High school state wrestling championships aren’t usually the stuff of national news. And to be honest, it’s not usually the stuff of news at my dinner table. But back in February, the topic made both. And I’m still ruminating on it.
Colorado high school senior Brendan Johnston forfeited his opportunity to place in the Class 3A 106-pound weight class—because he chose not to wrestle a girl.
Johnston explained, “I’m not really comfortable with a couple of things of wrestling a girl. The physical contact, there’s a lot of it in wrestling. And I guess the physical aggression, too. I don’t want to treat a lady like that on the mat. Or off the mat. And not to disrespect the heart or the effort she’s put in. That’s not what I want to do either.”
He told The Denver Post, “Wrestling is something we do, not who we are. And there are more important things to me than my wrestling. And I’m willing to have those priorities.”
The girl against whom he was to compete, Angel Rios, who hopes to compete in the Olympics someday, finished fourth in the overall competition.
Around our table
At my family’s dinner table—obviously not the judge and jury of the day—respect for Johnston won the verdict. But my husband saw coming what we all did: This was not going to be well-received in the reigning court of public opinion. “It’ll be perceived as weakness. Either he’s seen as having such strong ‘urges’ that he couldn’t stand to wrestle a girl, or he’s perceived as a chauvinist.”
And indeed, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan’s response was openly skeptical. She wrote:
On a flight a year ago, I happened to sit next to the father of two male high school wrestlers who told me over the course of a conversation about high school sports that his sons had both forfeited matches rather than wrestle against a girl.
I asked why. He mentioned religion and treating girls and women the right way, and then he said this:
“Can you imagine what it would be like for a boy to lose to a girl?”
….If athletes like Johnston are worried about competing against a girl in such a manner, what would they think about competing against a boy who is gay— which they might already have done? Or a transgender athlete?
The sooner the families of these reluctant boys figure this out, the better they will be, because these are young men who will be competing against and working with women the rest of their lives. They might as well get used to it.
Competing opinions: athletics & gender
It feels highly unsubstantiated that Brennan would assume Johnston’s underlying motives based on an interaction with a stranger. But let’s set this aside and examine the cultural context into which Johnston’s actions and remarks descend.
Johnston’s conviction lands on inflamed, post-#metoo times, as well as tricky times for sports and gender. Though distant from Johnston’s particular concerns, feminists and transgender activists continue to clash over the intermixing of gender in the athletic arena. While allowing males and females to compete in wrestling may be a ship past-sailed for the Colorado High School Activities Association, others aren’t ready to surrender just yet.
Openly gay former tennis player Martina Navratilova has been routed online for her frustration at the entrance of transgender players into women’s sports. She sites the transgender male wrestler who has won, for the second year in a row, the girls wrestling championship in Texas. “You can’t just proclaim yourself a female and be able to compete against women,” Navratilova tweeted before Christmas.
In The Guardian, she argued that separate sports help create fair play because of the inequities of biological physical strength between males and females—accentuated by training, and only halted by males receiving hormones before puberty, which seems untenable even to Navratilova, an LGBTQ activist.
When did we, as women, decide that it was okay to stop advocating for girls? When did we decide that—because another vulnerable group had made itself known—it was acceptable to strip girls of the Title IX protections that won them their own facilities, their own teams and scholarships, and the taste of victory that we want them to remember, as a benchmark for their expectations, when they head into the world?
Concerns such as these cause me to wonder why Johnston and Rios, as teenagers, must address circumstances like these in the first place. All the while, a gender-confused world dukes out the complex questions of the sexual revolution. Like the rest of us, they’re deciding whether girls, to be truly good at something and to be acknowledged as equal or worthy of respect, must always compete against and defeat boys.
What Women May Not Want
So perhaps this is the part where I incriminate myself. I personally found myself cheering Johnston on. I’m the mother of a preteen girl and two teenage boys. And I confess to still encouraging the boys to open doors for girls and help them carry heavy things (I’m #oneofthose). I still exhort them to be “gentlemen.” And I presented this wrestling headline at the dinner table with an angle I’ll acknowledge: While each of my sons’ convictions will play out differently, I hope that, yes, they would treat any woman with this level of respect.
Millennia before us and cultures around the world have acknowledged that touching the bodies of the opposite gender is not a neutral experience. It can be quite a catalytic one. #Metoo has confirmed that groping or pressing one’s body against another is inappropriate without consent—which seems to be the issue.
Is it not okay if the female athlete grants hers, but Johnston doesn’t grant his? Is this a sign of his narrow-mindedness and ego? Or his honesty about the nature of human contact? Is it respectful to abstain from touching a woman when she doesn’t want to be respected in that way?
I appreciate this blogger’s comparison of Harvey Weinstein and Billy Graham, the latter of whom famously declined to meet with any woman alone, even at her request. Would volatile male/female situations be as accessible if all of us had more “hedges” in place, protecting women from what they feel they must be willing to do to advance in the world? Personally, I’d rather have been in public with Mr. Graham and his wife than in private with Mr. Weinstein.
Leggo my Ego
But I do agree with Brennan in at least some respects. Like the father on her flight, this can’t be an issue of pride, of competing against girls. Even in the Berenstain Bears’ No Girls Allowed, this Washington Post columnist points out, Sister Bear is chided for how winning against boys may make the boys feel.
Many of us believe in the benefits of male protection, responsibility, and leadership—of men who step up on behalf of women. Do we really want to raise a generation of children who hold back to keep from ruffling ego, no matter their sex?
As human beings of any gender, we need to get comfortable with our own limitations. Boys and girls alike, we must think of ourselves with sober, accurate judgment. We have to be okay with what we can’t accomplish, with the ways others are better (Romans 12:3).
Also, regardless of gender, we need to put a cork in the boasting and constant displays of superiority. We need to consider others more significant than ourselves regardless of anyone’s ability to perform. Perhaps Johnston’s actions are offensive in part because women want the chance to prove they’re just as good as men. Maybe they’d even like to defeat a man, rather than believe women are valuable either way.
No, we don’t want our children to hold back for the sake of someone’s ego. “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
But as Johnston demonstrates, there might be plenty of other great reasons to hold back.
Aren’t there occasions when the (currently passe) internal filter is more beautiful and wise than unbridled ambition? We do not inhabit an age granting high priority to sacrifice, nor will our headlines celebrate those who hold back for the sake of another. Especially when “another” doesn’t want the person to hold back.
Yes, as a woman, I see Johnston’s actions as acts of tremendous respect. It’s like the old fable of a queen who’s looking for a knight to supervise her palanquin and protect her. Most of the competitors tout their own mightiness; they would be able to carry her a foot—nay! Six inches!—from a cliff.
But ultimately, the queen selects the knight who resolves to carry her litter nowhere near the cliff in the first place. Johnston saw something of greater value in Rios than an opportunity to defeat her. He saw a chance to protect both of them. And contrary to popular culture, he took it.
The Denver Post reports the response to Johnston of CHSAA assistant commissioner Ernie Derrera: “You’ve got to respect his personal decision to do what he did, and standing on his principles. And I think there’s a bigger lesson there than wrestling.”
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.