A teen Iowa wrestler defaulted in his first state tournament match rather than face a girl on the mat.
On the surface, this is a perfect opportunity for snap judgment, for cries of sexism and rumblings about how hard women have worked to break down gender barriers, only to be denied. The real story, however, is more complex.
Home-schooled sophomore Joel Northrup, who competes for Linn-Mar High School, did not default because he was afraid to face a girl. He did not default because he felt too accomplished to waste his time with a girl. He defaulted because engaging with a girl in the “violent” arena of wrestling contradicted his personal beliefs. This decision had been made long before he was pitted against freshman Cassy Herkelman from Cedar Falls. Joel’s father Jamie told The Associated Press that Joel had decided “a long time ago” that he would not wrestle a girl. He refused to wrestle Megan Black, now a sophomore from Ottumwa and the only other girl to qualify for the state wrestling tournament, in a match three years ago.
So, is sexism predicated on strong faith and personal convictions still just sexism? Being a girl who played a variety of sports, I know I would have been a bit offended if a boy refused to shoot hoops with me because I had a ponytail. But can we fault Joel Northrup for obeying his conscience, even as it cost him the chance to win the Iowa wrestling championship?
On the one hand, yes, we can. Northrup robbed Herkelman of the chance to showcase her talents. Herkelman is a serious wrestler – she went 20-13 in pre-tournament play – and she earned the right to be in the contest. She deserved to win her first match due to her own performance, and to not have her legitimacy as an athlete questioned. Just because she is female, her talents were kept hidden but her name thrust into the news.
On the other hand, Northrup holds a belief that obviously transcends any event or opponent. He will never wrestle a girl. According to the article, the pastor at the Northrup family’s church said the “elevation and respect of woman [sic]” forbids any interaction between the two genders in a “familiar way” – the way a contact sport demands. It wasn’t that Northrup feared losing in a state tournament to a girl, it was that he disagreed with trying to beat her.
The competitor in me disagrees with Northrup’s beliefs, but not necessarily his decision. I can’t condemn Northrup for staying true to himself, but I do question a belief that paints women as inherently weaker than men. Driven by respect or not, the fact that Joel’s beliefs forbid him from engaging in an athletic contest with a female in the same way he would with a male doesn’t sit well with me. I’m not a feminist by any stretch, but as an athlete, if I had fought my way to the state tournament I’d be extremely disheartened to earn my first victory simply because I’m a female playing a supposedly male sport.
In any case, Herkelman was eliminated from the competition the next day. She lost her quarterfinals match and was pinned in the consolation round. Northrup, by contrast, won his first consolation match by major decision. Both, at last, had the opportunity to perform.
It’s too easy to call Joel Northrup sexist and it’s too easy to paint Cassy Herkelman as a victim of chauvinism. If someone’s beliefs dictate that men should respect women and never engage with them in a violent manner, would you disagree with him?
Most would say no. In the world of wrestling, however, it’s much harder to say.