Diocese’s ban on female wrestlers causes stir

In early October, the phones in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, diocesan offices started ringing. Word of the diocese’s new policy prohibiting female students in Harrisburg’s Catholic schools from competing on male wrestling teams had spread, and reporters from The New York Times, ABC News and elsewhere wanted answers.

The media firestorm caught the diocese by surprise.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting it,” said Livia Riley, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Harrisburg. “We had more reaction from outside the diocese than from within.”

The policy had been announced months earlier and simply reflected the position adopted by all Pennsylvania bishops at their summer meeting. That position effectively bans female students in the state’s Catholic schools from competing on men’s wrestling teams and requires male wrestlers in Catholic schools to forfeit a match if they’re slated to compete against a female wrestler from a public school.

In Harrisburg’s Catholic schools, however, as in the rest of Pennsylvania’s Catholic schools, no girls found themselves immediately affected by the policy. Across the state, only a few dozen girls, all in public schools, have asked to compete on male wrestling teams. That means most male wrestlers rarely, if ever, square off against a female competitor.

In other states, wrestling is growing in popularity among young girls, which is why, Riley explained, “We wanted to get ahead of the curve and establish the policy in a proactive way, before it became an issue here.”

That day is likely to come sooner rather than later. According to a survey conducted by the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, approximately 10,000 girls nationwide wrestled in high school during the 2013-14 school year.

In an October interview with The New York Times, Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, justified the practice of coed wrestling, noting, “In the absence of having the opportunity for our top female Olympic wrestlers to start on boys teams, they would not be competing at the level they are at today.”

The National Wrestling Coaches Association, he continued, believes it is “completely acceptable” for girls to wrestle, both in practice and competitively, against boys.

Officials in the Diocese of Harrisburg disagree.

Several concerns

Near the top of their list of concerns is the safety of female students.

“Men and women are equal in dignity, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t significant differences between them,” said Jim Gontis, a former All-American wrestler who has coached wrestling at multiple levels over the past 25 years and now serves as an assistant wrestling coach at Harrisburg’s Bishop McDevitt High School. “Wrestling is an extremely rough sport, and 130-pound girl is not generally going to be the physical equal of a 130-pound boy.”

Even more fundamentally, he continued, at a time when boys and girls are just beginning to understand their own sexuality, the sheer physicality of wrestling creates an “overwhelming awkwardness” for both male and female wrestlers.

“There is something unnatural and lacking in wholesomeness, not to mention lacking in prudence, wisdom and modesty, not to recognize that,” Gontis said. “You can see that the student athletes experience that, even if they won’t admit it.”

Focus on virtue

Another driving concern in Harrisburg and other Pennsylvania dioceses is that allowing male wrestlers to go up against female wrestlers will break down important social mores — such as men shouldn’t use their superior physical strength to harm women — and undermine the education in virtue that Catholic schools strive to give their students.

In a statement issued in July, Harrisburg’s Bishop Ronald W. Gainer wrote, “Gospel-based values are taught and learned in these athletic programs by developing respect for self and for others ... Preparation for Christian adulthood likewise involves the development and encouragement of appropriate, dignified and respectful forms of contact between male and female students.”

Elaborating on the bishop’s words, diocesan spokesman Joseph Aponick told Our Sunday Visitor, “Athletics exist at our Catholic schools not just for the sake of athletic completion, but in the context of forming the whole person — mind, body and spirit. The athletic arena is an extension of the classroom and exists in our schools for the values that it can teach, not simply for wins and losses.”

Standing firm

At least for now, Harrisburg’s Catholic community agrees.

“I’ve had a few phone calls from parents since the story broke, but none were parents who actually had children in Catholic schools,” Riley said.

In the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, which also has adopted the policy, the reaction has been the same.

“The consensus is that it’s the right decision,” said Dennis Nemes, principal of Allentown Central Catholic High School. “We haven’t had a single parent object.”

No one knows how long that consensus will last. But regardless of what objections may come their way, Gontis believes the diocese will stand firm.

“The Church is not about falling in with the common culture,” he said. “The Church is about taking up the task predicted for Christ by Simeon, who said, ‘He will be a sign of contradiction.’”

“When it’s called for,” Gontis said, “we too need to be a sign of contradiction to worldly values, whether it’s popular or not. We need to be about the truth, in season and out of season. The Church is the first to uphold the dignity of women, but part of upholding that dignity is recognizing difference.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.