INSIDE THE HUMID confines of college wrestling practice, grapplers spend hours banging heads, grinding faces into the mat and contorting into uncomfortable positions. They spill a little blood and leave puddles of sweat.
In other words, things can get funky in there, and a wrestler can become a veritable petri dish for bacteria, viruses and infections.
James Harris knows all this. And he's afraid that people will think he contracted herpes from a prostitute, instead of at wrestling practice.
"I feel uncleansed," said Harris, 23, a former standout wrestler for Winslow Township High School, in Camden County. "There's a stigma attached to it."
Harris and two other ex-wrestlers - Andrew Bradley, of Delaware, and Alex Binder, of Maryland - are suing York College of Pennsylvania, in York County, claiming that coaches knew that a teammate had contracted herpes simplex virus Type 1, yet allowed him to continue wrestling and infecting others during the fall of 2006.
The lawsuit, filed last month in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, contends that the coaching staff disregarded NCAA guidelines and actually "required" the wrestlers to engage in practice with open lesions wrapped in gauze.
"They told them there would be no problems if you kept it clean," said David Avedissian, the Haddonfield attorney who filed the lawsuit for the three York ex-wrestlers.
According to the lawsuit, the ex-wrestlers contracted herpes simplex virus Type 1.
The Web site of the American Academy of Dermatology says that herpes simplex virus Type 1 infections are "tiny, clear, fluid-filled blisters that most often occur on the face."
Type 1 herpes differs from genital herpes, which, according to the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a sexually transmitted disease usually caused by herpes simplex virus Type 2.
The AAD site says: "Most people get Type 1 infections, which cause cold sores, during infancy or childhood. They usually get it from close contact with family members or friends who carry the virus. It can be transmitted by kissing, sharing eating utensils, or by sharing towels. The sores most commonly affect the lips, mouth, nose, chin, or cheeks and occur shortly after exposure. . . . Most people get Type 2 infections, which cause genital sores, following sexual contact with an infected person."
NCAA has herpes guidelines
Although the York wrestling team made each infected wrestler sit out for three days, NCAA guidelines dictate that athletes with active herpes outbreaks must not compete, even with bandages, until a five-day anti-viral treatment is completed.
Harris, who recently graduated from York, said that at one point roughly 70 percent of the team - or about 25 wrestlers - had contracted herpes, which is treatable but not curable.
"The whole team should have been quarantined," Avedissian said.
In a statement, York College officials said that they were aware of the allegations and believed "them to be without foundation." York's current wrestling team is 4-3-1, with almost four dozen wrestlers on the Division III squad.
Mike McConville, an assistant wrestling coach at Gloucester County College, said that he knows York coach Thomas Kessler well and doesn't think that he knowingly would have harmed his wrestlers.
Although staph infections and ringworm are common and treatable, McConville said, a recent spike in cases of MRSA - methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - has made coaches and officials more vigilant about sanitizing mats, preaching proper hygiene and performing skin checks.
"We don't play games at all anymore," he said.
McConville, who coached Harris and Binder at GCC, said that he's seen only a handful of herpes outbreaks in his two decades of coaching. Still, the wrestlers who contract it must fight a stigma.
"The kids will sit when they break out, but no one wants to wrestle them either way," he said.
Not uncommon in wrestling
Dr. Warren R. Heymann, head of dermatology at Cooper University Hospital, in Camden, said that herpes is fairly common in the world of wrestling.
"It got the name herpes gladiatorum for that reason," Heymann said. "This is not a new issue. There's no greater contact sport than wrestling. It's intimate and prolonged skin-to-skin contact."
The key to preventing a teamwide outbreak, Heymann said, is the right diagnosis and time off.
"They should not be wrestling with active skin diseases," he said.
Harris, Binder and Bradley eventually left the team. But they will be fighting with herpes their entire lives.
A day after Bradley first noticed his left eye getting red and itchy, the suit claims, he awoke with a "thick crust of dried pus" around it.
Bradley, 23, said that outbreaks continue to erupt near his eye, and he worries that they could cause vision problems.
"Honestly, the whole thing has been kind of devastating," Bradley said.
Neither Harris nor Bradley have girlfriends at the moment, and both said they dread the thought of divulging their secret - that is, unless an outbreak outs them.
"There's a lot af anxiety with it," Harris said. "I don't even like leaving the house when I have an outbreak."
Each defendant is seeking at least $50,000 in damages from the school. An attorney representing York in the case did not return a phone call seeking comment.