It was fellow Sports Nickel writer Matt Strobl who first pointed this out, in one of our private threads around the internet that we writers on the site keep alive to bounce stories and news off one another for thoughts and analysis. It popped up on my BlackBerry while I was in the middle of putting out three different plated dinners simultaneously at the day job on the University of Oregon campus. Only when I got home and was able to sit down was I able to parse things down from the short message, the link that I only later could read, and the commentary from our scribes.
In essence it boils down to this: Iowa high-school sophomore wrestler Joel Northrup, one of the favorites in the 112-pound weight class at the state championships, forfeited any shot he had at the state title on Thursday when he refused to wrestle against Cedar Falls freshman Cassy Herkelman in their first-round draw. In a sentence, that’s it. At 35-4 coming into state, Northrup was one of the favorites in his weight for the title. A home-schooled kid who wrestled with the Linn-Mar High School team, Northrup still has two more shots at state — but having become one of the first two girls (along with Ottumwa sophomore Megan Black) to qualify this year for Iowa state finals in the sport’s 85-year history at the high-school level in the wrestling-mad state, Herkelman doesn’t figure to be going anywhere herself.
After some initial angst over the decision, I was later swayed to respect Joel's abdication of his shot at the crown...
Like I know all my fellow writers were (and I’m sure anyone who saw the headline without reading the story did), I cracked jokes as the page didn’t load right at work and I couldn’t read the thing on my phone. I was left looking at the comments that all the other fellows had left in the thread, giggling as they took the inevitable comedic approach to the subject. Many of them revolved either around sex or sexuality, crude jokes that are easily enough conjured up by sports fans both erudite and otherwise. My first thoughts after reading just the headline of the article in the link that wouldn’t open, of course, went directly to Andy Kaufman and the Inter-Gender Wrestling Championships he would stage. (He had to tape it down before every performance, according to Zmuda.) It was that kind of sophomoric humor that I was wallowing in as I thought about the sophomore who declined getting close and personal against a woman on the wrestling mat…
… then I stepped back from the jocularity for a moment and wondered if jocks are really that facile that they can’t accept a woman on their same level. Are we really that misogynistic still that men and women of the exact same weight class and formal training can’t compete against one another?! Are we still that backward?! I lived in Iowa for over a year, I got to know people with young daughters. Should they be the next female to break through to state there, will THEY still have to feel like there’s an asterisk whenever she wins? While I am not a father myself, I am an uncle to a little girl less than two years old. She’s got the coordination and the strength even at her age that it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility that she grows up to try out the sport of wrestling. By the time she reaches the age where she could even consider such things, it might end up being commonplace by then around the country and even the most ardent like Northrup will accept that people with opposing genitals between their legs are still equals in a physical match involving arms and legs and torsos.
Then I managed to hunt down a link on FOX Sports’ mobile site to an AP feed where I could finally read some of the details. After we’d put out dinner and before I went back in to clean up the detritus, I smoked a cigarette on my last break and read about this fascinating day in Iowa high school wrestling. When I got home I rummaged around the internet on my phone further, looking into the story and trying to glean as much as possible from what was out in cyberspace. Northrup, having been raised his whole life to respect women to the point where he would not deign engage with them in such intimate contact under any circumstances save marriage, was faced with the conundrum of his young life. Three years earlier he had refused to wrestle Black, the other female state finalist, when both were in seventh grade. Would three years really change the courage of his conviction? As Northrup himself said in a short statement issued through the high school which with the home-schooled kid affiliated for competition, “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.” Indeed… this is a hell of a moral dilemma for a sixteen-year-old boy to face in what should be one of the greatest moments of his burgeoning adolescence.
I realized soon that this was a reflexive move, something innately ingrained in the young man’s psyche, leading him to not think twice before ceding the contest to his opponent in this case. And the best part is that nobody seems aggrieved about this. Everyone — including the gal who moved on to quarters because of his decision — understand and respect his decision. Even Black, to whom Northrup had previously held the same stance, had not a single ill word to speak on the subject. “If it’s his religion and he’s strong in his religion, then I just respect that. Obviously, everyone can be pointing fingers at him. He, at least, is true to his beliefs and you have to respect that. It takes a lot for a 15- or 16-year-old boy to do.” Nobody who was there was ridiculing him for his decision. If anything, it showed a fortitude that is rarely seen amongst anyone these days, young or old, in an era where indiscretion can often seem to be the norm. So… lastly, I felt:
In this day and age, when flipping on the TV reveals enough bumpin’ & grindin’ to satisfy a whole state of high schoolers, to have such convictions is honestly laudable. The kid worked a lifetime, came in as a favored contender, and then sacrificed a legitimate shot at the accolades afforded a state wrestling champ in the hotbed of Iowa for the values he’d been instilled with throughout his life. Sure, plenty of people will be blasting this kid, unable to advance past the first two stages I felt when I first heard about this story. But the confidence he demonstrated in unabashedly standing by his decision demonstrates the content of his character, something that will last him a lifetime long after any trophy he would’ve won had tarnished and collected dust and faded sepia memories in the mind. By standing by the morals with which he had been raised, he demonstrated that sometimes sports are a platform not just for physical competition but the expansion of how we look at ourselves on every level.
Say what you will about religion — by no means am I a Ned Flanders — but it isn’t a bad thing when treated as a guide for a healthy life. He made the hard choice, of his own volition, to do something that harmed him in the short term with all the cyber-arrows slung his way and the ridicule and scorn heaped upon his young shoulders. But by remaining consistent, by standing firm in his spiritual stances, he made a decision that will allow him to respect himself more in the long term… at least in this non-traditional sports fan’s eyes. It took a lot of guts to scrap all that preparation for state, the thirty-nine previous bouts of the season that had guided him to this point. But further chances remain, and puritanical steadfastness isn’t bad when it is guided in the right direction. May Northrup, Herkelman, Black and every other high-school wrestler in the country benefit from the lessons we have all learned today. While it may be easy to ridicule a stance that seems non-traditional in our present society, that makes it no less valid. And when it shows a content of character that is fostered in respect, not misogyny, we should applaud instead of deride such shows of certitude from young men in our society…
A Nickel’s Worth: The Five Stages of Emotion About Northrup is a post originally from: SportsNickel.com - In Sports We Trust