The Wrestler, the Girl, and Cultural Confusion

"Wanna wrestle?"

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.

7 thoughts on “The Wrestler, the Girl, and Cultural Confusion

  1. Thank you for approaching this subject, Jack. You are a good man.

    I just hope some feminist does not flip out on you for stating your opinion.

    I remember a time giving a woman my jacket and having her blush at such a show of chivalry. Chivalry will never be dead as long as courtesy survives. I don’t even see holding a door open for women chivalrous anymore. I just see it as a courtesy. I do it for men as well. No one wants a door in the face.

    Double standards grow stronger in America on a daily basis.

    • I’m in my 60’s and a gentleman opening a door for me is always appreciated. I still consider it courteous and think someone’s mama taught him well. My husband opens doors for me, makes sure I walk on the inside and not close to the road in case of a car driving by and splashes, helps me on with my coat, gives up his seat for an elderly person . . . (and I expect my sons to behave in the same manner).

      Joshua, continue with your gentlemanly ways. It’s nice to see.

      As for the young lad opting out of the wrestling match, I admire him in his ability to stand up to the coach, deal with the pressure of outside media sources and still be able to say “No, I’m uncomfortable with this.” Whether his convictions were religious or afraid of losing to a girl, that’s his business.

      As for the young lady wanting to participate in the sport of wrestling, I admire her too. However, what a slippery slope – we teach our sons “No” means “No” and watch your “Russian” hands and “Roman” fingers. . . . but in this wrestling match, it’s okay to grab wherever you want to win the match. Oh, by the way, the young lady can do the same.

  2. Can we please remember that this is SPORT? A GAME? While at the same time it speaks to something larger. Sorry, gentlemen, but as women become stronger and stronger, and less “sexual” in the 50s sense of the word, we’re going to run into this more and more often.

    Why do you think woman are now accepted as Navy Seals? Do you think their unit partners are afraid to brush their (non-existent breasts, or rather pecks), in the heat of battle? All this is going on while some “gentleman” college wrestler doesn’t want to touch a woman in a combative way? Grow up. The Mossad (a great example) has used women as combatants for generations.

    This is a college sport. I guarantee you that within the next decade that baseball, basketball and other sports will be “integrated.”

    Like it or not, the line is growing thinner — at least in the military and sports world — between fit men and women.

    And one final shot: Doesn’t this reflect the trend in our society with single-mother homes, in which the father provides nothing and the mother does it all? Why take strong women like that out of the running for any sport, when they’ve proved their mettle for generations.?

    • Gee, then when do you think the fitness standards, strength and endurance, will be equalized in the military, police and fire departments? Because they sure aren’t now. Make women pass the same standards as men, and you’ll decimate the number of women in those professions. We can either ignore the differences between genders or feature them, but right now we’re talking out of both sides of our mouths. Are women really willing to finish 25th on the pro tennis and golf tours, in the money, in the name of equality? Don’t bet on it. I’ll bet, however, that you are dead wrong about the gender integration of the sports you mention.

      • A plague on both your arguments. The American norm for physique and physical ability is … not. There are more physical variations WITHIN the male gender than between men and women (the same holds true for so-called black-and-white norms of skin color, by the way) . The differences in body type and abilities between a man of South Asian extraction and one of Viking ancestry, between the average Globetrotter and the average jockey, have no median. As far as the military goes, attitude, commitment and skill probably fills a greater variety of jobs than the ability to carry around a big pack and shoot off a big gun.

        My only preoccupation with gender differentiation is the reactionary Olympic Committee’s continuing insistence on labeling one sport Men’s and its concomitant, Ladies. Belittling, trivializing, insulting. “Ladies” describes a behavior, not a gender, and a restrictive, (arguably) outdated behavior at that. Try “Gentlemen’s Halfpipe” on for size!

        Dear me, was that a new thread? Perhaps I’d better learn to sew.

        • It was…now you’re in for it.

          Though I don’t catch your plague. If we banished all presumptions of weakness bretween genders in law and tradition…meaning as well the a woman would be presumed to consent to whatever physical battering she accepted any time she participated in sports, which would be uni-sex, then 14-year-old wrestlers wouldn’t be confused. If women are game for that, I am.

  3. I know this wasn’t explicitly part of Mr. Northrup’s stated reasoning, but I am going to go there anyway. If I put a strange woman in some common wrestling holds, both of us would feel uncomfortable, at the very least. She might even want to press charges. Those charges might stick. Men and boys have had it drilled into them that you do not touch women in certain ways without explicit permission, perhaps notarized. When I was in school, they had the big No! means No! push. It was also made clear that silence meant No! and Yes! might even mean No! You can’t pound this into boys and then turn around and say “Normally, this isn’t OK, but you can do it to this girl you don’t known in front of a large, live audience”. These are still boys, don’t make them try to figure that out.

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