Feb 21, 2011

Sports, Faith, and Discipline

Joel Northrup. That is the name of a person who made a decision, a tough decision, that is awfully similar to decisions that must be made every single day, albeit in different settings, by people across the spectrum, whether moral decisions, religious decisions, and/or lifestyle decisions.

Northrup is a high school wrestler in Iowa who was on the verge of winning the championship, and was headed to the state tournament to do just that. When he found out that his first opponent in the tournament would be a female freshman, he made a tough decision and decided to pull out of the tournament. (Hattip: Fanatic Rabbi)

From ESPN:
"Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times," Northrup said in a statement released by his high school. "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."

His father, Jamie Northrup, told The Associated Press later Thursday that his son struggled with the decision.

"He's poured his heart and soul into wrestling and into being the best in the state," Jamie Northrup said. "He's never won a state championship, so he's certainly looking forward to that day. So it's agonizing, from all the work and the effort and the hope.

"But it's easy in that, he, a long time ago, drew a line and said 'I don't believe it's right for a boy to wrestle a girl."'

There were several thousand fans at Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday, but many were watching other matches when the referee raised Herkelman's hand to signal her win. There was a smattering of cheers and boos from the crowd before Herkelman was whisked into the bowels of the arena.

Northrup's decision to default put Herkelman in the quarterfinals in the 112-pound weight class, and it put her name in the record book as the first girl to win an Iowa state tournament match. But it deprived her of the chance to show the skills that earned her a 20-13 pre-tournament record.

Tournament organizers declined to make Herkelman available for questions. But her father, Bill Herkelman, told The Associated Press via text message 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," Bill Herkelman wrote. "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."

Because he defaulted and didn't forfeit, Northrup was allowed to compete in the consolation rounds, and he won his first match later Thursday by major decision.

He was spared any chance of meeting up with Black -- who also wrestles at 112 pounds and was 25-13 entering the tournament -- when she was eliminated after being pinned in both of her matches. But Northrup and Herkelman would be matched up again if both were to make the finals in the consolation bracket.

Northrup's father, Jamie Northrup, is a minister in the Believers in Grace Fellowship, an independent Pentecostal church in Marion that believes young men and women shouldn't touch in a "familiar way," said Bill Randles, the church's pastor.

"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, that full contact sport is not how to do that."

Randles said Joel has been involved in wrestling for many years, and he and his family have discussed before the possibility of girls getting involved in the sport.

"It's totally his choice. He's a young man now and he's worked hard to get where he's gotten. It's up to him, and it was his conviction" not to wrestle Herkelman.

Black said Northrup refused to wrestle her three years ago, and that she respects him for adhering to his beliefs.

"If it's his religion and he's strong in his religion, then I just respect that," Black said. "Obviously, everyone can be pointing fingers at him. He, at least, is true to his beliefs and you have to respect that. It takes a lot for a 15- or 16-year-old boy to do."

Marth Stetzel, a mother from Perry who had two sons in the tournament, said she had no problem with Northrup's decision.

"We're really raising kids that are going to be bigger than wrestling, and if it's something that he believes strongly in -- which is not necessarily what I would do -- you've got to respect a kid like that," Stetzel said.
Yes, there is not really a need to look to non-Jewish role models, as we have plenty of Jewish role models who make tough decisions every day to do the right thing, to live according to their moral and religious beliefs despite the difficulty of doing so, the loss incurred by doing so. However, we can and should  take lessons from wherever they come, and this one is very clear and poignant.

I find it highly unusual that they would pit male against female in this fashion. Sports has, for the most part, kept the segregation of men and women, having them compete against their own gender, each staying in their own field of play. Man against man, woman against woman. Sports has recognized that while socially there is equality between men and women, while women are perfectly capable of competing against men, and performing on par with (or even better than?) men in the intellectual, academic, social, business and other realms, physically there is still a large gap between the levels in which each competes. There is no sport in which man and woman compete together, because the physical abilities remain at vastly different levels (obviously with exception). So the whole situation in which the Iowa State Tournament pits man against woman is highly unusual.

However, with it happening that way, Northrup was willing to give everything up, cancelling, or at least seriously delaying, his plan to be champion. And he came to the decision himself.

And they all respect him for it, for living according to his beliefs. No criticism that he is old fashioned, sexist, holding archaic beliefs. They accept him, and admire him, for living true to his beliefs.

There are two sides to this lesson. Northrup standing true, and the way those around him accepted and respected his decision.

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