Still wrestling with religious freaks

For whatever reason, it’s obvious that the story of the faith-based wrestler Joel Northrup has struck some kind of national chord in the hearts and minds of evangelicals, sports fans and sports fans who are evangelicals. Young Joel’s decision to forfeit rather than to engage in combat against a female opponent — Cassy Herkelman — has really ticked of some people.

Nevertheless, I stand by what I said in my original post: I have been pleasantly surprised by the respectful tone of most of the mainstream news coverage — as opposed to opinion writing — of this story.

Then again, there have been some glaring exceptions.

As a rule, the pros at ESPN seem to be divided on the issue of whether faith issues should be included as relevant material in sports coverage. However, a recent essay — not a news story — by the highly talented and respected Rick Reilly openly raised another issue: Are minority religious beliefs worthy of respect?

Let’s jump in at the pivot point in the piece:

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.”


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.

Again let me stress that this is opinion writing, which is normally the kind of work that GetReligion scribes avoid mentioning. However, I agree with several readers (and a GetReligionista or two) that this piece offers interesting insights into beliefs and attitudes that have helped shape some, repeat some, of the news coverage.

Meanwhile, some journalists have continued to probe Northrup’s beliefs and motives.

In particular, this blog item at contains some interesting follow-up quotations from the controversial Christian student-athlete.

The high school wrestler in Iowa who forfeited a match against a girl in a state tournament last week says he objected both to “compromising” positions that such a match could entail and to the idea of inflicting violence on a girl.

“Wrestling is a combat sport, and at times it gets violent, and you get put in moves and holds that are comprising,” said Joel Northrup, a sophomore. “I just don’t believe it’s right that a boy and a girl should, in this manner, wrestle.”

Northrup’s dad, Jamie, said that the decision to forfeit was his son’s alone but that it reflected the family’s Christian convictions.

“Even though there’s no specific Scripture that addresses wrestling with girls, there is the biblical Christian principle of treating women with respect and dignity,” Jamie Northrup said, “and not looking at them as objects to be defeated on the wrestling mat to be, in some cases, groped or slammed.”

Is this story over? I would think so at this point.

Then again, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Maureen Dowd-Frank Rich camp took another run at it. Would they dissect the same case in the same way if the male dissenter was an Orthodox Jew or a Muslim? I think that’s a valid question and one that might show up, sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, for GetReligion purposes, please help us keep looking for constructive coverage of this story that focuses on news content. You know, things like new quotes and facts.

ILLUSTRATION: An early AP video report on the case.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bill P.

    This story isn’t over. The reason I say this is found within Fred Bowen’s piece in the Washington Post. Bowen writes,

    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?

    But later Bowen writes,

    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.

    Bowen concludes by comparing Northrup to Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ pitcher who wouldn’t play on Yom Kippur in the 1965 World Series. Bowen’s last line: “People admired (Koufax) for making that decision. Shouldn’t we admire Joel Northrup, too?”

    I find it telling that Bowen doesn’t agree with Northup for treating a girl different than a boy, but he admires the decision anyway. It’s as if he doesn’t know what to think and is processing it all in his writing (nothing wrong with that). I would imagine Bowen isn’t alone in wresting with (sorry) this seemingly incompatibility of two important worldviews: Respect for women and equality of the sexes. These two expectations are supposed to be natural partners, but a young Iowan wrestler has shown that this isn’t always the case.

    This, I think, will prompt much more analysis (and frustration) going forward.

    By the way, here’s a good take by Hilary Levey in the Huffington Post.

  • Ryan K.

    I read this column a couple of weeks ago when it came out and even emailed the author. To compare treating women with dignity, respect, and chivalry with God tell you to poke old people with sticks is just silly.

    It highlights though that the author might find all religious beliefs just as arbitrary and outlandish…

    I did mention to him though, that I did not see any complaining or columns from him when Deerborn, MI re-arranged their football practices times to midnight for all of their players observing Ramadan. Why did he not mock this intersection of religious beliefs and sports? Curious if you ask me…

  • Bram

    Reilly’s implication that there are ever decisions — “wrong-headed” or not — uninformed by “religious conviction” points up a basic naivete he shares with the rest of the MSM.

    As for what Dowd and Rich would say if the young man in question were a Muslim or an Orthodox Jew: If he were an Orthodox Jew, they might still engage in some snark, but if he were Muslim — no way, not one single scintilla of snark.

  • Patrick Lynch

    I think what we’re looking at here is nothing more than a collective cultural ‘huh?’ that people of faith meet when they express their values. All the attention this gets in the media is kin to what Northrup certainly is hearing from peers – “why would you turn down the chance to touch a girl like that?”

    This has nothing to do with sports, and everything to do with the adults and grown children of a post-Christian culture trying to justify their own choices and reinforce each other, baldly in the face of someone doing The Right Thing. This is locker-room talk, nothing more.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Admittedly the ESPN essay was opinion. The advantage opinion pieces in the media have in shaping our culture is that very many readers find it hard to differentiate between “hard” news stories and opinion pieces.
    Thus many people will read in the ESPN essay “Does any wrong-headed decision…” and without really thinking about it, take it as fact that the boy’s decision was “wrong-headed” instead of an act of self-sacrificing (he had to forfeit) moral courage.
    Considering the deep pit the morals of many of our young people have fallen into–this boy could have been presented in the media as one with a wisdom many older people lack and a moral backbone that should gladden any parent.
    Fat chance!!!

  • Ray Ingles

    Bram –

    Reilly’s implication that there are ever decisions — “wrong-headed” or not — uninformed by “religious conviction” points up a basic naivete he shares with the rest of the MSM.

    You should join us on the “Definition of Religion” thread at the coffeehouse.

  • Ray Ingles

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan –

    The advantage opinion pieces in the media have in shaping our culture is that very many readers find it hard to differentiate between “hard” news stories and opinion pieces.

    Sounds like you should become an opinion columnist! :)

    Short of that, how would you address that perceived lack of distinction?