By Rachael Goldenberg
This past weekend Joel Northrup forfeited his chance at the Iowa State Wrestling title after refusing to compete against his female opponent, Cassy Herkelman. Northrup explained his decision by stating, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy(’s)…accomplishments… however, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times.”
Let’s dissect that statement a bit, shall we?
Joel’s definition of “respect” is in direct conflict with the athletic definition of respect. Joel defines respect as requiring men to honor women as a “special” group requiring more care and protection (BTW, the same argument used to keep women from access to higher education and voting).
The athletic definition of respect is having high esteem for another’s athletic excellence. Joel framed the forfeiture as a dilemma in which he was asked to choose between his athletic beliefs on competition and his religious and cultural beliefs about women’s roles.
How about letting Cassy decide her role?
By viewing Cassy as a girl first and an athlete second, Joel disrespected her commitment to the sport — and he disrespected her athletic prowess.
This is certainly not the only time this has happened. Although girls have beaten boys in wrestling – yes, even pinning them – sometime matches have simply not taken place because wrestlers like Joel fail to see their female opponents as athletes first.
The notion that female wrestlers need “protection” was long ago decided by the courts. If they are on the team, they need no more protection than their male counterparts. Unequal rules based on gender – whether in wrestling or the number of tennis sets played or the distance run or biked — send troubling signals that suggest females have inadequate strength and inferior athleticism.
This translates off the field when men view women as less determined and less capable of handling important professional responsibilities. Women can be just as aggressive, and (yes, Joel), just as violent as men.
Joel’s decision last Thursday was not only a loss for him as an athlete, but also a loss for the sport. Cassy’s skillful presence at the Iowa State Championships should have been used as an opportunity to elevate the competition, but instead it was hijacked as an opportunity for a family to make a political statement on a woman’s role in society.