Wrestling with “Religious Conviction” vs. Sports Sexism

“Really? Girls wrestling with boys? Has feminism really lost its mind?” So goes the question from Catholic blogger Defend Us in Battle, writing about Joel Northrup’s decision to withdraw from the Iowa state wrestling tournament rather than compete with female opponent Cassy Herkelman.

Northrup’s withdrawal resulted in the first-ever win for a female at the tournament. However, Herkelman was denied the opportunity to actually wrestle for the win due to Northrup’s forfeit. Referencing his personal faith as the reason for his forfeit, Northrup stated:

As a matter of conscience and 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.

Females have been competing with boys on wrestling teams in Iowa for more than two decades. If Northrup’s beliefs translate into a personal conviction that he cannot wrestle against a female, then why is he wrestling in a state where wrestling is co-ed? Even more pertinent, why are so many championing his choice, framing him as a religious hero? If he had used religion to similarly state he could not wrestle against a person of color or a homosexual, would he still be applauded? Likely not.

I don’t wish to condemn this young male for his decision, especially as he may not have been given a choice of whether he would follow the patriarchal tenets of the faith his family follows. Rather, I would like to condemn the championing of this “choice” by news outlets and bloggers who fail to consider how this relates to Title IX, to the sexism still commonplace in sports and to the supposed separation of church and state. For example, this story names three key questions of the debate, none of which even obliquely refer to sexism or Title IX.

Northrup has been championed by many, particular many religious and/or MRA (men’s rights activists) bloggers, most of whom fail to recognize that his statements are not only about “faith” but also represent an implicit condemnation of Title IX, the 1972 amendment that states,

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…

Northrup goes further than using his faith as excuse: He suggests that such a “situation”–namely, girls competing equally in sports–is “unfortunate.” Yet Northrup is being framed as a “genuine” hero for his decision, as in this newspaper article, which goes to pains to note he has “four little sisters he adores.” (Yes, kind of like the “I’m not racist; I have a black friend” excuse.)

Another story from Mercury News frames Northrup as a heroic martyr who “found himself in a quandary no sophomore should ever have to face–paired against a girl in the state wrestling tournament.” According to author Gary Peterson, Northrup “did the only thing a gentleman could. He forfeited.” Yes, because competing with a female who worked just as hard to be there as he did, who has just as much dedication to her sport as he does, would be the coward’s way out, right? (Notice also the latent sexism in this author’s language: Herkelman is a “girl” while Northrup is a “gentleman.”)

Peterson then suggests we “shoot a raised eyebrow at the Iowa High School Athletic Association” for not recognizing that:

there are plenty of sports in which men and women can compete together as well as against one another on more or less equal and nonthreatening terms–golf, tennis, bowling, Pictionary.

Pictionary? Please.

Bloggers on the religious right, such as Defend Us in Battle, also argue that this story is not about sex/gender, but rather, “about conscience and faith.” Not surprisingly, Defend Us offers the huge generalization that feminist-liberal school officials don’t care about things like conscience or faith,” equating this story with claims that feminism promotes violence against women (!), goes against god and/or is bringing about the ruination of humanity. Wow, all because a young female with great skill as a wrestler threatened the faith of a male. If one’s faith is that tenuous, perhaps one should not be competing in wrestling in the first place?

Alas, as Defund Us notes, such sports can be “intimate and touchy.” Gasp.

He writes,

I just don’t think boys and girls should compete against each other in most sports, especially ones like wrestling where the physical contact is so intimate and touchy. Yes, I know gay boys probably compete, but they are the ones having to make the decision and deal with any uncomfortableness.

Here, the author suggests that “gay boys” can make such decisions and “deal with any uncomfortableness” but that girls (regardless of sexual orientation) cannot. Hmmm.

True Manhood similarly warns readers that female wrestlers go against god and “natural manhood,” writing,

Deep inside every man is a sense of wildness, a rugged ‘warrior’ drive and our natural inclination towards adventure.  There’s nothing natural inside a man that says ‘I should [sic] my brute strength to pin a woman to the floor to win a tournament.’

True Manhood goes on to write:

It’s not authentically feminine for women to do things men are naturally inclined to do … It’s not about some notion of equality that a woman should be able to do whatever a man can do.  It’s about the notion of order.

He ends with a call to “TrueMan up!” Excuse me while I vomit up my latte.

It’s about order?!? As in the “divine right” of male rule? Yes, because the world would clearly fall apart if females wrestle males–next thing you know, those little ladies might want to vote and such!

Meanwhile, as Northrup is granted sainthood on the Internet, the achievements of Megan Black and Cassy Herkelman–the two girls who made history by qualifying for the Wrestling championship this year–have been relatively silenced. So it’s up to those of us on the side of gender equity and fairness in sports (let alone the separation of church and state) to salute the first female win in the Iowa State Wrestling Championship! To those of you shouting the “True Man Up” chorus, your thunderous support of Northrup is insulting to the young females who earned their spot in the tournament in the same way as all those with a rugged warrior drive.

Image of 2005 U.S. Wrestling World Team Trials from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Brock Nicholson says:

    I don't see why supporting Northrup's decision and being proud of and happy for Herkelman's win have to be mutually exclusive. Northrup found himself in a position that made him uncomfortable and made a choice to avoid that position. Herkelman outwrestled her competitors and emerged as the state's best wrestler. Seems like they both did something praiseworthy.

  2. I completely agree that the achievements of Megan and Cassy have been diminished because everyone is so focused on his decision. I wrote about this too here:

    Also, he's not ok touching females in a "familiar way" but his religion is okay with him touching men in a "familiar way"?

  3. I think maybe you should worry about more important topics, instead of carrying on about EVERY single instance of men and women. Both parties went home happy, the two girls won their competitions and Northrup was able to follow his faith. Your very immature. You promote hatred the entire time in this blog. Face it your a MAN-HATTER! Did you know hundreds of male sports teams in colleges and high schools are being cut because of the Anti-male fems? Feminism is not about equality its about superiority. You say we are oppressing you, yet your blatantly oppressing men. Your acting like the so called "male pigs" you hate so much, i like your comment about him and his sisters. It's like the pot calling the kettle black. Grow up.

    • rachel cervantes says:

      James, why do you read this blog, then?

      By the way, it's "you're" and "man-hater."

    • James I would love an example of a sport being cut from a highschool because of feminism. Please. Just one. The author wrote a great article showing the differences on how our society treats our men and our women and the best reply your misogynistic mind could come up with is "you're a man-hater". I think you're the one who needs to grow up. And no I am not a man-hater as well, because I am a man. A man, who unlike you, would like to see men and women treated equally.

    • I liked the statement 'Feminism is not about equality its about superiority.' You are so right! And, regarding the subject, he lost at the moment when she was assigned as his next opponent. A man that supposed to fight a woman, losing regardless of the match outcome. It is a lose-lose situation for the boys, and win-win for the girls. And this is unjust, regardless of what feminists say.

  4. "Herkelman outwrestled her competitors and emerged as the state's best wrestler."

    The state's best wrestler? She did not win the state championship. She lost the next match that came after the forfeited one, and then lost a consolation match and was eliminated from the tournament.

  5. Brock– I understand where you're coming from. However, it's upsetting that Northrup found himself in an "uncomfortable" situation simply because his opponent was female. The point this article is making is that, while in most other realms of society, women are striving for equality, when it comes to sports, women are still falling behind. More importantly, this entire argument is a reflection of the societal constraints still being implemented on both men and women–women are soft, little things that are not to be taken seriously in aggressive roles, and men are meant to act as their defenders. While I'm sure most feminists aren't blind to the biological differences between genders, giving women a chance to least -compete- with their male counterpart is definitely a step in the right direction.

  6. rachel cervantes says:

    A thought occurred to me while reading this article. But, first: A caveat. I'm assuming this young man forfeited because his religious views required it, and nothing more. I am not implying in any way that the following observation applies to this particular case.

    I suspect the real reason many young men refuse to wrestle young women is that they don't want to lose to "a girl."

  7. Miah Shilpi says:

    Hm…I'm honestly going to say, while his attitude was condescending towards women, I think Joel's actions were fairly graceful. He could've easily gone asshole-mode and demanded that the girl forfeit or caused some other kind of ruckus over the fact he had to play against a girl, not accepting the clash of his faith with reality. But he DID accept it, and bowed out gracefully (and what had been, at the time, relatively quietly). He accepted that he would have to make a choice between his faith and his sport, and he chose his faith. While in this case the faith itself is insulting, at least he made that choice instead of trying to have his cake and eat it, too.

    I wrote more here:

    • I agree. while it seems that we're in the minority. He did make his choice, though being regaled as a religious hero is going a bit far.

  8. SirChannon says:

    Decent article. Another point I think could possibly be made here concerns the heterosexism implicit in such men’s opposition towards engaging in an 'intimate and touchy' sport with a female opponent. The underlying assumption that codes such an engagement as ‘inappropriate’ is the idea that a man and woman cannot touch one another in any way other than a sexual one, suggesting that to the right-wing ideologues backing the young man, the only meaningful physical exchange possible between a male and a female is of a sexual nature. Is this kind of sexual alienation really desirable to people in the 21st-century West?

    • natalie wilson says:

      Yes, exactly! This is what I was trying to get at via quoting Defend Us's comments about such touching being ok for "gay boys" – as if MALES can touch one another in ways that are NOT sexual, but when you put a female into the mix the touching suddenly is construed as laden with sexual "intimate" potential.

  9. helen desmith says:

    whatever makes any young woman want to compete in the violence that males call "sport"?

  10. Barbara Mor says:

    In pagan Greece, Spartan women wrestled with Spartan men without problems;

    wrestling each other, in fact, was a part of the ‘marriage’ ritual in Sparta

    — the home of ferocious warriors, both male & female. Other pagan, indigenous

    cultures have encouraged female warriors & physical strenth/prowess also; when female & male Celts ‘married’ (the relationship lasted one year & one day, at the end of which time it could be terminated if either party desired, with all property exchanged returned to the original owner), they exchanged swords & horses if they

    were among the warrior class. The point is: our culture has passed on stereotypes of ‘female’ & ‘male’ behavior which are entirely sourced in Biblical culture, long

    enforced by combined powers of Church & State, & after a brief period of ‘liberation’ from these religiously-propagated sex-roles, they are returning again thanks to the rise of religious fundamentalism worldwide. The issue is: in a secular country, which America is, should we be required to follow gender roles rooted in a religion which not all of us share? Feminists tried to avoid direction confrontation with this issue in favor of ‘respecting religious/cultural identities.’

    Well, how is that working out for you, in 2011? Anybody feeling the Handmaid’s Tale

    closing in on American women like 4 prison cell walls???? Power does not give up power voluntarily — & this includes the power of religious institutions & ideologies. They must be confronted — & American women should learn the histories of cultures in which the Bible never ruled; maybe one of these cultures was your own, your ancestral DNA is rooted in them, & maybe a political identity based on something other than fundamentalist ‘Judeo-Christian America’ should be explored by today’s women.

  11. These boys are terrified of losing to girls, plain and simple.

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