Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wrestling with a conscience

  Iowa high school wrestler Joel Northrup made the national headlines this week when, having made it to the state championship tournament, he defaulted his round 1 match when he was scheduled to face female wrestler Cassy Herkleman. There are 8 district tournaments and the top 2 wrestlers in each of Iowa’s 14 weight classes in each district are allowed to compete in the state tournament. Northrup cited religious reasons for his refusal to compete stating “Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times," ...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. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa.”

  Herkleman and Megan Black both made the state championship tournament this year and are the first 2 females to make Iowa’s championship tournament. Girls have competed in 1979 in Iowa high school wrestling. Montana and Nebraska have had female wrestlers advance as far as the semi finals. There is no rule compelling states to allow girls to compete in boy’s wrestling, and some states have a separate girls’ wrestling program.

  There is a precedent for athletes not competing due to religious reasons. Sandy Koufax, Hall of Fame pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, was Jewish and would not pitch on the holiday of Yom Kipper. This wasn’t very controversial until 1965 when the
holiday fell on the same day as game one of the World Series. Fellow Dodger Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched and lost game 1 and then Koufax lost game 2, but the Dodgers managed to still beat the Twins in 7 games. On Christmas Day, the NBA plays an entire schedule and the NFL has games when it falls on a Sunday, but so far no player has refused to play on Christmas.

  I think Northrup is being disingenuous when he says he has been “placed in this situation”. In my opinion, he has placed himself in the situation. Wrestling entails a lot of grabbing and holding that could get one labeled as a sex offender if done off of the mat. Northrup has known for years that he may have to compete against a female wrestler and still chose to compete. He should have given his place in the state championship to someone else once he knew that he would be in the same bracket against other regional winners he had no intention of competing against. And since he is also wrestling for the Lin-Mar school wrestling team, his team also pays a penalty in the team standings for his refusal to compete and would have been better served if he had given a teammate the chance to compete in the district tournament for the chance to compete in the state tournament. Northrup’s parents could have satisfied his passion for wresting and their religious beliefs in many other states or one of the many wrestling programs that are outside the dual-gendered regulations of the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA).

  Having made the decision to compete in the IHSAA system, Northrup was obligated to follow through on this decision and compete. I don’t see how the choice he made is any different than the choice facing the
1963 segregated all-white Mississippi State basketball team that was forbidden from playing the mostly black Loyola of Chicgo team in the NCAA tournament in Lansing Michigan by edict of the Governor and a court order. The Mississippi State team defied the orders and snuck across the Mississippi line to travel and compete in the game. One of the Loyola players was Jerry Harkness, who owned a shoe store in Indianapolis and would call the company I worked for help with his retail software. I talked to him after seeing the TV special on the 1963 Loyola team that had won the NCAA championship. He told me how much courage the Mississippi State players showed by breaking the law to play in the game and how much his team appreciated it.

  By choosing to compete, Herkleman and the other female wrestlers are indicating their willingness to compete by the same rules as all the other wrestlers without special treatment and Northrup’s choosing when he will and won’t compete is an insult to the sport he obviously is passionate about. If he really had a religious objection, he should not have competed in an organization that promotes behaviour he finds so objectionable.

  In chess, I’ve never had a problem with a male player refusing to compete against a female. Once in a great while, a player will grumble “if I win, it’s just a girl and if I lose, I lost to a girl” and I try to point out that it is no different than playing someone much older or younger. Age, race, or how money in your pocket doesn’t matter when you sit down at the chessboard and whether you are playing a boy or a girl doesn’t matter either. Interestingly enough, if a tournament allows computers to play a participant may choose in advance not to play the computer. I’ve never had a computer in any tournament I played. If I do and refuse to play it I don’t think I’d get on ESPN, but I might get sued by the Society for Silicon Based Equal Rights.