Boy Who Refused to Wrestle Girl Might End Up Wrestling History Instead
The whole country now knows who Joel Northrup is, which is what can happen when someone is cast as either a hard-headed, backward-thinking coward or a courageous hero of his religious faith.
As a 10th-grader, yet.
So, you sure hope that his father, Jamie, gave his son sound advice that truly is going to benefit him not just now, but for the rest of his life. Because it's Joel Northrup -- a sophomore competitor in the Iowa state high school wrestling tournament who defaulted his match this week rather than wrestle against a girl -- who will have to live with it.
And he's the one who will have to hope he landed on the right side of history.
Plenty before him, in similar circumstances and much older, more experienced and mature, made their choices with the same absolute certainty and clarity, and were applauded for their insistence on standing by their beliefs. And, as enough time passed, they ended up looking like fools, stubbornly and selfishly holding onto an idea whose time had already passed, or was in desperate need of passing.
Dixie Walker and many of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates are no longer around, but young Joel might want to read up on them.
Walker, in particular, was just as certain, back in 1947, that it was in his best interest, holding to his longstanding beliefs and vital to his business and personal life in his home state of Alabama, to not have a Negro as a teammate. It would ruin him, he was certain. His customers would desert him, his friends and associates would shun him, and he had a right to make a post-baseball living and make his home where he felt most comfortable and welcome. "You're right! You're entitled to that!'' his supporters cried.
A petition circulated in that spring training aimed at keeping Jackie Robinson off the Dodgers, and it's been strongly suspected (but denied by him) that Walker was the ringleader. When the petition was slapped down almost immediately (manager Leo Durocher, by all accounts, suggested they substitute the petition for the roll in the clubhouse bathroom, but in less-delicate terms), he politely asked Branch Rickey to trade him. Rickey did. Walker, a former All-Star, spent the rest of his life branded as the national pastime's foremost bigot.
His daughter told The New York Times last year that she eventually stopped telling people which ex-major leaguer her father was. She also has tried, through a book about her father (who died in 1982) to restore his good name, saying that he was a prisoner of his times. Varying reports, meanwhile, state that either Walker made up with Robinson later in life or renounced his views, or both, or neither.
Certainly other teammates who did push back against baseball integration have gone public about eventually having seen the light, and now praise Robinson to the hilt. Slightly less certain is whether yet another attempt to drive Robinson and his cause out of baseball that year -- a boycott by the St. Louis Cardinals, reported by a New York paper and halted immediately by the commissioner -- was ever close to taking place. The Cardinal players persistently denied it; all the other evidence supports it.
This much is certain, though: Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, told The Times of Walker and his contemporaries: "Maybe they learned better or changed, but at the time, they had a chance to move forward from segregation and chose the opposite. They had an impact.''
Is someone going to say that about Joel Northrup and his father one day?
And will it matter that the young Northrup was a high school sophomore at the time, generally not the best-equipped people to make a decision as weighted with importance as this?
He and his father, a youth pastor in a non-denominational church, seemed sincere and respectful in the statement handed out at the tournament and in comments to the Des Moines Register. "As a matter of conscience and my faith,'' Joel Northrup's statement read, "I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner.''
Nothing about what any other competitor chose to do, nothing about whether the female wrestler, Cassy Herkelman, deserved to be there or not. (She did.) They're winning public-relations points for taking a faith-based position.
Of course, those aren't exactly fool-proof, either.
For centuries, many a minister thundered from pulpits throughout America about how slavery, segregation and the Jim Crow laws were blessed by God and justified by scripture. Many who were against the civil rights movement rationalized it with their belief systems about blacks mixing with them in any public settings -- not to mention (horrors!) marriage. Yes, churches preached about the sin of marriage between certain kinds of people and led the fight against it. Anything like that happening today, by chance?
Martin Luther King's legendary 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail'' begins, "My Dear Fellow Clergymen.'' Meaning the white church leaders in the city who thought he was moving a little too fast and forcefully with this freedom, justice and equality business.
That's just a small sample of positions held by otherwise clear-thinking citizens that, in hindsight, look at best unenlightened, and at worse Neanderthal. Those include, by the way, the idea that women shouldn't participate in sports at all, often backed by lengthy scientific and sociological studies -- and, for example, by Boston Marathon officials who chased women runners off the course. That happened in the late 1960s, and those officials also knew they were absolutely right.
For what it's worth, Joel Northrup's default doesn't block Herkelman or any other girl from taking their rightfully earned place in the Iowa tournament. It does throw an extra, confrontational spotlight, one they didn't ask for, on top of the one already on them, and in many minds it will brand them as the interlopers who cost a highly ranked wrestler a possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance at a state championship.
In the otherwise-polite statement, by the way, was this subtle reach for victimhood: "It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other High School sports in Iowa.'' Yes, open competition regardless of gender, to assure girls their right to compete in a state unable to put on all-female tournaments, is an "unfortunate ... situation.'' Knocks it down a few notches on the nobility scale.
Ultimately, Northrup goes down in history not as the first Iowa boy to lose to a girl in the state wrestling tournament, which would have made him fodder for the kind of jokes 10th-grade boys make before they grow up and get out into the world. Instead, he goes down as the first to not even want to try, because he believed trying to was wrong.
Decades from now, Cassy Herkelman may have something to say about that. While Joel is studying Dixie Walker, Cassy ought to read up on Rachel Robinson.