High School Wrestlers, NBA Owners, and the Long Road Towards Gender Equality in Sports

Will McDuffie

Will McDuffie (class of 2016) is from New York, NY. Although he has not yet declared a major, he is considering English. This past summer he interned at PBS-TV’s “Charlie Rose Show” in New York City. At Davidson, he is a member of the Cross Country and Track & Field teams, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and a Cats Connect Mentor. Will wrote his paper for Dr. Fackler’s Writing 101: Thinking Girls, Thinking Boys.

In February of 2011, Cassy Herkelman became the first girl to win a high school wrestling match at an Iowa state tournament when her opponent, Joel Northrup, refused to wrestle a girl and forfeited the match. Northrup cited religious beliefs when explaining his decision to concede the match at the most important tournament of his life: “As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.1 Northrup’s explanation is critical. Without it, one might assume that Northrup did not want to wrestle Herkelman for fear of the possible shame that could come from losing to a girl in a male-dominated sport–a shame that, while unjustified, is present in some minds thanks in part to popular cultural portrayals of gender and sports. As Theresa Walton explains in her essay on television’s portrayal of girl/boy wrestling, one episode of Malcolm in the Middle dramatizes the embarrassment that Reese and the rest of the family feel after he loses to a girl wrestler.2 Northrup, instead of shying away from the potential shame that Reese experiences, seems like a devout Christian whose reasoning for forfeiting the match involves neither misogyny nor gender discrimination.

His reasoning aside, Northrup (however inadvertently) fortifies the barriers that deny females full access to male-dominated sports. More than four decades after the Title IX declared that “no person shall on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in. . . athletics,” women and girls continue to be shut out from competing against men and boys.3 Whether they are defensible or indefensible, excuses still arise that
strengthen these gender barriers. While this essay does not call for the integration of sexes at every level of sport, Cassy Herkelman deserved a shot at wrestling Joe Northrup, a shot at advancing in the state tournament because of her talent, not as some concession. The fact that she did not get that opportunity reveals that there is a lasting and unresolved issue of gender equality in sports.

Northrup presents his reasoning for not wrestling with Herkelman very vaguely. He says that the “manner” in which one wrestles is inappropriate when a girl is the opponent, as if the act of wrestling becomes more than mere sport when a girl is involved: it is now a sexualized activity. Northrup is no longer competing against a girl or wrestling her; Basketball2-300x225 High School Wrestlers, NBA Owners, and the Long Road Towards Gender Equality in Sportsinstead, he is “engaging” her, becoming the instigator and aggressor rather than simply one of the co-equals in a match. Although Northrup’s religious reasons make him seem politically innocent (which he may well be), nonetheless, his statement runs counter to the spirit of Title IX and the vision of its creators: his words disrespect a female’s body, conceiving of it as fragile and, by extension, contact as violative despite his opponent’s preparedness and willingness to engage. With Northrup’s reasoning, when a girl walks onto the wrestling mat, the mat is long longer a place of competition but rather a potent site of sexualized meaning.

What is curious is that female wrestlers tend not to imbue contact with such significance. In the winter of 2011, sixteen-year-old Cristta Hartinger earned her way onto her high school’s varsity wrestling team. When asked by a reporter whether she found it uncomfortable to wrestle a boy while both he and she are wearing singlets, Hartinger replied, “You don’t think about it. There’s nothing to think about–you just wrestle.”4 “Just wrestle” is what Northrup was unable to do when matched up with Herkelman. Ironically, Hartinger’s ability to avoid the distracting thoughts that unnerve Northrup gives her a mental edge over  boys like Northrup in a sport supposedly unsuited for girls. Hartinger’s situation suggests that the key for girls who want to compete with boys is to be mentally undistracted, strong and confident enough to brush aside the obstacles that appear so problematic to traditionalists.

Although mental fortitude may be one of the main factors separating girls who compete against boys and girls who do not, when addressing integrated competitions, many youth athletics organizations focus only on physical differences in genders. The Iowa High School Athletic Association’s position on girls participating in traditionally male sports programs offers guidelines for girls joining a boys’ team. For example, if a girl wants to join the football team, “she should be informed that football is an aggressive contact sport.”5  Although the IHSAA’s motives are to support a girl trying to play football, the language it uses does little more than demean her by making her seem uneducated in sports. The association feels the need to “inform” girls of the aggressiveness and dangers of football, as if a girl–and one who plans to play the sport at that–is unaware of its violent nature. The IHSAA’s guidelines for girls who want to wrestle announce that someone must notify the girls that “competition and practice are often aggressive and physically demanding.”6 Once again, the IHSAA insults girls’ athletic intelligence by stating the obvious. The fact that the association must warn girls in this way implies that they cannot handle the physical demands and aggressiveness that comes with wrestling boys.

Despite the amount of attention paid to the physical obstacles that girls face when they play contact sports such as football and wrestling, these do not account for the entirety of gender division in youth sports. Another reason lies at the professional level. Young athletes look up to professionals as role models. There is even more gender exclusivity in professional sports. Young female athletes still await a woman to break the gender barrier in many sports. Michelle Wie, one of the most promising young women golfers in recent years, has failed to make the cut in the five men’s PGA Tour events she has played in, while Annika Sorenstam, arguably the best women’s golfer of all time, missed the cut in her lone attempt to play with men. In March 2013, Lauren Silberman became the first woman to take part in an NFL Regional Scouting Combine; however, in her attempt to draw the attention of football scouts as a kicker, her attempts came up significantly shorter than needed to be awarded a place on a team.7 Despite her lack of success in her tryout, Silberman hopes that her mere presence will open pathways for women who want to play in the NFL: “I certainly hope I’m not the last,” she said.8 Katie Hinda, however, is not as optimistic as Silberman. Hinda, who kicked for the University of Colorado and the University of New Mexico, claims that although Silberman’s performance has more to do with her lack of preparation than with her gender, nevertheless “she’s going to be looked at (as inferior) because she is female.”9 Hinda’s words are troubling; even though her gender may not be the cause of failure, society will perceive it to be. This judgmental attitude illustrates the small margin of error that females must work within when trying to play a male-dominated sport. Any mistake leads not only to a critique of the individual, but reflects on female athletes as a group. Therefore, even though Silberman’s mere presence in the tryout may seem groundbreaking, her failure to kick well erodes much of the progress that her presence made.

Despite the amount of attention paid to the physical obstacles that girls face when they play contact sports such as football and wrestling, these do not account for the entirety of gender division in youth sports. Another reason lies at the professional level.

While a female has yet to achieve success in men’s basketball, there now appears to be a faint possibility that a woman might be selected in the upcoming NBA draft. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, recently stated that he would be open to drafting Baylor University’s Brittney Griner:”I’d lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it.”10 The fact that Cuban is even considering selecting a woman in the draft (an event in which NBA teams have only two chances to draft players who they think will become long-term employees) appears on the surface to be a big step forwardBasketball2-300x225 High School Wrestlers, NBA Owners, and the Long Road Towards Gender Equality in Sports for female athletes. However, Cuban’s language betrays a lack of seriousness and an attitude of genuine change. NBA owners don’t typically spend one of their two precious draft picks on a player who they have to “see if [he or she] can do it;” they pick players who they are confident will perform to NBA standards. Cuban’s reason for considering Griner is illegitimate and, in a way, cruel and even sexist since it positions Griner as lesser than men simply by dint of her sex. Gender consideration, as in Hinda’s comments about Silberman, is accompanied by suspicion and doubt rather than by support and positive expectation.

It is unclear to what extent professional sports will become integrated. The increasing number of women who have attempted to join professional men’s leagues is impossible to ignore; yet, the lack of a standout female performer on the men’s level continues to make owners hesitant. A fair number of girls now participate in boys’ sports, yet nearly every instance of such integration elicits the attention of national news. Gender parity and the de facto goals of Title IX will not be achieved until gender integration becomes commonplace, which seems quite far off.


Garafolo, Mike. “Fellow Female Kicker on Silberman: ‘She Was Terrible’.” USA Today, March 4, 2013.

Iowa High School Athletic Association. “Girls Participating in Boys Sports Programs.”’s_Teams.pdf.

Pinto, Barbara and Olivia Katrandjian. “Wrestler Joel Northrup Forfeits to Female Opponent in Iowa State Championships.” ABC News. February 18, 2011.

“Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.” United States Department of Justice.

Walton, Theresa. “Grappling with Dominant Ideologies: Fox Network Weighs in on Girl/Boy Wrestling.” Journal of Popular Culture 40, no. 4 (2007): 714-26.

Waszak, Dennis, Jr. “Lauren Silberman, Female Kicker, Lasts 2 Kicks At NFL Regional Combine Tryout.” Huffington Post.

Watson, Stephen T. “Girl Wrestler Aims to Show She Belongs.” Buffalo News.



  1. Barbara Pinto and Olivia Katrandjian, “Wrestler Joel Northrup Forfeits to Female Opponent in Iowa State Championships,” ABC News, February 18, 2011, []
  2. Theresa Walton, “Grappling with Dominant Ideologies:Fox Network Weighs in on Girl/Boy Wrestling,” The Journal of Popular Culture 40, no. 4 (2007): 720. []
  3. “Title IX of the Education of Amendments of 1972,” The United States Department of Justice, []
  4. Stephen T. Watson, “Girl Wrestler Aims to Show She Belongs,” Buffalo News, []
  5. Iowa High School Athletics Association, “Girls Participating in Boys Sports Programs,”’s_Teams.pdf. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Mike Garafolo, “Fellow Female Kicker on Silberman:’She Was Terrible’,” USA Today, March 4, 2013. []
  8. Dennis Waszak, Jr., “Lauren Silberman, Female Kicker, Lasts 2 Kicks at NFL Regional Combine Tryout,Huffington Post, []
  9. Garafolo. []
  10. Bernie Augustine, “Can Brittney Griner Play in the NBA?Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban Sparks a Debate,” New York Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.come/sports/basketball/woman-nba-mavs-owner-sparks-debate-article-1.1308671. []