Collegiate sports are oftentimes regarded as rewarding experiences that can bring communities together and even ignite professional careers for some athletes. Being on a team surrounded by your peers can be a great time in your life. Unfortunately, the risk that comes with college athletics is a big one, and even more unfortunate, it often goes unrecognized. That was exactly the case in 1961 when the University of Utah’s wrestling team traveled to Powell, Wyoming, for a meet against the University of Wyoming.
Doug Bingham, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Utah and co-captain of the wrestling team, died during the match due to a heart-related incident while on the mat. This was 1961, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) had just been introduced but was still an unfamiliar practice to many. The Daily Utah Chronicle reported in February 1961 that when Bingham went limp during the match he was given “artificial respiration on the mat, and later a physician opened his chest and massaged his heart.” His teammates watched and even gave blood in attempts of saving his life. Bingham’s heartbeat returned and he was rushed to Memorial Hospital where his heart lost and then regained a beat once more, only to stop later that night one final time. The student, husband, and father of three was pronounced dead.
When Bingham died so unexpectedly, the school was unaware of the protocol in such a situation. It was a shock that someone so young and healthy could be there one minute, and gone the next. Bingham’s coach Marvin Hess referred to Bingham as someone “in fine health, perfect condition,” as the Arizona Republic reported on February 27, 1961.
Short articles were written of the event and placed in the sports section. Letters to the editor of the Daily Utah Chronicle published in late February and early March 1961 described Bingham as someone who was “highly thought of by all his friends and associates,” and who seemed to “go the extra distance.” A fund was also started at the University of Utah and eventually garnered hundreds of dollars to go toward his surviving family.
After a couple of weeks and time to digest the untimely passing of a young man seemingly in his prime, the school and news outlets found that they had performed their due diligence and found new stories to report on, no longer publishing stories on Doug Bingham or even mentioning the potential risk that collegiate athletics imposed on students. The question of how a young and seemingly healthy college student died from a heart complication was never addressed. Bingham’s circumstance never inspired a new policy where student athletes would be examined prior to competition on the competency of their bodies or their ability to withstand strain. The mental effect of the event on other college athletes and peers at the time was never brought into question. It wasn’t until February 2008, 47 years after the incident, that the athlete on the mat with Bingham at the time of his death shared his own insight on the harrowing situation with Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune.
Dave Edington, an awarded wrestler with the University of Wyoming in 1961, recalled wrestling Bingham and the confusion he felt when his opponent went limp and wouldn’t get up during the match. After the death of someone he did not know, Edington was unsure how to feel or if he should feel anything at all. The gravity of the situation affected his collegiate career for the worse. “I never could get it going again,” Edington said about wrestling with the university. “I never was the same.”
As a nation, it is instances such as these that have occurred far too often and taught us that we must shine a light on the untimely deaths and potential risks involved when it comes to college sports. The United States prioritizes sports and athleticism, though in instances such as these it comes at a cost. Someone’s health is overlooked for the chance at winning a trophy. Athletes must be recognized, their peers counseled and taught to properly grieve, and preventative measures taken to reduce future risk.
This wrestling match in 1961 that resulted in a death of a student was given mediocre media attention at best. If better addressed or reported on, this event in our history could have changed policies in collegiate sports and possibly saved or improved the lives of athletes in similar situations. The media’s job is to highlight and distinguish stories in order to bring about much needed change. In this instance, the media failed.
Arielle Gulley is a senior at the University of Utah. She is studying communication with an emphasis in journalism.
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