Sixteen-year-old high school sophomore wrestler Joel Northrup forfeited his match against a fourteen-year-old wrestler with two X chromosomes, Cassy Herkelman, at the Iowa state wrestling championships, saying that “As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.” Obviously Herkelman didn’t require protection from anyone or anything. She was her district’s 112-pound champion wrestler, and she won the Iowa championship for her class as well. Cassie had won 20 of 33 matches, all against male wrestlers, on her way to the state championship. Maybe Northrup didn’t want to risk being ridiculed for losing to a girl; maybe he was uncomfortable with the sexual overtones of an inter-gender contest. All we can do is assess his conduct by taking him at his word: he believes a young man wrestling a young woman is morally wrong, and was willing to forfeit a match he might have won. Joel was, after all, the fifth-ranked wrestler in the state at 112 pounds, and had a 35-4 record.
Was his decision admirable, or sexist? Was it gentlemanly, or demeaning?
While most Iowans and sportswriter praised Northrup for his integrity and sacrificing personal glory for faith and integrity, Sports illustrated columnist Rick Reilly was having none of it:
“Does any wrong-headed decision suddenly become right when defended with religious conviction? In this age, don’t we know better? If my God told me to poke the elderly with sharp sticks, would that make it morally acceptable to others? And where does it say in the Bible not to wrestle against girls? Or compete against them? What religion forbids the two-point reversal?
“Remember, Northrup didn’t default on sexual grounds. Didn’t say anything about it being wrong to put his hands in awkward places. Both he and his father, Jamie, a minister in an independent Pentecostal faith called Believers in Grace Fellowship, cited the physical pounding of it.
“We believe in the elevation and respect of woman,” the father told the Des Moines Register, “and we don’t think that wrestling a woman is the right thing to do. Body slamming and takedowns — full contact sport is not how to do that.”
“That’s where the Northrups are so wrong. Body slams and takedowns and gouges in the eye and elbows in the ribs are exactly how to respect Cassy Herkelman. This is what she lives for. She can elevate herself, thanks. If the Northrups really wanted to “respect” women, they should’ve encouraged their son to face her.”
Reilly is unfair, and unrealistic. It is a shame for two high school wrestlers to be whipsawed by cultural ethical standards in a state of flux, but that is where American attitudes regarding the proper treatment of women are—everywhere, and nowhere, traditional and modern, all at once.
The taboo against men fighting or physically harming women, like most ancient cultural traditions, is rooted in pragmatic considerations. Women birth children, and without healthy women, the species dies out. A male harming a woman was symbolically harming everyone. Similarly, while many traditions and myths involve sons eventually fighting and conquering their fathers, none involve sons fighting mothers. A man hitting a woman, even in self-defense, denoted bullying and cowardice, to a greater extent than a man physically assaulting a smaller, weaker, or defenseless male.
The taboo runs deep in our culture, and the great advances of women’s rights and gender equality have not eroded it as much as Reilly seems to think. Most Americans still gasp when they see female soldiers on lists of casualties from America’s wars. Spousal abuse is considered despicable when a man batters a woman, but strange, odd or laughable when it is the other way around. Rape is almost exclusively a crime of domination by men against women. Most boys are raised to be more deferential to their mother than their father, and to protect or “look out for” their sisters.
Chivalry may be dying, but is far from dead. Men still open doors for women or offer them their seats on buses. Men still do most of the inviting in the dating ritual; far more men pick up the checks for their female dates than the other way around.
Most professional and scholastic sports are organized with the implicit assumption that men are stronger, larger and heavier. Boxing, baseball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, track and field, weightlifting and even golf and bowling are segregated by gender under the belief that to do otherwise would be unsafe and unfair…for the women.
Amateur wrestling is an anomaly. If enough women competed to permit separate male and female organizations, it would surely be treated like the other sports, with women and men competing separately. But American standards of equality dictate that old taboos are not justification for withholding opportunities to compete from a woman who aspires to do anything a man can do—so Cassy Herkelman has to wrestle young men, and the young men have to wrestle her although they have been getting messages from the American culture all their lives that hitting or otherwise battering a woman is wrong. Because, you know, it usually is wrong.
Asking a fourteen-year-old boy to resolve a contradiction that American society is far from resolving itself is ludicrous, and accusing him of being disrespectful to Cassie while he is trying to be faithful to cultural values that have been around thousands of years longer than female high school wrestlers is blaming the victim of our persistent schizophrenia regarding women in society. I see a young man who has courage and integrity, and who would be near the bottom of my list of “high school athletes likely to become abusive boy friends and husbands.” (Reilly praises the men who wrestled and lost to Herklemen, but he has no way of knowing whether they wrestled her differently and with less violence than they would had she been a male of similar skills. My guess is that some of them didn’t. Was that respectful?)
When American society has completely abandoned all customs and traditions that assume men are stronger than women, when all sports teams are gender-neutral and when “women and children first” is only recalled from distant memory when we read about “the Titanic,” when there are as many Xenas and Buffys rescuing men in distress in movies and TV shows as male action heroes, and when the culture dictates that there is nothing at all wrong with a man decking a woman who slaps him without provocation, then, and only then, will Rick Reilly’s criticism of Joel Northrup be reasonable and fair.
Right now, however, he deserves our respect as much as Cassie Herkleman does.