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Education Reporter

Gender Inequity in Mixed-Sex Wrestling
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ST. PAUL, MN - A sensible resolution to the mixed-sex wrestling controversy in Minnesota appeared imminent at the end of February, when a bill requiring gender-separated wrestling teams (H.F. 2437) received a second hearing and successfully passed the House Education Policy Committee. H.F. 2437 would repeal portions of a state law enacted in 1981 allowing girls to participate on boys' wrestling teams.

But the measure, introduced last year by Rep. Sondra Erickson (R) and which had six co-sponsors as of April 9, is now stalled in the House. The Senate Education Committee chair has blocked a hearing on the companion Senate bill, sponsored in January by Sen. Gen Olson (R).

The House bill passed out of committee after a hearing on Feb. 19 that included "dramatic" testimony about the "awkwardness" of mixed-sex wrestling. (Star Tribune 2-20-02) Wrestler Abe Olson of Trinity High School at River Ridge in Bloomington, MN, testified that he had always been told to respect women, but that "the nature of the sport goes against what I've been taught." Olson explained that wrestling is different from other contact sports because opponents are separated by only "a thin layer of spandex."

To illustrate his point, two Burnsville High School wrestlers demonstrated how intimate touching, such as during a maneuver called the "high crotch takedown," is the inevitable reality of the sport. Opponents "pin" each other by pressing down hard on the chest.

A track and swimming coach who is also the mother of a high school wrestler, testified to the "anguish" her son felt whenever he declined to wrestle a girl and was forced to forfeit his match. "The pendulum [of women's rights] has swung too far," she stated. "What about the males' rights?"

Opponents of the bill complained that "financial crises" facing schools hamper the formation of girls' teams, and that girls who want to wrestle must continue to be given the opportunity.

Although she did not testify at the hearing, the Center of the American Experi-ment's Director Katherine Kersten - who is perhaps Minnesota's most eloquent critic of mixed-gender wrestling - acted as an advisor to legislators and helped line up wrestling coaches and students of both sexes to present their testimony.

Kersten has written that mixed-sex wrestling "creates legal risks for males. Boys who wrestle girls, or practice with female teammates, must touch them in ways that would constitute illegal sexual harassment in any other setting. In our litigious society, coaches take a risk whenever they have close physical contact with young female athletes." (See Education Reporter, May 2001.)

But Kersten and many others object to mixed-gender wrestling primarily because "a civilized society should teach men that they must not use their superior strength to overpower and control women . . . Decent men respect women, and view using force against them as dishonorable and unmanly."

Rep. Paul Marquart (D), a supporter of H.F. 2437, told the Star Tribune (3-3-02) that, despite his belief in the right of girls to wrestle other girls, the "indelicate" realities of mixed-gender wrestling "are easier to ignore in theory than in reality." "My concern is that if you match girls and boys," he stated, "you are putting them in very difficult situations on the mat that are very different than even any other contact sport."

The Tribune noted that "the issue has been so politicized and oversimplified that [Marquart's position] has no chance. By offering the possibility that mixed-sex wrestling is not a good idea, he will be branded as a Susan B. Anthony-hating Neanderthal. . ."

The fate of mixed-sex wrestling may ultimately be decided by the courts. On Jan. 16, a group of college wrestling coaches and other interested parties filed a lawsuit charging the U.S. Department of Education with instilling discrimination against men's sports teams through its interpretation of Title IX, which became part of federal education law in 1972. Title IX does require schools and colleges receiving federal funds to provide equal educational and athletic opportunities for women, but does not require schools to integrate specific sports teams.

According to Education Week (1-23-02), the lawsuit asserts that the Education Department illegally adopted a rule in 1996 that "schools must count actual athletes, not spots available on teams, to prove gender equity." The plaintiffs contend that this rule has forced schools to cut men's teams, and that they hope their lawsuit will lead to a "more reasonable way to enforce Title IX."

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