Commentary

Wrestling with conviction

Updated: February 19, 2011, 10:57 AM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Iowa WrestlingAP Photo/Steve PopeCedar Falls freshman Cassy Herkelman stands in victory with her hand raised, after Joel Northrup, not pictured, decided to default for religious reasons.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Fourteen-year-old wrestler Cassy Herkelman doesn't need anybody protecting her from anything. She's broken her collarbone, split her lip, deviated her septum, wrecked her elbow, all from wrestling. She's about as dainty as a forklift.

She's her district's pony-tailed, 112-pound champion wrestler, boy or girl, kangaroo or camel. She's not a tulip, isn't a Jane Austen character, and doesn't wilt in the heat.

So why did her first opponent in the Iowa state high school wrestling tournament default rather than wrestle her?

Because "wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times," said 16-year-old home-schooled sophomore Joel Northrup, 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."

Appropriate? When wrestling Cassy, the appropriate thing to do is cinch up your headgear tight. She relishes the violence.

Coming into state, the Cedar Falls freshman had won 20 of 33 matches, every one of them against boys. I'm guessing most of them have some kind of faith. I'm sure they all have consciences. And at the end of the match, most of them stood next to her while the ref raised her hand.

[+] EnlargeCassy Herkleman
AP Photo/Steve PopeCedar Falls' Cassy Herkelman, right, would have rather wrestled Joel Northrup, left, to become the first girl to win a match in Iowa's state tournament.

The Herkelmans -- and most of the state of Iowa -- praised Northrup for being a boy of faith. "It's his religion and he's strong in his religion," says Megan Black, the only other girl who made state. (These were the first two in the state's history. Black lost both her matches.) "You have to respect him for that."

Why?

Does any wrong-headed decision suddenly become right when defended with religious conviction? 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?

And where does it say in the Bible not to wrestle against girls? Or compete against them? What religion forbids the two-point reversal?

Remember, Northrup didn't default on sexual grounds. Didn't say anything about it being wrong to put his hands in awkward places. Both he and his father, Jamie, a minister in an independent Pentecostal faith called Believers in Grace Fellowship, cited the physical pounding of it.

"We believe in the elevation and respect of woman," the father told the Des Moines Register, "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."

That's where the Northrups are so wrong. Body slams and takedowns and gouges in the eye and elbows in the ribs are exactly how to respect Cassy Herkelman. This is what she lives for. She can elevate herself, thanks.

If the Northrups really wanted to "respect" women, they should've encouraged their son to face her. When he didn't, it created a national media hurricane with Cassy in the eye of it.

"She's my son," says her dad, Bill. "She's always been my son. Since she could walk, she's always been the tomboy, busting stuff up, walkin' through glass with her bare feet. Finally, her grandma said to me, 'You ought to get her wrestling.'" And she's been doing it since the second grade.

If the Northrups really wanted to "respect" women, they should've encouraged their son to face her. When he didn't, it created a national media hurricane with Cassy in the eye of it. She was surrounded by 20 of us Friday not for how she wrestled (she wound up being eliminated two matches later) but for how she didn't.

"I couldn't get focused," she said of the swirl around her. "I finally had to find a quiet place to try to lock in." Her coach took her cell phone away from her as well as Internet access, but it was all anybody here could talk about. Yes, she becomes the first girl in the 85-year history of the Iowa state wrestling tournament to win a match, but thanks to the Northrups, it's forever splattered with all this.

"I went out for wrestling," says Cassy. "I'm going to face what I'm going to face. This wasn't my choice, it was his."

"What Cassy wanted was to lock horns and see who was better," says her dad.

Could she have beaten him?

"I don't know," she says. "I've never wrestled him before. But from what I've heard, it would've been a close match."

I don't feel as bad for Cassy as I do for Joel. He was the fifth-ranked wrestler in the state at 112 pounds. He was 35-4. He had a chance to win the whole thing. In Iowa, that means a lifetime of people buying you lunch. It's corn-state royalty. To give all that up to protect a girl who loathes being protected? What a waste of a dream.

The last I saw Northrup, he was crying. After the default, he entered the consolation round, where he won his first match, then lost a heartbreaker in overtime, 3-2. He jogged past the scrum of reporters waiting to talk to Cassy, tears streaming down his face, unnoticed. He was done, with no chance to medal.

Neither he, nor his coaches, nor his dad, had any comment. He was reportedly on his way back home to Marion, Iowa, where his mom was about to deliver her eighth child.

For the kid's sake, I hope it's a boy.


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