The Iowa state wrestling tournament made big news last week when two girls qualified for the tournament. It was the first time any girls had competed in the 91-year history of the event.
But when Cassy Herkelman, a 14-year-old freshman, was matched against Joel Northrup, a 16-year-old, Northrup refused to wrestle her and forfeited the match.
Northrup said he wouldn't wrestle Herkelman for religious reasons. "Wrestling is a combat sport, and it can get violent at times," Northrup explained 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."
His father, a minister in an independent Pentecostal church, added, "We believe in the elevation and respect of woman, and we don't think that wrestling a woman is the right thing to do. Body-slamming and takedowns: Full-contact sport is not how to do that."
I don't agree with Northrup's decision. I think girls should be allowed to compete against boys, especially in sports such as wrestling, where there are no girls' teams. Part of competing is having your opponent treat you like anyone else in the sport. I'm not sure why a wrestler should treat girls with more respect than boys. If it's bad to body-slam a girl, why isn't it bad to body-slam a guy?
Herkelman can handle herself. She qualified for the state tournament in the 112-pound division with a record of 20 wins and 13 losses. All of her matches were against boys.
After Northrup forfeited the match to her, Herkelman lost two matches and was eliminated from the tournament. She said she had no hard feelings toward Northrup: "He had the right to make his own choice, and he made his choice."
I respect Northrup for standing up for his beliefs. He didn't say Herkelman should not be allowed to wrestle; he just said he wouldn't wrestle her. Northrup, who had a record of 35-4 and was ranked fifth in the state in the 112-pound division, lost his chance to win a state championship by forfeiting the match. That's a big sacrifice. He dropped into a consolation bracket, where he was eliminated from the tournament after he lost a match.
Northrup is not the first athlete to put religious beliefs before athletic success. In 1965, Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball, and his team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, was in the World Series. But Koufax, who is Jewish, refused to pitch the first game of the Series because the game was scheduled to be played on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish religion.
Koufax's World Series had a happier ending than Northrup's tournament. He pitched later in the series, winning two games, including the deciding seventh game, in which he shut out the Minnesota Twins.
Sandy Koufax put religious beliefs before love for his sport. People admired him for making that decision. Shouldn't we admire Joel Northrup, too?
Fred Bowen is the author of 16 sports books for kids. "Real Hoops," his latest book, has just been published.