Redefining Gentleman

Posted by Alex W.C. on 12:04 PM
Some days I think I rant too much about the current perception of women’s sports. I ponder backing off and trying to appreciate the positive changes that women’s sports has experienced over the past few years or so. Then I am oh so quickly reminded when things like this happen.

Pardon me while I take a slight departure from the typical WNBA content I write about.

Joel Northrop, a high school wrestler in Iowa, was recently celebrated as a gentleman.

Why you ask?

In the Iowa state wrestling championships, Joel Northrop, who was favored to grab the title, forfeited a match. His opponent in that match was a girl. Northrop then released this statement:

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy…. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times," said Northrup. "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."

In doing so, many, including several sports journalists, hailed him as a gentleman who has the utmost respect for women.

I would disagree.

The opponent? Cassy Herkelman, a freshman, who had a 21-13 record for the season, not to mention 8 pins – all against other boys. Conversely, Northrop went 35-4 , and was ranked fifth in entire state of Iowa. The question that drives through my mind is why would someone throw their chances of winning a state title, after obviously working so hard to earn a spot in the championships?

The last sentence where he says, “It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation…” Why does this have to be about him? Am I supposed to think that because an opponent, a girl, who worked hard and earned this opportunity, took away his opportunity to compete? He’s the one who made the decision, no one forced him to.

That leads me to his reasoning behind his decision; as he said, it was his faith. While I am not a religious man myself, I have never been down on someone making choices because of their faith. We live in a country where we are guaranteed freedom of religion, and every citizen in this country has that right, and in doing so, the right to make decisions in their lives based on their faith.

But I question him falling back on his faith. I question it because it really does not make sense for him to say so. Here is a young man, and a talented athlete. Athletic achievements just do not happen, they require work and determination. I doubt seriously that he was able to post the record he did without a tremendous amount of said determination and perseverance. To take all that and just give it up?

It doesn’t make sense.

Maybe it is because, as I said before, I am not a religious man myself. Maybe someone with strong convictions of their faith would be willing to make a huge sacrifice, rather than sacrifice their values. Maybe this is something I am unaware of because I come from a non-faith based upbringing.

But when he stated that wresting is a “combat sport” and can become “violent at times”, his faith does not address this? Violence is ok some of the time, and other times it is not? It seems too inconsistent to me.

My perspective I can guarantee is not a popular one, and one that many will disagree with. Yes, call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but I think it goes deeper than faith. It comes down to fear. Not fear of losing, but fear of losing…to a girl.

It didn’t quite come to me at first; but then I saw another example of this, a subtle example, but it was there.

Watching the NBA All-Star celebrity game recently, I saw as legendary NBA player Scottie Pippen faced off against WNBA champion Swin Cash. I shouldn’t even say “faced off” because there was no effort to support this on the part of Scottie Pippen. Swin was driving to the hoop, and Pippen was standing under the basket as she did. (See you tube video, starting at the 1:20 mark)

And that was all he was doing, just standing there. He did absolutely nothing to try to do what he was supposed to, which was to defend the basket. Even the commentators made a remark about how he made absolutely no effort.

That’s when it hit me. How could a forfeited wrestling match and lacking of effort by an NBA great could show the exact same thing? These male athletes would rather do nothing, than risk the chance at experiencing being shown up, or defeated, at the hands of a female athlete.

There, I said it.

This fear is what I believe drives the many examples of negativity that I’ve seen directed at women’s sports. It begins at the public school level when a coach refers to his players at “ladies” or “girls” when he wants to motivate them. Young boys are conditioned to think that association to anything female makes them weaker and less skilled. After years of this kind of conditioning, to even think that a girl could defeat them at their own game must be quite frightening. Just the thought that female athletes could do it just as good or better than men evokes not only negativity toward female athletes, but toward females in general.

CBS sports columnist Gregg Doyel commented, “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.”

Once again, the story isn’t focused on the girl who lost the opportunity to showcase her wresting skills, but the boy who threw in the towel. The boy is the hero and is celebrated for standing up for what he believes in.

The Girl? Maybe she’ll have better luck next time.

Unfortunately for Cassy Herkelman, there will be no next time. Cassy will never have freshman year in high school to repeat. Many moments in an athlete’s career come once in a lifetime. Oh sure, she'll have three more years in high school. This year however, for Cassie, is gone. And as it is, Northrop is the one who's celebrated.

It seems that many respected his choice, but no one respected Cassy’s. When Cassy became involved in wresting, she made a choice too. That choice was to physically engage boys in a very aggressive contact sport, and in doing so, accept any of the physical consequences that may come about. In other words, she took the bangs and bruises, and chose to keep going. This is clearly supported by the number of victories in her record and her perseverance to continue.

It comes down to this. Instances like this play out the same way most of the time. It’s not about the female athlete who had to work twice as hard to gain their place in a male dominated sport; it’s about the male athlete who was put in an awkward position. It’s not about the female athlete who made the decision to accept the physicality of their sport; it’s about the male athlete who didn’t want to “hurt” anyone. This focus makes the male athlete the martyr or the victim, and only creates a bigger battle for female athletes in the future.

It’s a double standard, its insecurity, its fear. What is cheaply sold by many as respect, is a smoke screen to cover up the true feelings male athletes have that they don’t want to admit to.

I had a conversation a while back with a guy who had been invited a few times to be a part of a scrimmage team and play against the Phoenix Mercury. (For those of you who don’t know, that’s a professional women’s basketball team.) He shared with me that in the beginning, he had the same feelings, as not wanting to get physical with the players, believing it would somehow be inappropriate. Those feelings quickly changed however, while on offense, he set a screen for one Diana Taurasi. He promptly received a hard elbow to the gut as Taurasi fought against the offense. He then explained how it was evident to him that Taurasi chose to get physical, and by doing do, inviting those to get physical in return.

So he did, and amazingly, no one got hurt. To me, that is the truest example of what respecting female athletes should be.

He is the one who is a gentleman.

UPDATE: Check out Sarah Spain's blog post over at ESPN W


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

Wrestler defaults at Iowa prep tourney rather than face girl

For first time, Iowa girl wins a state wrestling match by forfeit


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