IOWA CITY — On the heels of Monday’s announcement that Spencer Lee won the Hodge Trophy as the nation’s most dominant college wrestler, the NCAA put a damper on the celebration with its declaration that winter sports athletes would not receive eligibility relief.
The ruling comes despite winter championships being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The immediate decision prevents Lee from a shot to become Iowa’s first four-time national champion. The fight to recover that year for Lee will happen, but it just isn’t the time or place right now.
“I’m smart enough to know that you don’t fight battles when you don’t know necessarily what you’re talking about,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said during a teleconference with media Tuesday. “I think the timing of appeals and those things are down the road. I think the one thing you have to realize in this job is you don’t get anywhere by just taking on the establishment. You have to be very well thought out and plan-oriented.
“Four (titles) is very important to him, but he has to win three before he can get four, so regardless of how he goes about moving forward with trying to get an opportunity to win four, he has to get three first.”
These are unprecedented times. The wrestlers, not just Lee, face extraordinary factors that denied them a chance to wrestle in the final event. They will venture down the road of the appeals process.
“To do it justice, we have to go down this path,” Brands said. “I don’t know what it looks like. I know dealing with this type of stuff you have to have a plan and it has to make sense. That’s what we’re working on.”
With wrestling, and all sports, in a standstill during the effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Brands said the focus has to be on eradicating the coronavirus. He deemed it “Enemy No. 1.”
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“It’s bigger than sports, right now,” Brands said. “We’re not out of the woods with COVID-19. There’s time to fight the battle. Let’s get rid of COVID-19 first.”
Brands has direct experience with the virus. He was in contact with someone who was diagnosed with the coronavirus and has been in self-quarantine that is set to expire Wednesday. Brands said he has been fine and has only left his house for a running workout.
“I’m very serious about this,” Brands said. “You do not take this lightly. You do not say this can’t happen to me. You do not say I’m feeling OK so you can ignore what the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and government are telling us to do and safe practices. I followed it.”
Brands and coaches have been in contact with the Hawkeyes. Even though they are unable to train together, he said there are a lot of ways for the wrestlers to keep an edge. Brands and his staff have emphasized academics, being safe and socially responsible during this time. The team has ways to stay healthy during this time, which is normally a part of a recovery period after the season.
Their patience is a sign of maturity.
“It’s not ideal because it’s not familiar,” Brands said. “It’s not ideal because it’s not what they necessarily want. They want to be in there (wrestling room), in their sanctuary.”
Brands recalled delivering the cancellation news to the team during a practice to prepare for nationals. Signs were on the wall and he had to be direct, honest and empathetic, delivering the disappointment.
“The message has to be about going forward,” Brands said. “It sucks. This team was robbed of history. Spencer Lee was robbed of history. Pat Lugo, a senior, robbed of history. We had three No. 1 seeds. We had nine guys in the top eight (and) another guy seeded 11.”
Brands would like to see All-America honors bestowed upon wrestlers for their achievements during the season, especially since the seeding process is based on performance formula and no longer subjective.
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“You can’t just say COVID-19. You can’t. It can’t be a blank spot. There has to be some differentiation in the seedings and in the body of work you did all year,” Brands said. “You wrestled 16 regular-season dates. You wrestled a postseason qualifier. Everybody did. The brackets were set. The matchups were laid out. The 33 seeds were laid into the bracket.
“You have to honor the top eight or 12 seeds in an official way from the mouth of the NCAA or you got bested by something and you rolled over and let it best you. I don’t see how there is any value in that at all.”
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