Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two Stories about High School Wrestling

I came of age in a small city in upstate New York that produced more than its share of excellent high school wrestlers. Even in years when the team wasn’t outstanding, there were always a couple of individuals who were in contention for conference or even state honors. My wife was the statistician for a state championship team in Ohio. We lived for several years in eastern Iowa, where the tiny high school where my wife directed the plays after her day job produced not only multiple state titles, but more than one NCAA champion and Olympian.

So if high school wrestling has ever had a moment in the last generation when it attracted a national spotlight, I suspect we’d have paid more attention than would the average couple. Once in a while, there’s a story of marginal interest. I can’t ever recall a time when there were two significant stories happening at once. Now there are. Both have to do with the essential nature of the sport and the problems associated with, well, grabbing someone else.

The first story is from the great state of California, where the father of an unidentified freshman at Buchanan High is apparently suing the Clovis Unified School District over an incident last summer at wrestling practice in which a senior teammate allegedly rammed two fingers up the boy’s anus in a maneuver called the “butt-drag” (only the classiest of terminology for you, gentle reader). By the way, if you follow the links, you’ll find out the senior’s name, which figures prominently in virtually all of the reporting; on the chance that he’s innocent, I’m not going to actively contribute to the vilification of a minor. The freshman boy’s name has not been released because he is the alleged victim of a sex crime, but his father has made statements to the press and is identified by name in those stories: unless that father has multiple freshman sons on the wrestling team, I’m willing to bet that everyone at school has pretty well figured it out by now.

The alleged back-story in this case was that the senior was bullying the freshman over the younger boy’s water bottle. According to the New York Times (yes, they had an article on this case),
On July 15… according to the younger boy’s account, he refused to hand his water over, prompting threats from [the senior], including menacing gestures. The police report states that at a practice that evening, [the senior] purposefully stood near the younger boy during a wrestling exercise and, when the coach whistled for wrestling to begin, threw the younger boy down, pinned him to the mat and performed an invasive “butt drag” maneuver.
The senior claims the move consisted only of, and again I’m just quoting newspaper accounts, grabbing the freshman’s “butt cheek” in a move he’d been taught by a middle school coach. If the reporting of the Fresno Bee is to be believed, the incident took place in “a crowded gym during practice in front of parents and coaches.” Yet there appear to be no witnesses.

I’m not putting implicit faith in Jane Jamison of UNCOVERAGE.net, especially when her editorial piece is cross-linked to something called “Right-Wing News.” That said, I have seen no contradiction of the following:
The “victim,” a freshman, made no complaint about the move in practice, and in fact, was joking and having a good time and never even mentioned the incident, according to witnesses and the coach. It wasn’t until sometime later, that the younger wrestler said something to his step-mother and then to his father. The father is a former counselor for a local child-abuse agency.

The “victim” was taken to a doctor, who found slight redness in the victim’s anal area. The fingers, if they did go in or near the anus, were OVER the victim’s work-out clothes, it was not a “skin-on-skin” allegation.
Moreover, the “butt-drag” does indeed appear to be a standard wrestling move. It does not, by design, involve anal penetration of any description, but mistakes happen in sports. I was watching a basketball game last night, and an Oklahoma State player elbowed a Kansas player in the face. It was clear from the replay that there was no intent to do so; it was equally clear that the incident had indeed occurred.

It is impossible to conclude definitively what happened last July. According to an AP report, the older boy’s attorney asserts that a police investigation “found no evidence on the boy's underwear or gym shorts to support his account.” First off, there’s an investigation I’m glad I didn’t have to conduct. More to the point, the implicit suggestion here is that such a search would of necessity have been carried out very shortly after the incident itself, thereby calling into question the claim that the younger boy waited for a substantial period of time to file a complaint.

So we are faced with a wide range of possibilities. Perhaps the older boy actually threatened and then assaulted a younger, smaller teammate. Or the freshman (or his father) made the whole story up, whether for attention or hoping for a payout in a nuisance lawsuit or whatever. It’s also possible that there was an honest misinterpretation about the alleged threats, and/or that the anal penetration happened, but purely accidentally. Whatever the actual facts of the case, the senior was arrested on a charge of sexual battery (the charges were later dropped) and first suspended, then expelled, from school.

The school, of course, has one of those ridiculous “zero tolerance” policies, and I do wish I could blame it for the brouhaha. Unfortunately, I can’t. The question here isn’t whether a student ought to be suspended for getting highlights put in her hair. This allegation is indeed serious. If a bully committed a sexual assault on school property, of course he should be thrown out of school. The question isn’t whether the punishment meets the crime, it’s whether there was a crime.

The only people I’m confident aren’t at fault in this case are the school officials. Whereas one or the other of those boys is guilty of a crime, whether of assault (at least) or of filing a false report (at least), there is no allegation that I’ve seen suggesting the younger boy complained prior to the alleged incident that he was being bullied. The school apparently acted swiftly to suspend the older boy as soon as they heard of the allegation. That not all their decisions were unanimous suggests only that the facts of the case are open to more than one interpretation. All of which says that the younger boy’s father is an unethical ass for suing the school (but not the other boy?), whether his son’s claims are legitimate or not.

The other wrestling story is from Iowa, where a boy named Joel Northrup defaulted his class 3-A state tournament match rather than having to wrestle a girl, Cassy Herkelman of Cedar Falls. (It’s important that he defaulted rather than forfeited, as that allowed him to continue in the consolation round.) Northrup is home-schooled, but wrestles for Linn-Mar High School, just down the road from where we used to live. His rationale:
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 other high school sports in Iowa.
Whereas the California story is about two different versions of what happened, with little disagreement about what should happen if we could be sure of the facts, this one is about whether what everyone agrees happened should have. A lot of folks in Iowa and elsewhere gave young Northrup a lot of credit for making this very difficult decision, and indeed for being disappointed but not whining about circumstances. (There’s no lawsuit forthcoming here.) Others, of course, smirked that he was afraid of losing to a girl. Maybe. But I suspect not.

What I know for certain is that ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly is, as usual, full of crap. There was, needless to say, a vulturous swirl of reporters surrounding Herkelman, to the point where she “couldn’t get focused” and her coach took away her cell phone and denied her internet access in a vain attempt to allow her to concentrate on wrestling. All this, in Reilly’s world, is Northrup’s fault, apparently because jackasses like Reilly can’t be expected not to unnecessarily harass 14-year-old girls. It’s all the kid’s fault, because, you see, he didn’t say his unwillingness to grab a girl by the breasts or between the legs had something to do with sexuality or sexual mores. Bullshit. He’s 16, and apparently a devout (and probably somewhat cloistered) Christian. Of course it does, whether or not he may be a little embarrassed to cite it as a reason.

We’ll never know how many of the 20 boys Herkelman defeated on the mat were less aggressive than they would have been with a male opponent, were just that split-second later than they would otherwise have been to wrap up an opponent from behind, or hesitated ever so slightly before attempting to sling her to the mat, giving her just enough time to re-establish her balance. Or, conversely, whether they were so concerned about the possibility of losing to a girl that they were too aggressive, taking chances they otherwise wouldn’t have. Maybe—consummation devoutly to be wished—none of them did, and they’d certainly all deny it. But there will always be the suspicion. That said, the last thing I want to do is to suggest the Herkelman didn’t deserve her spot in the state tournament. Certainly treating Herkelman differently than any other competitor would be the truly insulting course of action.

Reilly, of course, presumes to lecture an adolescent boy on both ethics and religion: “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?” Reilly is, of course, too arrogant to notice that his flair for the hypothetical could readily be turned around. His entire argument is founded on the idea that Ms. Herkelman is entering into this competition willingly, knowing the risks. She’s 14, remember, too young to be responsible for other decisions regarding the mutual touching of boys and girls (the age of consent in Iowa is 16). But even if she were of age, would we be criticizing Northrup for not screwing her under the bleachers just because, hypothetically, she didn’t object?

Wrestling, unlike any other interscholastic sport, is specifically about grabbing the opponent, sometimes in what Reilly calls “awkward places.” That’s going to be more than a little weird for a fair number of adolescents if the opposition happens to be of the other sex. (Like puberty isn’t difficult enough already, right?) And it’s also one of few sports in which boys and girls compete against each other. There are separate teams in golf and track and tennis, none of which involve touching the opponent at all, but there aren’t enough girls to field a separate wrestling team, so we get co-ed competition in the sport that is in social (as opposed to athletic) terms the most problematic. And, especially at the lower weight classes, there will be some girls whose quickness and athleticism will overcome a relative deficit in upper-body strength. In other words, I’m not surprised that a girl could reach state at 112 pounds, although I doubt that a). it would happen at one of the higher weight classes, or b). she’d actually win the tournament.

I have no problem with Ms. Herkelman; with the authorities who allowed her to compete; with her father, who encouraged her to do so; or with the boys who decided to wrestle her. But neither of the two girls who qualified for the state tournament condemns Northrup. Nor does Herkelman’s father. Nor do I. No, that is left to the national sports reporter who just happened to be in the neighborhood. Because if he went to Cedar Falls intentionally, it would have to have been because he considers Herkelman unlike any other wrestler who went to state but didn’t win. And that would make him a raging hypocrite. Oh, wait… Rick Reilly… yeah, old news. Sorry.

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