Females Down for the Count

How much is a victory worth if you didn't win?

Last Thursday Cassy Herkelman had to confront this question as she became the first female to "win" a match in Iowa's state wrestling tournament for high school students. Her opponent, Joel Northrup, a favorite in the 112-pound weight class, defaulted rather than face a girl on the mat, citing his religious convictions. None of Herkelman's other opponents refused to face her and she was eliminated after losing two matches. The other female competitor, Megan Black, also lost all of her matches, with no opponents declining to face her.

Some have suggested this situation is a case of Title IX run amuck, with others calling the situation a combination of unfortunate, sexist, and admirable. The larger question is whether or not males and females should be given opportunities to participate in the same sports, but be segregated by sex.

It's useful to consider the reverse situation -- when males enter female dominated sports. For the past few decades boys have been playing on girls' field hockey teams in the state of Massachusetts. This past season a team from South Hadley went all the way to the state semifinals with two brothers leading the charge. The boys who join girls' teams report being taunted both by other boys and by parents of the girls. Some of the their teammates' parents worry the boys are cutting into their daughters' playing time, while the opponents' parents fret about aggressive style of play that could lead to injury.

The reality is that parents are right to worry about injuries and performance advantages. On average, boys are stronger and faster than girls. This is not true for everyone, certainly, but there are biological realities related to hormones and physiology that mean that most males will be stronger and faster than most females. It's telling that in many competitive youth sports leagues, like soccer, if a girl joins a boys' team it is still considered a boys team. When a boy joins a girls' team it is considered a co-ed team.

Title IX and its advocates have fought to ensure that females have access to similar athletic opportunities available to males. While more work remains to be done (for example, see the University of California, Berkeley's announcement last week that they will reinstate women's gymnastics and lacrosse and men's rugby next year), much progress has been made. But where is the line? In recent years medical professionals and journalists, like Michael Sokolove in Warrior Girls: Protecting our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports, have argued that now that women have access to sports we need to confront the reality that the way some sports are organized is not best for women's bodies.

In a perfect world, boys and girls should have separate competitive outlets when it comes to physical sporting activities. This is especially true after puberty when male and female bodies start to differ drastically in their amounts of body fat and muscle, with boys gaining an advantage. But boys don't always have the advantage; at younger ages there is an observable advantage for girls because they tend to have more mental acuity to pick up rules of the game and teamwork than their male peers. Sure, in wrestling, and other sports like boxing and martial arts, there are weight categories that apply to both sexes, so it is a fairer fight. But a 112 pound female body and a 112 pound male body at age 15 usually look quite different. As more and more girls hit the wrestling mats (or boys hit the field hockey field), the hope is that female wrestling tournaments will develop (along with male field hockey leagues). Until that happens, allowing girls to compete with and against boys, and vice versa, is the only way for kids to develop skills and help increase an activity's popularity among the opposite sex so that same sex competitive events can eventually emerge.

While we don't yet live in a world with equal access, change is happening. Wingate High School, in Brooklyn, has eight female wrestlers. Their coach recruits females, touting the numerous benefits women get by participating in wrestling in high school. Two of these young women won conference titles, beating out male competitors, and they will soon be able to compete against other female wrestlers at the City's first all-female tournament.

By the way, no word if Megan Black and Cassy Herkelman ever faced off in Iowa. Given that they were the only two females to qualify, perhaps they could have wrestled for the female state wrestling title after their elimination. That would have been a victory earned.