Wrestling with religious convictions

This has to be one of the most unusual God-and-sports stories in a long, long time. On ESPN Sports Center, the anchors kept talking about the young wrestler in Iowa who made a "controversial" decision to default a key match in his quest to be a champion because -- through the luck of the draw -- this conservative preacher's kid was faced with challenge of wrestling a girl. This story lit up sports blogs everywhere, which is no surprise. This is talk radio catnip.

But, controversial? I'm not sure that's the right word.

I can say that because because Luke Meredith of the Associated Press -- I assume from a local AP bureau -- managed to cover this story with a since of fairness and gravity that acknowledged the dignity and grace of the young people and the parents on both sides. In a way, this was a story about dignity, not controversy.

Here's the top of the main AP report:

DES MOINES, Iowa -- After a standout season in which he went 35-4, Joel Northrup had every reason to dream of winning an Iowa wrestling championship this year, but he gave it all up before his first state tournament match Thursday.

Northrup, a home-schooled sophomore who competes for Linn-Mar High School, said his religious beliefs wouldn't allow him to wrestle Cassy Herkelman, a pony-tailed freshman from Cedar Falls who is one of the first two girls to qualify for the tournament in its 85-year history.

Northrup issued a statement through his school expressing his "tremendous" respect for what Herkelman and Ottumwa sophomore Megan Black achieved this season, but he said didn't feel he had a choice.

"Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times," Northrup said in a statement released by his high school. "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."

One of the strengths of the story is that it shows this young man's decision was not rushed. He was simply being consistent with his convictions. The family knew that this situation might take place and thought through its options.

That's one side of the story. But here's the twist. The story also shows that his family went the second mile to show respect for the young woman, much more so than some people in the stands who booed her as her arm was raised by the referee to signal for forfeit win. And to their credit, Herkelman's family signaled understanding and respect for Northrup.

"It's nice to get the first win and have her be on the way to the medal round," Bill Herkelman wrote. "I sincerely respect the decision of the Northrup family especially since it was made on the biggest stage in wrestling. I have heard nothing but good things about the Northrup family and hope Joel does very well the remainder of the tourney."

Is this heaven? Well, it's Iowa.

While everyone talks about this being a "controversial" story, this AP story touched me -- as a sports fan and a parent -- because it described a pretty normal group of people caught in a spotlight they did not choose. The reporter let readers hear their voices and describe their beliefs.

How did they respond? Well, people toss around the words "tolerance" and "respect" quite a bit in this day and age. This simple news report let readers meet some nice people who made their decisions and then acted with tolerance, respect and, yes, grace under pressure.


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