I’ll be a nutcase, thank you

The conflict over girls being allowed to participate in boys sports is not a new one, but unfortunately it is not going away, either. Parents of a seventh grade girl in Pennsylvania are suing the school district because it will not allow their daughter to wrestle on the school’s (all male) wrestling team. The school says the reason is that allowing her to participate would present dilemmas for the coaches. The family contends that it is because she is a girl.

Hmmm…ya think?

The family has filed suit in federal court. The district has responded that is does not allow boys and girls to participate together in close contact sports because students have a “right to be protected from undesired contact of sensual body parts from a person of the opposite sex.” The parents countered that their daughter began wrestling when she was in third grade and that in Iowa, where they lived at the time, she was on the school wrestling team in fourth and fifth grade and she competed against boys there. A federal judge has issued an order for the school to allow the girl to sign up for the team and will have a hearing this week to decide whether or not to make that order permanent. My guess is that the judge will rule in the girl’s favor. In my mind, that is unfortunate.

There are girls participating in wrestling all across the country. There are girls on wrestling teams in South Dakota, where I am a school administrator. Our school has a wrestling team and our school policy is that (1) girls cannot wrestle and (2) our boys cannot wrestle girls on other teams. If there is a girl on another team that one of our boys would be paired with, we forfeit the match. There is no discussion, no question, no negotiating. And yet this is not out of some sexist desire to exclude girls or restrict their opportunities or treat them as lesser individuals. It is, on the other hand, out of respect for the girls and the boys and the way in which God created them.

In 2009 John Piper wrote what I think is one of the best responses to the issue of girls wrestling boys. He wrote it in response to first female competitor in a high school wrestling tournament in Minnesota, and it was entitled “Over My Dead Body, Son.” In the post Piper wrote that the moment was not a step forward; “some cultures spend a thousand years unlearning the brutality of men toward women,” he said.

In Piper’s inimitable way he identified the real issue regarding the unwillingness of many to stand in opposition to this perversion of healthy gender roles: “It’s just too uncool. The worst curse that can fall on us is to be seen as one of those nutcases who hasn’t entered the modern world. This is not about courageous commitment to equality; it’s about wimpy fear of criticism for doing what our hearts know is right.”

I was never a wrestler, not in a formal sense. Like probably any male who grew up with a brother close in age I have certainly wrestled. But the sport of wrestling has rules, it has “moves,” and it has uniforms. None of these create a situation that allows for a healthy male-female interaction. First, the uniforms are skin tight. I have never seen a girl in a wrestling singlet and I never want to. Second, wrestling as designed requires grabbing, squeezing, twisting, pushing, pulling… There is, to my knowledge, no other sport in which the opponents are so physically close for so long. Wrestling opponents are literally as close to each other, and entwined with each other, as two humans can be. Tell me then, why in the world any sane parent would allow, much less encourage, a daughter to intentionally place herself in a position to be wearing skin tight clothing pressed together with a young man also wearing skin tight clothing? Piper writes of watching an online instructional video for wrestling, illustrating how to pin your opponent. Of this video he writes, “these two guys are pressing and pulling on each other with unfettered and total contact. And it isn’t soft. It’s what we do not allow our sons to do to girls.”

In 2011 Iowa high schooler Joel Northrup was the fifth-ranked wrestler in the state, but he took a stand when he was matched with a female opponent in the first round of the state championships. Northrup forfeited because he was unwilling to wrestle a girl. Here is what he had to say: “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy [Herkelman, the wrestler he drew] and Megan [another female wrestler who made it to the state championships] and their accomplishments. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. 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 high-school sports in Iowa.”

Northrup’s father is a pastor, and he said, “We believe in the elevation and respect of woman.” ESPN’s Rick Reilly responded in complete foolishness to that statement when he wrote this on ESPN.com: “That’s where the Northrups are so wrong. Body slams and takedowns and gouges in the eye and elbows in the ribs are exactly how to respect Cassy Herkelman. This is what she lives for. She can elevate herself, thanks.”

National Review‘s Mona Charen wisely challenged Reilly’s comments with this questions: “Are we really sure we want to obliterate the last traces of chivalry in young men — to stamp out every trace of protectiveness from the male psyche?” Charen, like Piper, pointed out that boys wrestling girls are put in the position of either being at a distinct disadvantage or of touching girls in places that boys are told in every other context not to touch girls. Says Charen, “Supporters of co-ed wrestling insist that sex is the last thing on the kids’ minds when they’re in the arena, which is almost certainly false.” She concluded her piece with this summary: “Joel Northrup did the honorable thing by bowing out and refusing to wrestle a girl. He cited his conscience and his faith. They have been better guides for him than this gender-neutrality ideology has been for the state of Iowa.” I agree wholeheartedly, though I would suggest that gender-neutral ideology has been detrimental to far more than just the state of Iowa (as, I am sure, would Charen).

Selwyn Duke, writing for American Thinker, said this: “Having girls and boys grapple on mats in front of spectators is nothing short of social perversion.” Later, Duke writes, “We put boys — whose natural desire to be a knight in shining armor and protect girls should be cultivated — in an unreasonable position: They either have to contribute to the defeminizing of the fairer sex or the emasculation of their own.”

I am not really convinced that girls need to wrestle at all. If they do need to, though, they should be wrestling each other, not boys. After all, what other sport is there at the level of high school or above where girls and boys compete against each other? I cannot think of any. And if there is any sport in which coed participation should not be happening it is wrestling! Jen Chu, the Pennsylvania director for women’s wrestling, agrees. She said, in a March 2012 article for Max Preps (a web site devoted to high school sports), “My goal is to have something completely separate from the boys and establish girls wrestling. The answer is to separate girls and boys wrestling, and the way to expand the sport is to separate it.”

Bottom line, girls and boys should not be wrestling each other. There is no realistic argument that supports it. The gender equality argument does not. The comparison to other sports does not. The biblical perspective certainly does not. We need men and women to stand up for the truth, to be willing to say to each other and to their children that boys wrestling girls is not right, it does not benefit anyone, and we will not allow it. And if, in Piper’s words, that means someone will see me as a nutcase, sign me up.

A Daily Wrestling Match

I can say with certainty that I have watched more wrestling in the past two months than I had in my entire life. Neither of the schools I have served in before coming to SBA had wrestling programs, and the only time I had ever been to a wrestling match was when I was in high school and the pep band was playing (I was in the pep band). I can say with confidence, though, that I spent more time talking to my friends while we were not playing than I did watching the wrestling. I have nothing against wrestling–it’s just not my thing.

However, as I have watched wrestling in recent weeks I cannot help but think of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he discusses the spiritual wrestling match that believers are engaged in every day:

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).

I have learned a few things about human vs human wrestling: there are definite rules about what the wrestlers can and cannot do, and the wrestlers are usually completely exhausted by the time their match is over, regardless of whether they won or lost. The wrestlers are also required to be properly attired, including their headgear.

Spiritual wrestling isn’t quite like that. Satan doesn’t have many rules he has to follow. In fact, short of any limits God may place on what he can do–such as when He told Satan not to touch Job but to do whatever else he pleased, and then told him he could do whatever so long as Job was not killed–Satan pretty much has free reign. He doesn’t have a mat he has to stay on, he doesn’t have guidelines about the kind of holds that he can use, the methods or approaches of attack, and the only clock he has to concern himself with is the one that expires when our lives are over. Until then, he can keep coming at us as often, as long and as hard as he wants.

Another clear difference between human and spiritual wrestling: we cannot see our opponent in spiritual wrestling! The wrestlers I have watched keep their eyes fixed on their opponent as long as they are both on their feet, watching for when the opponent may make a move. While I suppose there could be one, I have never seen a blind wrestler, and I cannot imagine trying to wrestle an opponent I could not see. And yet Paul makes it clear that that is exactly what we must do, because we cannot see Satan. We cannot see the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers; we cannot see the spiritual forces of evil. We can see their influence around us, and we can feel it when we get taken down, though.

Thankfully, we do not wrestle alone! Immediately before and immediately after verse 12 Paul reminds the church at Ephesus–and believers today–that we must “put on the whole armor of God” in order to be able to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (v 11) and “to stand firm” (v 13). When I was in the classroom regularly I would tell my students early in each school year, “If I repeat something, that is a pretty good indication that it is something you need to know!” The same is true for Paul; that he repeated the instruction to clothe ourselves in the “whole armor of God” in order that we may not be taken down in the spiritual wrestling match is an excellent indicator of the importance of what he is saying!

Just like the wrestling matches I have watched on the mat, spiritual wrestling can be exhausting–especially if we are not adequately prepared, attired and focused on the issue at hand. I must be prepared for the daily wrestling match by equipping myself through prayer and Bible reading. I must dress myself in the armor of God, every day. The wrestlers at SBA don’t put on their wrestling suits once; they put them on every time they are going to step onto the mat. We must do the same thing spiritually. Satan doesn’t care if I am properly attired or not; he will come after me regardless.

I must also focus–I must be on the lookout for the attacks of Satan. Even when I do all of this, though, I may get exhausted by the fight. Thankfully, the same God who provides us with our armor for battle also provides us with nourishment and refreshment and strength when we need it–and ask Him for it.

Tomorrow when I wake up I’m going to think about the alarm clock not as just a buzzer to wake me up; rather, it is the whistle indicating the start of another wrestling match. And as soon as my feet hit the floor, I’m on the mat.