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David Crisanti Headshot

May the Best Man Win

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Did you watch any of the NCAA Division I conference wrestling championships on TV or in person last weekend? Probably not -- it seems only wrestlers watch wrestling. Scan the crowd at a wrestling match and you will see an inordinately large percentage of people with cauliflower ear. It would be akin to a basketball game where most attendees are taller than 6'7".

But why does wrestling, the oldest and most basic sport in the world (and the sixth most popular sport, with about 275,000 kids currently participating in high school wrestling each year), have such a limited audience?

Other sports, such as football and basketball have a large built-in fan base, as most people have at one time or another picked up a football or basketball. But these sports attract large viewership even among those who have never played. Why? Because those sports have changed their rules to better appeal to viewers' base desires. The professional leagues not to mention the NCAA, which takes its rules from the pros, view themselves as entertainment.

Fans today prefer to see an event where the outcome remains in doubt until the very end and the NFL and others sports know this. Drafts in professional football and basketball reward the worst teams with the highest picks, an effort by the leagues to create parity from year to year. But more tellingly football and basketball have changed their rules to benefit the lesser teams. Football is unrecognizable now compared to the sport in the 1970s, as it changed the rules to accommodate more passing, giving undermanned teams a chance until the final tick of the clock. Basketball reinstated its three-point rule for the same reason.

Wrestling, on the other hand, is basically unchanged over its 12,000 years. In ancient Greece, as now, the winner is almost always simply the better competitor. The EIWA, the second best wrestling conference in the NCAA (behind the Big 10) crowned its first unseeded champion in 50 years over the weekend.

By comparison in NCAA basketball lower seeds do not just advance to numerous Final-Fours, they win it all. Since 1983 two teams ranked in the lower half of tournament participants have taken first prize -- North Carolina State and Villanova. Professional tennis, another individual sport with brackets, has crowned at least six unseeded grand-slam champions in the last 35 years.

There have been rule changes in NCAA wrestling over the years. Matches were shortened from nine minutes to seven and competitors were given the choice of not putting themselves in their worst position, both in the hopes of increasing the entertainment value of the sport. But these changes still left the sport in the situation that the better man almost always won. There is no getting around that fact without inexorably changing the sport.

But although the outcome is seldom in doubt, wrestlers do love to watch wrestling. Where else in life can you see a test that simply gauges the better man, all randomness due to wind, rain, the bounce of a ball, performance of teammates or the subjectivity of judges taken out of the equation?

Despite my background as an athlete I was not a big believer that sports build character. I was more on the side that sports revealed it. But with the benefit of time and experience, it is clear to me that this sport builds humility. It does so by dint of its lack of chance.

In daily life, discovering our own true acumen can be much harder to come by. Any job, any relationship, any pursuit is beset with the whims of chance and more still, the participation and subjectivity of others. There is virtually no endeavor, within sport or without, as free from external factors as a wrestling match.

When I watched the Big 10 championships on TV I was reminded of this again and again as each champion was interviewed after his victory. Watch this video of Kellen Russell, one of only eleven four-time Big 10 champs in the one-hundred year history of wrestling in that league. Russell is also a defending NCAA champion, yet he is so humble, so clearly in respect of the fact that he can take nothing for granted, that grandstanding is not even a thought. Why would that be when we've already established that the best (almost) always win? Because Russell, like all wrestlers, knows precisely how hard it is to be the better man and what it takes to retain that perch. The countless hours spent improving technique, conditioning, strength, and agility. Not to mention the psychological strain of making weight and putting your ego on the line each time on the mat. And when you are competing against someone exactly the same size, who has worked just as hard and is likely the same strength and quickness, the seven minutes of competition are very intense. Points are hard to come by, every second is a battle. When you've won it you know you earned it.

I know in my life post-wrestling I did not feel the same way about any of my tangible successes. Professional promotions did not come as hard-earned, had more of an element of chance, and therefore I did not have the same respect for them, or have the same humility about them. Random success, the very kind that shouldn't go to our head, does. If we are successful in games of chance we believe we have capabilities that we actually do not. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize and created the field of behavioral economics in part by showing that people have an attributional bias -- that is, crediting themselves with non-existent skills. For example, though the data showed that a mutual fund manager's past year's performance had no value in predicting next year's performance (the definition of a random outcome), they still credited themselves with acumen rather than luck after a good year.

If you do decide to watch the NCAA championships on TV this coming weekend (ESPNU and ESPN) enjoy the spectacular athleticism, conditioning and technique. But note the reaction of the losers. It is impossible to put in to words how it feels to lose a high level wrestling match -- you have dedicated your life to this pursuit that required so much sacrifice and hard work, and if you fall short you have nothing to show for it and no one else to blame. No money, no fame, and most unkind, no sense of accomplishment, even if you are at that point a national runner-up. In fact, all you are left with at that moment is proof that you did not prepare enough, or do enough or have enough to be the better man.

Watching not just the winners this weekend in St. Louis but also the losers reveals why the winners are so humble. It also reveals why we wrestlers love the sport of wrestling.

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