02/24/2011 10:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wrestling With a Tough Decision

Should boys and girls compete against each other in wrestling?

And I thought it was tough playing number one singles on the boy's high school tennis team! But tennis is not a contact sport. Should girls and boys compete against each other in a contact sport? That is the question in the national spotlight after an Iowa high school sophomore, Joel Northrup, defaulted his first round wrestling match in the state tournament against a girl, Cedar Falls freshman Cassy Herkelman, because he doesn't think boys and girls should compete against each other in the sport.

I don't have a problem with Northrup defaulting. Whether his decision is based on religious beliefs, chivalry, fear of losing to a girl or whatever, he has the right not to wrestle. It was a pretty big price to pay, though, giving up an opportunity to possibly advance in the tournament and win a state championship. Northrup, a home-schooled sophomore, was 35-4 wrestling for Linn-Mar High School.

And hats off to Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black, who became the first two girls to make the Iowa state wrestling tournament in its 85-year history. It takes a lot of guts and determination for girls to pursue their goals, particularly if it has to do with competing against boys in a contact sport. It can't be easy for either gender based on the reactions that both the girl and boy wrestler have to deal with, not to mention the challenges of the sport itself.

After Northrup defaulted, Herkelman advanced to the next round in the Class 3A, 112 pound division but lost. But it was the State Championship tournament so it garnered a lot of attention. And it sounds like both families -- the Northrups and the Herkelmans -- handled the situation in a civil manner.

Northrup said: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. 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. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa."

Herkelman's father told Associated Press that he understands and respects Northrup's decision: "It's nice to get the first win and have her be on the way to the medal round... I sincerely respect the decision of the Northrup family especially since it was made on the biggest stage in wrestling. I have heard nothing but good things about the Northrup family and hope Joel does very well the remainder of the tourney."

But the question remains. Should boys and girls compete against each other in wrestling? As much as I am an equal opportunist, I think there should be separate tournaments for each gender. The issue becomes, how many school systems have female wrestling programs? When I was in high school many moons ago, my high school did not have a girl's tennis team so I played on the boys team. In my senior year, I played number one singles. It was not easy dealing with the looks and the glares and the comments coming from the opposing teams when they realized that one of their guys would have to play a girl. And I had a winning record.

It can be devastating for a female athlete when she has the talent and the skills to compete in the sport she loves but does not have the program. But I can also imagine that it would be very difficult for a guy, who hopefully has been brought up to be a 'gentleman,' to have to deal with wrestling a girl.

A recent NY Times article on the subject pointed out that "the legal status of coed wrestling is not entirely clear, but in a few scattered cases, courts have ruled that if there is no girls' team for them, they should be able to join boys' teams." The article said:

"Nationwide, about 5,000 high school girls wrestled last year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, nearly five times as many as a decade earlier. Those numbers are no doubt low, since many states failed to report girls' wrestling participation, but whatever the full count, it is dwarfed by the quarter-million boys who wrestle... In Texas and Hawaii, and in some California schools, girls have their own teams. Girls' invitational tournaments, where girls compete individually, are becoming more common. Just this month, for the first time, the New York Mayor's Cup competition had a girls' division, albeit with only nine participants."

I personally would advise my daughter to choose another sport. But if a girl wants to wrestle, then she should be allowed to try out for the boy's team if there is not a girl's team and if a boy wants to play on a girl's field hockey team, then he should be allowed the opportunity as well.

Neither situation can be easy so you have to admire and respect each individual's decision for doing what they truly believe is right.

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