High school wrestling is big in Iowa.
It’s like hoops in Indiana or football in Texas.
So when the state tournament rolled around this week, it got the usual local publicity and spectators packed the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.
Then something strange happened.
It became a national news story.
The story was not that for the first time in state history, two girls would be competing in their respective weight divisions. The story was that a boy decided to default to one of them, rather than get on the mat and lock up.
Joel Northrup, 16, decided his religion dictated that he could not participate in his match with Cassy Herkelman, a freshman and 112-pound champion from her district.
The result was a sort of media firestorm that had writers and talking heads determining whether Northrup was being chivalrous or sexist. Was he just staying true to his faith, or was he diminishing her worth?
The biggest problem I had with this story was the way it was covered by the media. There was a lack of nuance that seemed necessary when discussing actions that involve morals, violence and teenagers.
While I don’t necessarily agree with Joel’s decision, that’s not to say that he was wrong.
And I also don’t blindly commend him for abiding by what his religion has apparently taught him.
Some writers felt his actions were 100 percent wrong. ESPN columnist Rick Reilly, an 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year, said Joel’s religious excuse should not be given any credence. He wrote:
“In this age, don’t we know better? If my God told me to poke the elderly with sharp sticks, would that make it morally acceptable to others?”
He’s obviously being tongue-in-cheek, but it’s just a false analogy. Northrup didn’t do anything with a malicious intent. He was acting with a belief that what he was doing would cause the least amount of harm to a girl.
That belief turned out to be somewhat foolish and likely incorrect, since it caused a slew of otherwise oblivious reporters to descend upon Des Moines. Yet it also doesn’t seem that Joel was trying to put Cassy in her place.
He never voiced any sort of belief that she didn’t have a right to be there. We’ve seen some acts of defiance in the past where an individual or team makes a threat saying “if they’re playing, I’m not.”
That wasn’t the case. Joel was in a position that he felt was going to be too awkward for him to deal with in a way that felt normal and appropriate, so he simply removed himself.
Now, the flip side of this also needs to be examined. Joel released a statement that outlined his feelings prior to the tournament:
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy. 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.
The problem I have is how he injected his faith into the reasoning. It seems that just saying “religion” has gotten him some slack, when I would have understood his decision much more if he hadn’t.
The other girl to make the state tournament, Megan Black, had positive remarks about Joel.
“It’s his religion and he’s strong in his religion,” she said. “You have to respect him for that.”
I do respect the individual and the decision, but not on any religious grounds. I don’t think forbidding boys and girls from competing against one another in sports appears in any religious texts. But he had a strong enough conviction to default from the match.
His decision will likely cast a shadow over the first win by a girl in Iowa state tournament history. It will likely be the only way either competitor is identified for years to come. It likely cost him a shot at a state title, having entered the tournament with a 35-4 record and as one of the favorites.
Would I have liked to have seen him come to a different conclusion? Yes. But while I don’t think his intent was particularly well reasoned, it certainly was without malice.
I have a tough time understanding how some have reached such a hard-line, black/white, right/wrong conclusion to either hail or ridicule Joel or Cassy. Take a step back and have a little perspective.
It’s a story of a high school sophomore who felt awkward around a girl.