Joel Northrup, a 16-year-old home-schooled wrestler from Iowa, refused to wrestle a girl in the state championship, thereby forfeiting his chance at the title due to his religious beliefs. With all due respect to Joel and his faith, something really bothers me about this. Forfeiting, regardless of one’s gender, is lame. I know that he did not technically “forfeit” (instead, he defaulted), but he purposely chose to allow someone else to win a state championship match. After months, if not years of practice and training, he threw in the towel. Quitting is not sexy.
I keep trying to put myself in the shoes and weird spandex wrestling uniform of Cassy Herkelman, the first female to reach the Iowa state wrestling tournament in 85 years. Because of Joel’s refusal to wrestle, she is now the first woman to ever win a championship match. She was purposely kept from the media, so we are in the dark about her thoughts, but I am curious how this made her feel. I know that many women would react to this in different ways, but as a super competitive former tomboy, I am pretty sure that I would be insulted and frustrated. This bittersweet win cannot be easy for Cassy. She worked her ass off to excel in a sport ruled by men; she was so good, so unique amongst her peers, that she made it to the top of the field. When she finally got to the height of elite competition, she was ostracized solely because she has breasts. And she beat this asshat, like all of the others before him; he just cheapened her victory. He made it all about him, and that sucks for her. Like when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs.
Then again, maybe I am just taking this personally. I was once the only female in an all-boys roller hockey league. Sometime around the age of twelve, I was asked to play for the kickass awesome sounding Bladerunners by my friend’s dad, Coach Bob, an incredible man who I have admired ever since. Based on skill alone, he took a chance on me, which is rare for little league fathers. Most of them scoff at the notion that a girl could compete with their son, let alone invite one to play next to their son on the team that they are coaching. I was honored and motivated. I put new wheels on my 'blades and taped up my sticks. I proudly wore my Adam Graves jersey with an extra bounce in my step. I was ready to do the damn thing. And then I was informed that the league would not let me play, because I was a girl. As I dealt with my jumble of teenage emotions, my mom and Coach Bob fought my way in. Once there, my opponents were either overly nice to me or specifically targeted me, but hardly anyone treated me like I fit in other than my own team. It was an experience to say the least – an amusing and memorable one in retrospect, but challenging at the time. And it meant a lot to me; out of about fifty team jerseys that I ever wore growing up, it is the only one I still have today.
So I can’t help but admire Cassy Herkelman for what she is going through now. It might be 15 years later, but gender politics still invade amateur athletics, which does not altogether surprise me. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, though. Sex, race, and religion have no place in sports; they should simply be about competition, skill, and fun. The rest, after all, is just demographic detail. Unless Cassy was wrestling in California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas, or Washington – each of which fund high school wrestling for girls – she had no other option than to take the mat against Joel. He had no right to put his own agenda above that of the league which allowed Cassy to participate. And remember. He wasn't even a "real" student; he was homeschooled and everyone knows that those freaks do not count.
When I was finally asked to play with the boys, I badly wanted to prove that I belonged. And I did - but only because Coach Bob gave me the opportunity to show it. In part, Joel took that away from Cassy. She will never know if she could have beaten him fair-and-square, but she will always be tagged as the-girl-that-religious-dude-forfeited-against, rather than just the first female to win a championship wrestling match. I get that Joel was trying to respect women, I do. I will even concede that it was somewhat noble of him to put his faith before seemingly meaningless competition. But, as far as I know, Jesus does not support sexism in high school sports. By forfeiting based on gender alone, Joel selfishly disrespected women. He implied that we have no place in, as he called it, a “combat” and “violent” sport created for men. And in the process, he acted like a huge pussy.