the mat, or before the score sheet leaves the scoring table. Tournament officials can’t adjudicate match outcomes.”

Barbee made it clear that this is NOT a completely new rule, but a clarification of an existing rule, in light of what happened at the 2015 NCAAs and the considerable discussion within the wrestling community afterward.

A couple issues addressed by the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee may fall into the category of sportsmanlike behavior on the part of participants. First, there was a modification of rules governing “control of mat area” (rule 3.13.5). There is now a more stringent penalty structure for coaches who violate rules such as leaving the matside coaching box, interfering with the work of the referee, or badgering officials. With the new penalty structure, a coach is given a warning upon the first infraction. On the second infraction, the coach’s team is penalized one team point. If there’s a third violation, there’s a two-point team penalty, and the coach is ejected from the remainder of the competition.

A new point of emphasis is what the NCAA refers to as “post-match protocol” (rule 3.14). This covers behavior immediately after the conclusion of the match, before the wrestlers leave the mat area. “Contestants will give a traditional handshake in a sportsmanlike manner,” according to the text from the actual rules. The Wrestling Rules Committee seeks to emphasize sportsmanlike behavior after a match, and get wrestlers to refrain from hand slaps and half-hearted handshakes. When asked about the “point of emphasis” aspect governing this rule, Barbee said that coaches have been asked to talk about this rule and expectations for proper end-of-match behavior, and that referees have been reminded to enforce these rules.

An experimental rule for the 2015 All-Star Classic

In the past couple years, the NWCA All-Star Classic — the season kickoff event featuring two of the top wrestlers in each weight class facing off against each other in an annual exhibition that dates back to 1967 — has served as a testbed for trying out new rules in a highly controlled environment … with an eye to possibly wider implementation if the experimental rule works as intended at the All-Stars.

For the 2015 All-Star Classic to be held in Atlanta on Nov. 1, there’s one experimental rule: all takedowns will be worth three points.

“We wanted to see about having a greater differential between a takedown — traditionally worth two points — and an escape, which is one point,” said Barbee in explaining the rationale for the increase in point value for this one event. “We also wanted to provide a bit more of a reward for action, and make it more obvious when one wrestler is scoring takedowns at will, then cutting his opponent loose. For example, with traditional point values, a wrestler who’s scored three takedowns and cut loose his opponent the same number of times, the score would be 6-3. With this experimental scoring, that same action would result in a 9-3 score, which is arguably a more accurate portrayal of that kind of dominance.”

Chuck Barbee made clear that the new rules — as well as newly-placed emphasis on some existing rules — are the result of careful, thoughtful deliberations from the members of the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee.

“We had a total of 23 hours of discussion over the course of three days,” Barbee said. “When we consider changes, our goal is to make the sport safer for the athletes, and more exciting and satisfying for the fans.”