Any good wrestling official can spot a takedown from across the mat.
But how about molluscum contagiosum?
The responsibility of identifying that and numerous other skin conditions has the state’s grappling referees hoping they soon will be awarded a reversal of their own.
In the past, it was up to the coaches of both teams to determine if a wrestler showed signs of ringworm, impetigo or some other lesion that would require his sidelining. That changed prior to this season, when the National Federation of State High School Associations placed the onus on the referee
“Officials don’t want to see it in their job duty, but it’s written in there right now,” said Charlie DiGiantomasso, who assigns officials in the Shore Conference and throughout Region VI. “With that being written, they’ve got to perform it. I think this is going to be corrected again next year. I would hope it gets taken out of officials’ hands.”
He’s not alone. Officials and assigners interviewed for this story felt the duty was best handled by someone else, possibly the home team’s athletic trainer. So did the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s medical advisory committee, which planned to move the onus onto trainers prior to the season.
“It was like, ‘OK athletic trainers, you’re the experts.’ Based on what?” longtime East Brunswick athletic trainer Phil Hossler said. “That’s like saying you want me to take your tonsils out because on Monday you said I was a tonsils expert.”
Plus there were logistical issues for trainers, who are responsible for several sports. So in December, the NJSIAA revised its position.
“Where we ended up is if there is no athletic trainer doing the skin check, then it’s the officials’ responsibility for doing it,” NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko said. “We tried to take some of the pressure off of the officials and have the athletic trainers do it, but in a number of circumstances that created a problem.”
Though officials and trainers don’t see eye-to-eye on the matter, both sides say some sort of codified protocol is an improvement on the old way of both coaches hashing it out.
“There’s an agreement that it does need to be done,” said Stu Kohn, longtime Greater Middlesex Conference official and assignor. “It’s imperative that we cut down on passing communicable skin diseases. It’s progressively gotten worse as time has gone on.”
A dermatologist’s take
There are four common skin conditions that surface on wrestlers from time to time.
Herpetic lesions: clustered blisters that eventually become dry, crusted lesions.
Tinea, also known as ringworm: a circular, reddened fungal infection.
Impetigo: Highly contagious bacterial infection that present as lesions.
Molluscum Contagiosum: pink or flesh-colored boils.
Dr. Ben Cohen, a dermatologist at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, has seen them all. He counts numerous wrestlers among his patients.
“I tell them, they can’t wrestle while they have an active skin condition,” Cohen said. “I say, ‘Who checks you?’ And sometimes they say, ‘Nobody really checks us.’”
Cohen welcomes a codified, uniform skin-check procedure, whether it’s done by an athletic trainer or referee.
“All those kids should be screened by whoever can be educated,” he said. “There needs to be a protocol because these kids pass everything to each other.”
Wrestlers with skin issues are supposed to have a doctor’s note clearing them to compete. Cohen would like to see that taken one step further, with wrestlers presenting charts of their skin condition history.
“Kids who have a history of herpes, you need to know that they have it,” Cohen said. “Even if they don’t have blisters today, that doesn’t mean it’s not spreadable.”
At a glance, athletic trainers would seem to be more qualified to perform a skin check than wrestling officials. But it’s more complicated once you take a closer look.
“There are 500 athletes playing sports in the winter,” said Stacy White, athletic trainer at Middletown South High School. “You want us to sit in on a wrestling weigh-in session? There are times when we’ve had a quad (meet) in one gym and a basketball tripleheader in another gym. What happens, God forbid, if there’s an emergency and there’s no trainer there? Are you going to be able to get a physician to come in on short notice?”
Another issue is that some trainers, like White, are women, and the skin checks involve teenage boys stripped down to their underwear in a group environment.
“To put a woman in the team room, that could be an iffy situation,” White said. “What’s comfortable for one (student) might not be comfortable for another. And there could be parents who are not comfortable with it.”
Lastly, there’s potential for conflict when the home team’s trainer is responsible for disqualifying a visiting team’s wrestlers.
“There is that fear that the athletic trainer could be beaten into submission by the visiting coach,” Hossler said. “The kid’s a state champion, or he’s going for his 100th win and you’re telling me he can’t wrestle? Who are you?”
By contrast, Hossler said, “The official does not work for the home school,” and thus would be insulated against charges of favoritism.
Joe Knipper, a longtime official in the Shore Conference and Region VI, said from what he’s seen, officials have been “picking up 60-75 percent” of the skin checks so far this season. Trainers have done the rest.
“The absolute best thing for the sport would be to have an on-site doctor at every match,” Knipper said. “A dermatologist would be best, but who’s going to pick up the expense?”
Expenses are an issue for the officials, too. They’re being asked to come in early to perform skin checks, and time is money for people who work day jobs in various professions.
“If you really interpret what they’re asking the referee to do, it isn’t terrible,” Kohn said. “It’s not our job to pretend to be a doctor and identify if somebody has ringworm or herpes. Our job is to take a look at their body and see if there’s something that should warrant them having a note. Our job is to say, ‘That could possibly be ringworm. Do you have a note to substantiate that it’s not?’”
However, Kohn added, “Where referees are getting frustrated and upset is when we’re asked to come in two hours early. If you have a match that starts at 7, they’re getting weighed in at 5. That’s where the referee feels taken advantage of. It’s not even the $50 or $60 (schools) are willing to pay. It’s time. There’s got to be a better way there. Has somebody come up with it? No. Do I think they will? Yeah.”
Timko has convened a committee to look at ways to accommodate everyone next season.
White, of Middletown South, said one idea could be having trainers from each school check their own wrestlers’ skin the night before. Cohen, the dermatologist, thinks that’s acceptable.
East Brunswick’s Hossler said everyone performing checks should have visual aids.
“What they should have done is put together a little booklet of laminated cards so you could hold it up against a kid’s arm and go, ‘OK, this is it,’” Hossler said. “If you want people to be a dermatologist, you’d better give them some schooling.”
Roy Dragon, the NJSIAA’s rules interpreter for wrestling, said whatever happens, the old way of the coaches figuring it out is history.
“The rule is here to stay. Whether or not trainers or officials conduct the skin checks in the future is another story,” Dragon said. “Another advisory board will try to come up with a plan that’s beneficial to kids. Bottom line is we want to make sure athletes are staying healthy.”
Staff writer Jerry Carino: email@example.com.