Monday, January 6, 2014

Courage, By Competing & Chivalry, By Default

As published in The County Times ( in Feb 2011

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Boy encounters girl.  Boy fails to engage girl.  It is something that happens, with regularity.  The natural reaction to a wave of infatuation – being temporarily tongue-tied, humor-less and socially awkward – can be overwhelming.  Whether it was the new girl in math class or the attractive artist from apartment 4B, most guys have lacked the courage to approach a young lady at some point in their lives.  So if you heard that a teenage boy in Iowa recently balked at engaging a fellow high school aged girl, your likely reaction would be, “been there, done that” (for the guys) or “been there, seen that” (for the ladies).  This encounter though was a little more complicated and completely out of the ordinary. 

The cast, for this chance encounter, included leading boy, Joel Northrup, and leading girl, Cassey Herkelman.  They met at a gymnasium in Des Moines, Iowa…to wrestle each other in the state’s wrestling tournament.  Northrup subtly defaulted, though, before the match began citing religious beliefs that prevented him from engaging a woman in a violent manner.  Herkelman was awarded, and graciously accepted, the victory.

Rarely does an exchange between teenagers have such depth.  Personally, young Northrup left me terribly conflicted.  As the father of a daughter, I was initially annoyed that he didn’t respect his opponent, regardless of gender, and square off against her.  She, like him, had arrived at this moment based on hard work and merit.  She deserved to wrestle Northrup until the best wrestler, boy or girl, won.  Like the majority of society, I have no tolerance ceilings placed on an individual’s potential simply because they don’t fit a particular profile (name your “ism”).  I will not temper my daughter’s dreams if they boldly lead her where her gender has rarely dared to go.  While I respect Northrup’s right to make a personal decision, it feels like a passive-aggressive way of saying, “you don’t belong here.” 

On the other hand, as the father of a son, I would have cringed had my boy engaged, and physically dominated Herkelman; so I completely understand his decision.  A man worthy of the air he breathes would never physically impose himself on a woman.  Likewise, any father deserving of that title, ingrains in his son that no circumstance exists that justifies physically threatening or harming a woman.  The sport of wrestling, because it requires the direct physical engagement of two combatants intent on pinning the other, puts any male competing against a female in an awkward situation. 

So who’s right?

The co-habitation of genders on the athletic field is certainly not unprecedented.  I bet a good number of us in the County have played on co-ed softball teams.  Then again, athletic departments are routinely divided by gender and maintain separate programs for boys and girls; an acknowledgement of the undeniable physical differences that generally exist between men and woman.  More significant than sports, no one would (or should) argue that women still face sexist barriers and that violence against women is a far too frequent atrocity (accusations of domestic violence and sexual assault appear regularly in sports pages). 

It seems then that both kids were correct.  Herkelman was right for competing; women should always push the envelope of what’s possible and acceptable.  Equality is more easily preached than practiced, and our society has proven it needs a constant nudge.  Northrup too showed commendable courage in refusing to enter into a direct physical confrontation with a girl.  A rational mind easily discerns the difference between a co-ed high school wrestling match and violence against women.  But those who commit such violent acts are far beyond rational thoughts.  Northrup just wasn’t willing to compromise his beliefs and put on display a boy battling physically with a girl – even under the auspice of athletic competition - for the sake of winning a wrestling match. 

Herkelman and Northrup should be commended for the courage and the maturity with which they handled this awkward and equally principled situation.  There’s little doubt that that both will manage more conventional circumstances under which boy meets girl with similarly uncommon poise and grace.  

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