This is a story about three people: a 16-year-old boy named Joel Northrup, a 14-year-old girl named Cassy Herkleman and popular ESPN columnist, Rick Reilly.
For context, Joel and Cassy are high school wrestlers from Iowa; Rick is a talented and often humorous sportswriter, prone to zany antics. (He was so certain our Colorado Rockies wouldn’t make the playoffs in 2009 that he threatened to lick Denver’s Capitol dome if they did. They did – and he did.)
That said, this story is really more about the distinctives surrounding gender than it is about these three individuals – or wrestling itself.
Here are the facts:
Last week, Cassy Herkleman was scheduled to wrestle Joel Northrup in the first round of the Iowa state high school wrestling tournament. But as you may know by now, Joel refused the match, walked off the mat and forfeited the round and his chance at a state title.
“As a matter of conscience and my faith,” he wrote in a statement, “I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.”
Joel, who is home-schooled, is also a pastor’s son. His father, Jamie, was strikingly blunt when speaking with the Des Moines Register about his son’s decision:
“We believe in the elevation and respect of women, 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.”
Rick Reilly was not convinced. He wrote that Joel was “wrong” to refuse the match and that “If the Northrups really wanted to ‘respect’ women, they should’ve encouraged their son to face her.”
Not wanting to encourage aggression toward women used to be a sign of civility and one of the many marks of a gentleman. But Mr. Reilly doesn’t buy it. He went on to express sympathy for Joel, insinuating that the young man has somehow been duped into sacrificing the chance at a championship title in order to defend a girl who doesn’t want to be defended.
The mingling of coeds in athletics is by no means a new story. The passage of Title IX in 1972 mandated that schools receiving federal financial assistance offer girl athletes access to the same opportunities as their boy counterparts enjoy. As just one example, over a thousand girls played high school baseball last year.
So, the fact that girls are playing on once male-dominated teams is no longer big news. Whether it’s a good idea – or more to point – whether a boy should be put in a position (no pun intended) similar to Joel’s – that’s what interests me.
There are many redeeming benefits associated with youth sports. Not only can playing be a lot of fun, but a sport naturally lends itself to teaching children lessons that go far beyond the game itself. From learning how to work together to developing a strong sense of personal discipline to learning how to temper emotion and aggression, studies affirm what parents intuitively know to be true: sports can be a healthy outlet for children.
For boys especially, sports can also be a terrific opportunity and forum for male bonding. Back when I played high school football, I can remember the special camaraderie that developed between the guys. Had a female joined our ranks the dynamics would have been dramatically altered.
But I’m curious where you stand on this. If you had a son in this same predicament, what would you advise?
In the end, I appreciate what Joel’s father had to say about his son’s conviction, namely that he may not have wrestled Cassy, but he did wrestle with his faith. That’s a good and admirable thing.