The Medical Forfeit Situation in D1 College Wrestling

The 2019 NCAA Wrestling Rules committee has proposed a change to the way Medical Forfeits (MFFs) are handled and viewed on a wrestler’s win-loss ledger at the end of the season. The effect of this rule change would be reflected most in the Conference and NCAA Seeding process, where MFFs are currently not factored. This change will be decided on by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel on June 13, and if approved, would take effect beginning in the 2019-2020 season. For the full proposal, see: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/proposal-would-let-wrestlers-compete-shorts .

Before we look at the MFF data from the 2018-2019 season, let’s establish how we define and differentiate between Injury Defaults, Forfeits, and Medical Forfeits.

According to the 2018-2019 NCAA Rules and Interpretations, [Injury] Defaults, Forfeits, and Medical Forfeits are defined as:

In summary, Forfeits occur when an opponent cannot wrestle a match, which is more often the case in a dual meet when a team either does not have a wrestler at a weight or chooses to not have that wrestler compete. Forfeits count as a win for the non-forfeiting wrestler, but in the case of a dual, there is no ‘forfeiting wrestler’ to receive a loss.

Injury Defaults occur when an injury occurs mid-match and the wrestler cannot continue. Similar to forfeits, defaults count as a win for the non-injured wrestler and a loss for the injured wrestler. We have seen this recently impact the legacy of 3x NCAA Champion Jason Nolf (Penn State), whose lone loss in his final 3 years came in the form of an injury default loss during his Junior year to John Van Brill (Rutgers). Nolf went on the win the NCAA tournament that season, remarkably, but was unable to claim an undefeated season.

Medical Forfeits occur in a tournament when a wrestler and his coaches/medical staff have determined before the match that they are unable to compete and forfeit the match without penalty. MFFs result in a win for the opponent who was able to compete, but unlike Forfeits and Injury Defaults, do not count as a loss for the forfeiting wrestler.

We have seen teams and individuals take advantage of this non-loss forfeit during regular-season tournaments such as Reno TOC, CKLV, Southern Scuffle, and Midlands. If they did not achieve their desired result such as making the finals, they were able to medically forfeit out of the rest of the tournament without being penalized (detailed later). More significantly, we have seen MFFs at conference tournaments when a wrestler has auto-qualified for the NCAA tournament by making the Semis and then taking three MFFs to place 6th, or making it far enough in the consolation bracket to qualify, and then not competing in the medal match. Why does this happen? The answer: NCAA Seeding.

The great Wrestling Nomad wrote a great in-depth article about the NCAA seeding process found here: https://www.flowrestling.org/articles/6131827-how-does-the-ncaa-seeding-process-work

The NCAA Seeding criteria as outlined in Flo’s article.

Because the MFFs do not count as a loss on a wrestler’s record, the only effect of the decision to MFF out of their conference placement tournament is in the conference placement portion of the NCAA seeding criteria, which is only 10%, while the portion of the criteria affected by the Win/Loss ledger accounts for 75% of the criteria (Head-to-Head, Quality Wins, Results against common opponents, RPI, Win %). The other 15% is the coaches ranking, which we have seen MFFs tend to not affect, as the coaches understand that a MFF doesn’t always mean a guy is injured. When conference placement is not a factor in that decision i.e. at the medal round of a regular-season tournament, the wrestlers are even more incentivized to forfeit out.

In other words, if MFFs were to count as a loss next season, then the decision to MFF out of a tournament, whether in-season or at the conference tournament, would affect their NCAA seeding criteria by 85%, not the current 10%. This would cause wrestlers to take forfeiting more seriously and only take a MFF when it is actually in the best interest of preserving their health, as opposed to whenever it could potentially preserve a better seed in March.

Also, the goal in writing this is not to shame wrestlers for forfeiting matches but to evaluate the significance of MFFs on the season and the impact of changing the MFF rule to count as a loss.

So now that we know more about Medical Forfeits, and their impact on the NCAA season, how big is the problem, if there is one?

The Data

The data we will be analyzing consists of all 17,154 NCAA D1 matches during the 2018-2019 season and was provided by Britt Malinsky aka @wrestlingbypir8 (Please check out his excellent blog at https://wrestlingbypirate.wordpress.com/). This data only includes matches where both competitors were on a D1 roster, which would include redshirts and non-starters, but not grayshirts, as they are not included on the school’s roster. These are the same matches that are considered for conference and NCAA seeding.

Side note: As we examine MFFs for specific events, if you went to the brackets and counted by hand, you might come out with a different number than what is shown here. That is because many of these tournaments have wrestlers from other divisions: DII, DIII, NAIA, NJCAA, or even unattached wrestlers competing. Any result that is not D1 vs D1 is not included in the following analysis, and that is not because I decided that those results weren’t important, but because they aren’t considered in the conference or NCAA seeding process and I also don’t have the data for those matches.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the D1 Medical Forfeit data. At a glance, MFFs more than double the injury defaults and forfeits combined:

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The 2018-2019 season saw 750 total MFFs, Forfeits, and Defaults.

So in the 2018-2019 season, there were 461 MFFs. That is 2.69% of the 2018-2019 matches (17,154), but of course, MFFs can only occur in a tournament, and they make up 3.96% of all tournament matches (11,641). When and where did those MFFs happen? Let’s take a look:

Medical Forfeits by Date

Of note, there are 8 dates with more than 20 MFFs, and 32 individual dates when at least one MFF occurred. These numbers also include any events that happened across the country on that date, so we need to identify the individual events that these occurred at. Considering again that MFFs can only occur during tournaments, with the locations of these results, we should be able to identify the events that yielded those MFFs.

Heat map of where MFFs occurred. For the full interactive heat map, where you can highlight and observe each data point, see here: https://datastudio.google.com/open/1ajlUBURBB5A6I7NuDsrGfUgMOFHih4w2

So now we know the date and location of the Medical Forfeits, and we should be able to combine those to find the actual events that these were recorded at.

There were 67 events where a MFF was recorded, so let’s narrow that down to the events with at least 5 MFFs.

I’ve also highlighted 5 events that I would consider to be the most significant events of the year, and that I will go into more detail on, which include the 4 major regular-season tournaments: Reno TOC, CKLV, Southern Scuffle, and Midlands, and the only conference tournament with a significant number of MFFs: the Big Ten Championships. Every other conference tournament had no more than 2 MFFs, while the Big Ten had 16.

The 2018-2019 tournaments with more than 5 MFFs. The 5 highlighted metrics are the 4 major regular-season tournaments and the Big 10 tournament.

And the MFFs for those events broken down by weight:

Here are the events with more than 5 MFFs, broken down by weight class.

Of note, there doesn’t seem to be any individual weight or event that is consistently worse than the rest across all of the data, but there are individual event brackets that stand out, such as Midlands – 285 and 149, Mat Town II – 165, and Reno – 141.

Also, of the 4 major regular-season tournaments, only 2 individual brackets had zero medical forfeits: Reno – 125 and CKLV – 184.

Of course, these tournaments are not of equal size, so if we factor in the number of unique wrestlers (again, only considering D1 wrestlers) and the number of matches competed, we get some new stats.

Unique Wrestlers and Matches per event to go along with MFF total.

With the number of wrestlers and matches factored in, we can determine the percentage of all match results that were a MFF. We can also determine how likely it is that any individual wrestler would MFF at least one match during the tournament.

Percentage of all matches that resulted in a Medical Forfeit at each event.
Likelihood that any individual wrestler would take at least one MFF during that tournament.

While Reno TOC and the Big 10 Championships had the least MFFs out of these 5 events, 17 and 16 respectively, when we factor in the size of the tournament, they emerge at the top in both of our adjusted metrics.

The Significance of Medical Forfeits

So now we have an idea of where and when these MFFs were recorded, let’s take a look at the significance of these results.

One of the most significant effects of MFFs has been lower quality medal rounds at the largest tournaments. We have seen that towards the end of the tournament, when a wrestler has not achieved the result they wanted in the championship bracket i.e. did not make the finals, they may make it to a medal match and MFF out because the difference between placing 5th and 6th is not worth the effort or risk of wrestling their 5th+ match in a weekend.

At the 4 Majors (Reno, CKLV, Southern Scuffle, and Midlands) and Big 10 tournament, there were a total of 190 Medal matches (10x 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th at each event except Reno, which has no 7th). Of those 190 matches, 28 had a MFF result. That means that 14.7% of the potential medal matches were not contested because one of the wrestlers was either injured or did not see the value in placing one higher as worth the cost/risk of wrestling an additional match. Two of these forfeited medal matches were even to decide the bracket champion (Reno – 174 and Big 10 – 184).

Number of each placement match forfeited at the events.
Number of each placement matches forfeited across all 5 events.
Number of placement matches forfeited at each event.

Arguably the most exciting round of any tournament is the medal matches, which decides which step of the podium a wrestler will end the weekend on. Of the 190 medal matches at the major 4 regular-season tournaments and the Big 10 tournament, 14.7% of them were forfeited. That’s the equivalent of the medal matches for one and a half weight classes being canceled per tournament.

The significance of these Medical Forfeits is that the quality of the largest and most exciting events in our sport is reduced because wrestlers have the option of exiting a tournament early with no penalty to their season record or subsequent conference and NCAA seed.

Conferences/Teams/Individuals Breakdown

So we’ve talked about where Medical Forfeits have occurred throughout the season and the significance of those MFFs in affecting tournament quality. Now let’s take a look at who is actually taking these MFFs. We’ll break them down by team, conference, and individuals.

Of the 76 D1 teams, only 4 teams did not take a single Medical Forfeit during the 2018-2019 season.

There are a few teams that had significantly more MFFs, and only 4 teams that did not take a single MFF. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious correlations between the teams and the MFF totals. Let’s break it down by a few other categories.

Side note: Full congratulations to VMI, who gave up not one single forfeit or medical forfeit during the 2018-2019 season.

Side Side Note: Half congratulations to George Mason University, The Citadel, and Davidson, who also had zero MFFs during the 2018-2019 season, but had 1, 3, and 7 dual forfeits respectively.

How many MFFs did each D1 team have at the 4 major tournaments and Big 10s (Obviously only Big 10 teams will have any MFFs at that event)?

Number of Medical Forfeits by each team at the 4 Major regular-season tournaments and Big 10 tournament.

How do the conferences compare in Medical Forfeits?

When we look at Medical Forfeits by Conference, EIWA, Big 10, and Big 12 lead the way, but that is understandable because they have 16, 14, and 12 teams respectively as opposed to the other conferences, each with 8 or fewer teams.

Medical Forfeits per team by conference.

When we factor in the size of the conferences, the order changes drastically. EWL now leads the country with over 8 Medical Forfeits per team (57 total across 7 teams), while the average is just over 6 MFFs per team. Of note, the ACC and SoCon are considerably below the average.

On the Individual side of the data, I won’t list out any names here because again, the goal of this is not to shame wrestlers for forfeiting matches but to identify whether there is an issue with the MFF rule.

359 individuals recorded 461 Medical Forfeits. See here how many forfeited multiple matches.

The 461 MFFs during the 2018-2019 season were recorded by 359 individual wrestlers. For context, there were 2061 D1 wrestlers that competed in at least one match this year. The wrestlers that used at least one MFF makes up 17.4% of the D1 wrestling population.

That would suggest that 17.4% of the D1 wrestlers were healthy enough to enter a tournament at some point in the season and during that tournament were injured so badly that they could not finish competing at that tournament. I would not think that is an accurate reflection of the injury status of the D1 population, and that if MFFs counted as a loss, we might get a much more realistic idea of how many D1 wrestlers are injured during the tournament.

126 individuals recorded 134 Injury Defaults. See here how many injury defaulted out of multiple matches.

In contrast, the 134 Injury Default results this season can be attributed to 126 unique wrestlers, which composes 6.11% of the D1 population.

So are the same wrestlers taking Injury Defaults and MFFs? Or are there different subsets that are taking one or the other?

If we cross-reference these lists, there are 52 wrestlers who recorded both a MFF and an Injury Default, 74 wrestlers who recorded an Injury Default without recording an MFF, and a surprising 307 wrestlers who recorded a MFF without an Injury Default. The 595 Injury Defaults and MFFs were recorded by 433 individuals.

That would suggest that of the 359 individuals that had at least one MFF, 307 of them (85.5%) did not injury default any matches this season, so they either 1. were injured during a match but not badly enough to default that match or during any subsequent matches, 2. were healthy enough to enter a tournament, but were injured at some point between matches at that tournament, or 3. were perhaps not injured and chose to default out of a tournament without any penalties. I would love to assume that these 307 individuals fall in the first or second case, but having a no-loss forfeit option allows for the third category to exist and therefore some wrestlers will inevitably take advantage of that option to avoid the effort/risk of wrestling additional tournament matches.

Conclusion

There are two sides of the Medical Forfeit conversation: without counting MFFs as a loss, teams will continue to abuse the ability to default out of tournaments with no penalty; but if a wrestler’s health isn’t at 100% and MFFs count as a loss which could impact a wrestler’s NCAA seed and potentially their end of season performance, will they needlessly risk further injury without a penalty-free way out of their next tournament match?

Whichever side of the conversation you are on, it is clear that Medical Forfeits as they currently exist cause some of the fans to miss some of the most exciting moments of the season i.e. medal matches at major tournaments.

If Medical Forfeits are changed so that they are considered a loss on the forfeiting wrestler’s season, we may see the number of Medical Forfeits at these major tournaments decrease drastically. The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel will decide on this issue on June 13, and if approved, would take effect beginning in the 2019-2020 season.

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