Girls should not pay the price when boys don't want to compete against them
A Colorado wrestler’s decision to forfeit a state tournament match rather than compete against a girl exposes the pressing need for wholesale gender equity in high school sports
When Brendan Johnston inspected the draw at last month’s Colorado state wrestling tournament and saw his forthcoming pairing, the high school student from Colorado Springs made a decision to show respect to his opponent.
The reason? His opponent, Angel Rios, was a girl. And Johnson said that going forward with the contest was against his ethos because of the “physical contact” involved in wrestling. “I guess the physical aggression, too,” he told the Denver Post. “I don’t want to treat a young lady like that on the mat or off the mat. And not to disrespect the heart or the effort that she’s put in. That’s not what I wanted to do either.”
The reaction to Johnston’s decision to forgo the final match of his high school career has varied. Some praised him for his politely articulated expression of respect for Rios. But others, myself included, believe he disrespected Rios by not giving her the chance to compete, leaving her with a hollow victory that cheapened her many hours of sacrifice.
Maybe if we as a society can one day stop sexualizing girls’ bodies when they are competing in sport, episodes like these will become relics of a bygone era. Young men will be able to compete against capable girls (like Rios, who defeated a number of boys to advance to her matchup with Johnson) without the disturbance of sexual undertones.
Sadly, we’re not there yet.
Instead we need to take the opportunity of cases like these to teach boys that if a girl chooses to compete with them on equal footing, they should not feel discomfort. As the sports journalist Christine Brennan put it: young men will be competing and working with women the rest of their lives … so they’d better get used to it.
But what if the issue is more complicated than that?
Only 12 of the state associations that govern high school sports in the United States have co-sanctioned their wrestling programs. This means boys and girls in essentially three-quarters of America are competing against each other, a situation that may not just be awkward for the boy, but also for the girl. While we can certainly explore the reasons why girls’ bodies are sexualized during competition, and why boys are being taught, by their parents or their coaches or society at large, that they cannot view girls as equals on the mat or field out of fear of disrespecting girls’ bodies, perhaps the question should be: how can we provide equal opportunity for girls to compete in their chosen sport?
This is what Sally Roberts, founder of the non-profit Wrestle Like a Girl, wants to do. Roberts was a three-times US national wrestling champion and two-times world championships bronze medalist. She competed against boys in high school and went on to compete in the US Army’s World Class Athlete Program, often finding herself on the mat with men.
“It was a co-ed space,” Roberts said of her experience. “So I would go in there and I would train with my peers, who treated me as an equal. That was how it was in the army, and of course we were all adults.”
While Roberts was able to excel on the mat despite not having a girls’ program at her high school, she didn’t want other girls to negotiate the same barriers she did. Since founding Wrestle Like a Girl in 2016, Roberts has seen a dramatic uptick in interest around girls’ wrestling when young women are simply given the opportunity to compete.
“In states like New Jersey where they co-sanctioned wrestling or created girls’ divisions, participation for girls’ wrestling went up almost 400%,” Roberts said.
These days many of the conversations surrounding girls’ sports are centered on whether they should compete with and against the boys, when the discussion should be centered around how to provide more equal opportunity for girls in sports.
Take a look at Toni Harris, the first woman to receive a scholarship at a four-year university to play football in a skill position. This is but one of many signposts indicating that more girls are playing football than ever before, yet the opportunities for them to compete against other girls are still extremely limited.
As Katie Sowers, who became third woman to coach in the NFL, said of Harris: “I remember when I used to dream of playing in the NBA before there was a WNBA. Let’s start the discussion of not when will there be a female NFL player, but when will women like Toni have an opportunity to make a living playing football in a league of their own.”
Therein lies the crux of the problem of how girls’ sports are viewed in worthiness and respect to skill: in order for girls to be taken seriously as athletes, they must compete against boys, while simultaneously putting boys in a position that may make them uncomfortable. But as evidence shows, when girls are given their own space and opportunity to compete and train with other girls, their participation in sports increases, as well as reducing their likelihood of quitting.
“Girls are saying they want to wrestle, and when girls get the opportunity to wrestle, the numbers are going up by 400% to 500%. And when we’re talking about opportunity versus interest, we’re seeing that there’s interest. So if we can get these states create these opportunities, we’re going to have such an increased number of athletes that will want to come out and compete,” Roberts said.
Until parity in opportunities for girls to play sports is achieved, though, we will continue hearing stories like the aborted match between Johnston and Rios, a contest with no real winner. Ultimately, we should not force girls to choose between competing against boys or not competing at all. Give them a space of their own to compete and the landscape of sports will become more equal and fair on its own.