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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Females Down for the Count

How much is a victory worth if you didn't win?

On Thursday Cassy Herkelman had to confront this question as she became the first female to "win" a match in Iowa's state wrestling tournament for high school students.  Her opponent, Joel Northtrup, a favorite in the 112-pound weight class, defaulted rather than face a girl on the mat.  Northtrup cited his religious convictions (he is a student homeschooled by his evangelical minister family, but he wrestles on his local public school's team [the legal fight that allowed homeschooled students to participate on sports teams is interesting, if you are ever interested]).

None of Herkelman's other opponents refused to face her and she was eliminated after losing two matches. The other female competitor, Megan Black, also lost all of her matches, with no opponents declining to face her.  So it's possible Northtrup was afraid to lose to a girl and his religious beliefs were a convenient excuse (I am in no position at all to judge the strength of his convictions, I'm merely suggesting an alternative hypothesis in the tradition of Larry Summers).

Is this Title IX run a muck? Should males and females be segregated even if there isn't a separate but equal system in place?

Based on my research on gender, sports, and injuries, I believe that boys and girls should have separate competitive outlets when it comes to physical sporting activities.  This is especially true after puberty when male and female bodies start to drastically differ in their amounts of body fat and muscle (at younger ages I have actually observed, and some research has shown, a bigger advantage for girls because they tend to have more mental acuity to pick up rules of the game and teamwork than their male peers).  Sure in wrestling there are weight categories, so it is a fairer fight.  But a 112 lb. female body and a 112 lb. male body at age 15 usually look quite different.

However, I certainly do not believe that wrestling should be off-limits to females because it is a "violent, combat" sport-- as described by Joel Northtrup. On the contrary, I believe girls capable of impressive performances in any sport, developing physical strength and character skills that will help them compete with men in other arenas later in life.  When competitive outlets don't exist for females though, they need to face males to develop their skills so they aren't shout out completely, either in the present or in the future.

But as more and more girls hit the wrestling mats, female wrestling tournaments will develop.  Even before this Iowa wrestling story broke, this week the Daily News in Brooklyn ran a story on Wingate High School, which has eight female wrestlers. Their coach recruits females, touting the numerous benefits women get by participating in wrestling in high school.  Two of these young women won conference titles, beating out male competitors, and they will soon be able to compete against many other female wrestlers at the City's first all-female tournament.

By the way, no word if Black and Herkelman ever faced off in Iowa. Given that they were the only two females to qualify,  perhaps they could have wrestled for the female state wrestling title after their elimination.  That would have been a victory earned.


  1. 36
    iowa, oklahoma state and oklahoma are the best colleges in the history of the sport. Iowa wrestling is almost draws crowds similar to there are professional female boxers that have included lala ali-muhammad alis daughter and unfortunately tony harding, however it get great coverage on espn friday night boxing.

    Indeed this male athlete let his tema down by his refusal to compete for whateever rationalization he put forth.

    you thoughfor the 2 females to face eachother woudl have been a great idea unless there was a huge weight difference.
    lacrosee, field hockey for women are also contact sports and sever injuries can occur.

    I see no reason why with title 9 weight class competetion cannot becrated for females.
    hooray for brooklynfor there equality nad being ahead of the game.

    then again they have to make up the loss of the dodgers.
    one of these days there will be a female player in the NBA

  2. There are many combat sports with female competitors. In fact, wrestling is behind the other related sports. Go to any Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament, and kids' division will be mixed (my sin recently faced off against a rather ferocious girl in the 99lbs division), and there are women's divisions that are separate for adults and teens. At a recent tournament I attended, there we 3 "super fights" featuring celebrity BJJ players. One of the three fights was between women.

    BJJ is different from wrestling in that weight matters less, so tournaments will have open divisions in addition to weight class, and there's no predicting by weight who will win.

    At my BJJ academy, one of the top people is a 155 lbs woman, who kicks my butt every time I roll with her.

    Mauy Thai and boxing have even more women, and my daughter is very devoted to the former.

    Claims that combat sports are for men are certainly sexist, but they also defy the plain evidence.

    I think th at the main difference between wrestling and other combat sports is that wrestling is more institutional with most people doing it at school, whereas the other combat sports are gym or club based and therefore less centrally regulated.

    I suspect that the real reason that people are uncomfortable with girl wrestlers is because of the physical intimacy of wrestling, and the surrounding hyper-machoi attitude that wrestlers take on to combat the message that I've seen on tshirts: "wrestling, it only looks gay". This can't be the whole story because BJJ is even more physically intimate.

  3. Martin-

    You are certainly on to something with your point about how institutional wrestling is. Especially because boxing/BJJ/MT are outside of the traditional school system they can attract people who are really seeking them out. Something I am going to think more about!

    I don't want to get too into this young man's religious beliefs, but I read that part of the issue (only hinted at in the press release) is that he would have to potentially touch parts of a woman that should only be touched by a husband (according to some particular interpretation/translation of the Bible). These beliefs are clearly tied to sexism and antiquated notions of what women are capable of in society (in a physical sense and in an intellectual sense).

    Of course pro wrestling presents an entirely different story... Lots to mine here, clearly.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Boy, times have changed. When I was in high school in the early-mid 1990s, my school (New England prep variety) had a girl on the wrestling team. That only lasted one season, because IIRC every single boy she was supposed to face defaulted and the rules were changed to ban girls the following year. So I'm mostly impressed that these days there are boys who are willing to risk it.

    (My school, by the way, let a couple girls on the JV football team the following year.)