Violence against women is something always and everywhere to be opposed. Actually, violence against all people is something to be opposed. So, at first glance, the refusal of Joel Northrup, the 16-year-old high-school wrestler from Iowa, to wrestle Cassy Herkelman, one of the first girls to make it to the Iowa State Wrestling Championship, seems admirable. Until one recalls that we’re not talking about violence against women, but a legitimate high-school sport that has, until rather recently, been the exclusive domain of boys.
What this issue is really about falls more in line with themes familiar to Title IX debates than virtuous young men politely “protecting” girls. As Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated put succinctly in this week’s column: Cassy doesn’t need Joel’s “protection,” she’s a state-championship qualifying wrestler who has wrestled more than 30 boys to get where she is. At closer look there appears to be a gender bias that reflects something more like patronization rather than conscientious objection.
The reason this is even a concern for the pages of this blog — and no, I have never wrestled (I’m not a big fan of playing contact sports) nor is it a particularly favorite sports of mine, the closest I’ve come to wrestling is photographing various matches and tournaments while on assignment years ago — is because of the reason Joel Northrup gave for his refusal to wrestle Cassy Herkelman in their assigned bracket.
So why did her first opponent in the Iowa state high school wrestling tournament default rather than wrestle her?
Because “wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times,” said 16-year-old home-schooled sophomore Joel Northrup, in a statement. “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.”
The young man invoked his faith and conscience as the reason for his refusal to compete. Joel, Reilly tells us, is the home-schooled son of “Jamie [Northrup], a minister in an independent Pentecostal faith called Believers in Grace Fellowship.” It is on seemingly Christian grounds that the Northrups objected to Joel’s wrestling Cassy.
Yet, as Rick Reilly — hardly the theologian par excellence — rightly notes, in what way does the Christian faith prohibit a teenager from competing in a sanctioned sport in which this same teen has been competing for years? Does Christianity have anything to say about playing sports with girls?
Not explicitly, that’s for sure. Nor, would I argue, does the faith say anything implicitly, at least from a theological or scripturally rooted perspective.
The Northrup refusal to wrestle Herkelman signals not overt chivalry, but subtle misogyny. What’s worse, the misogyny is delivered under the guise of religious conviction that further advances antiquated and inappropriate views of women as less-than-capable when compared to men. The history of patriarchy and female subjugation in Christendom has long been something of which to be ashamed. I like to think that we are at a point in history when we know better than to perpetuate injustice against women such as suggesting that a teenage boy is a better judge of a teenage girl’s agency and what is best for her.
High-school wrestling is an established and well-regulated sport that focuses on physical competition and prowess, it is not an arena for violence or abuse. Northrup was not asked or compelled to do violence to or abuse another person, so to object to competing in a sport that he had no qualms about participating in for the entire preceding season results only from discrimination based on gender. To claim that his faith — seemingly Christianity based on his membership in his father’s Pentecostal church — is the impetus for such recusal is to make an inaccurate claim about Christianity.
Christ welcomed women and men alike, something of a scandal to a society and culture two-thousand-years ago that treated women like chattel. Women have full agency and a man is not to be the judge of what is or isn’t acceptable for women in high-school sports.
I agree with Rick Reilly on this point: “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. She was surrounded by 20 of us [members of the media] Friday not for how she wrestled (she wound up being eliminated two matches later) but for how she didn’t.”
Joel Northrup and his family have misappropriated the concept of conscientious objection in the name faith for unjust reasons. Frankly, I find the subtle and antiquated reading of the Christian stance toward women latent in this refusal to wrestle to be a sign of implicit misogyny. Northrup is still very young, I hope he learns a thing or two from this experience. As for those who should know better, shame on you for perpetuating this cycle of inadequate thinking.