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Mat morals

Sports | Respect for women has increasing numbers of male wrestlers forfeiting matches

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Joel Northup, an Iowa home­schooler, elected to forfeit his first-round wrestling match in the state tournament in February rather than face a female opponent. In a statement explaining his decision, the sophomore athlete was careful to avoid criticism of Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black, the first two women to compete in the state wrestling tournament's 85-year history: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However, 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."

Northup, 15, is not the first young man to refuse taking the mat against a woman. More than 5,000 high-school women and thousands more middle-school women wrestled last year, most competing against high school men due to lack of sufficient numbers to justify female teams. Stories abound across the country of males declining to participate in coed matches, though the discussion does not always remain as civil as in Iowa. Herkelman, who is 14, and her family said they respected Northup's decision. Not so the family of Kiralyn Krizan, who won a match by forfeit in North Carolina last month when her male opponent refused to compete. "It's just a shame that they would even consider sending that message," said Krizan's mother LisaKay. "You're always going to find people that are slower to learn and to come up to speed with today's culture."

Some coaches and parents of female competitors have taken to mocking boys who decline to wrestle girls, calling them wimps or accusing them of being afraid to lose. When one of Krizan's female teammates recently won a match by forfeit, the referee reportedly raised her hand in victory and congratulated her for scaring a boy. But for Northup and many like him, the issue is not fearing girls, but honoring them.

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That line doesn't play with most national media. ESPN columnist Rick Reilly jumped all over Northup for his decision, accusing him of provoking a circus that distracted Herkelman and may ultimately have led to her quick exit from the tournament. Reilly mocked the explanation of Northup's father Jamie, a Pentecostal minister who articulated his family's belief "in the elevation and respect of woman." Wrote Reilly: "If the Northrups really wanted to 'respect' women, they should've encouraged their son to face her. When he didn't, it created a national media hurricane with Cassy in the eye of it."

Of course, Reilly and the 20-some media members who descended on Des Moines certainly hold at least some responsibility for the distraction of a national spotlight. Herkelman didn't ask for the attention, didn't raise a stink, didn't even take offense. But Reilly and his cohorts swooped in to take offense for her, and to bury Herkelman's wishes under a sea of pseudo-chivalry.

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