What comes first: sports or faith?


By Frank Wessling

The fun and the passion, the intoxication of high school sports championships was disrupted here in Iowa last month by a boy who dared to relativize the whole circus. And he spoke from the inside, as one of the heralded athletes.

His religious beliefs moved Joel Northrup, a wrestler for Linn-Mar High School of Marion, to give up his chance for a state championship. Two girls had also qualified for the state tournament, one of them in Northrup’s weight class. He happened to draw her as his opponent in the first round. He would not wrestle a girl, he said, and subject her to the “brutal” treatment that wrestling requires.

As he understands the Bible, men are called to protect women and respect their differences, not treat them like one of the boys. So he forfeited that match in the state tournament, which dumped him into the consolation bracket and ended any chance of becoming champion.

Most of us respected young Joel for his principled stand, but there have been many voices in the sports world claiming that he showed no respect for the girl. She was ready and wanted to compete; he denied her the chance, thereby unfairly disrupting her tournament experience.


In fact, the attention given this incident undoubtedly disrupted both athletes. Joel, who came to the tournament with a very good record, lost his first match in the consolation bracket and the girl he refused to wrestle lost her first two matches and was also eliminated.

Christian Scripture does see men and women as distinct parts of God’s plan in creation, but respecting the differences doesn’t necessarily mean no wrestling. Since there are girls wrestling boys in many places across Iowa, it is likely that at least some of those boys are as serious about their religious faith as Joel, but don’t see it as a bar to competing with girls on the wrestling mat.

Still, there is something about Joel’s refusal that should be admired. We don’t need to agree with his reading of the Bible, but what about his reading of priorties in life? Especially when the sports spotlight is turned on? It is too common that youth sports are allowed a commanding role in families, especially if outstanding skill and talent shows up. Everything begins to revolve around that child-as-athlete. It becomes harder and harder to say “No” to anything demanded for progress in that dimension of life.

Joel said a firm No. He said his religious belief is more important. Wrestling is important, but only relatively. His understanding of his relationship with God is the absolute in his life. Everything else must fit into that.

Sports and games can generate the kind of zeal and passion that lifts almost anyone to a sense of transcendence in life. They are so close to religion in this respect that it’s no wonder we can get carried away and become fanatic. They are also good for teaching life skills and discipline. St. Paul even compares the life of faith to a long-distance runner.

Some people let this passion turn them into soccer hooligans and thugs. Others use it to set new standards in human performance and provide models of teamwork.

How to keep sports in its place, as relative in life, not absolute: that’s the problem. Everyone with a budding athlete in the family has to cope with the question, so does every school administrator trying to balance resources and time. What helps is an example now and then in which we see someone making a hard choice that shows a healthy sense of priorities. Joel has given such an example this winter. The great baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax gave us one many years ago.

His team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, was in the World Series in 1965 against the Minnesota Twins. He would normally have pitched the first game of the series, but it happened to be scheduled for the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Koufax would not pitch; he would not work on that holy day of his faith.

There are a great many ways to show our priorities in life. Every day men and women make choices at work to do one thing and not another because it affects their commitment to family. Every day we make choices about where to put our attention and time. Every day we pause now and then to wonder about where we’re going — or we don’t. We only float with the currents that push us at each moment. Over time, such choices mold our character.

By stepping out of a certain current, Joel Northrup suggests an admirable strength of character at a young age.

We’re not saying that boys wrestling girls is a good thing. Only that being able to put religious conviction first when it appears to be tested is better.

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