National Columnist

Heart of matter: No one to blame in Iowa wrestler flap


An Iowa teenager abandoned his pursuit of a state championship because he refused to wrestle a girl -- the height of chivalry or the depth of chauvinism, depending on your perspective. Me, I think Iowa teenager Joel Northrup is all class. Considering his beliefs, he did the right thing. Put into that same position, I probably would have done the same.

Maybe that makes me sexist, and if that doesn't, this would: writing about the inherent differences, physically, between men and women. Men are stronger, more explosive, and as such it's common decency not to use those advantages against a woman.

Cassy Herkelman (left) addresses the media as her father, Bill Herkelman, looks on. (AP)  
Cassy Herkelman (left) addresses the media as her father, Bill Herkelman, looks on. (AP)  
That's what I want to say, but then I think of the girl in this wrestling story. And I stop. Her name is Cassy Herkelman, and she earned her way into the state tournament. She had gone 21-13 this season with eight pins, and in Iowa, that's no joke. That's arguably the most competitive state for high school wrestling, and Herkelman reached the state tournament fairly -- by finishing second at district.

Herkelman belonged in that tournament. With all my heart, I know this.

Northrup felt they didn't belong on the mat together. And deep in my heart, I agree with that.

How is that possible? Because this story is so complex that it defies an easy -- or even a consistent -- position. Show me someone who's convinced that there is one side to this story, and only one, and I'll show you someone who hasn't thought it through. Like ESPN's Rick Reilly. He's one of the most talented writers in this business, but he went lazy by taking a quick look at this kaleidoscope of a story and deciding he saw black and white: Northrup "was so wrong," Reilly wrote, and Herkelman deserved better.

Reilly wasn't completely off -- Herkelman did deserve better. She qualified for state, and she deserved the chance to win her first-round match legitimately. A real athlete doesn't want to win by default, and Herkelman is a real athlete. She's a real wrestler.

And yet, she's a girl ...

Does that last sentence make me sexist? Maybe it does. Honestly, I don't know anymore. All I can do is what Northrup did, which is to explain myself. Here's the statement Northrup released in explanation of his default:

"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."

Impressive statement for a 16-year-old. No way I can compete with that, but let me try. I never wrestled, but I do box -- and there are times I'm put into the ring against a woman. Nothing overly competitive, just a sparring session, but it weirds me out. I simply can't hit a woman, not with anything more than a weak pitter-pat. If that makes me sexist, so be it, but I'm like Northrup, minus the faith angle: "I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner." So when I spar with women I focus on defense and spend the round trying not to get beaten up, because that's better than the alternative -- trying to beat up a woman.

Whether you agree with Northrup, think of what he sacrificed. Wrestling isn't a lark to him. Real wrestlers, like Northrup -- and Herkelman -- work harder than any other athletes in high school. They run and drill and wrestle and diet, then run some more. They twist each other's ears to cauliflower. They do all of that for months.

Northrup did all of that and went 35-4 this season. He did all of that and was ranked fifth in the state at 112 pounds. He did all of that ... just so he could default rather than face a girl.

The whole thing is a his-and-her heartbreak. Neither kid deserved what happened, or didn't happen, in their match. Presumably there aren't enough female wrestlers to hold a girls tournament in Iowa -- as they do in California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Texas and Washington -- so Iowa girls wrestle the boys. Wrestling isn't like track or soccer or basketball, which routinely have boys and girls teams, or baseball, which has a rough equivalent in softball. If a girl doesn't live in one of those five states but has her heart set on wrestling, she deserves that chance. I believe that.

But if a boy doesn't want to wrestle a girl, he has that right. It doesn't make him a chauvinist or a coward. It makes him a gentleman.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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