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Wrestling referees won't let girls on their mats

It seems that two Arlington high school girls have spooked the men with whistles who have officiated at area high school wrestling matches for the past 25 years.

The north central chapter of the Texas Wrestling Officials Association officially voted to disband last week rather than face the prospect of refereeing matches between boys and girls. John Rizzuti, former president of the now-defunct group, says the refs have nothing against girls. But he maintains that letting boys and girls wrestle puts his men in an odd position.

The governing organization of high school wrestling, the Texas Interscholastic Wrestling Association, has specific rules against boy-girl wrestling, he says. Any referee caught judging such a match could be subject to sanctions and liability.

"We don't have any protection," he says. "Let's say a boy puts a girl in a hold that wouldn't hurt a boy, but could kill a girl. We could be held liable for that injury."

Rizzuti says the whole mess began when the TWOA heard through the press that the American Civil Liberties Union was planning to sue both the TWOA and the TIWA for not letting girls wrestle. It was the ACLU's contention that the wrestling organizations were discriminating against girls. Rizzuti says his group of volunteers could in no way stand up to the legal juggernaut of the ACLU. So, rather than fight a costly legal battle, they opted to disband. Besides, he says, there was a principle at stake.

"From a principle standpoint, nobody is going to tell who we can and cannot referee," Rizzuti says.

There are other, more slippery, problems involved when boys and girls wrestle, Rizzuti adds. "A boy could simply overpower and easily hurt a girl," he says. "There are boy wrestlers that can break a girl's neck."

And then there are those holds, which Rizzuti says can be misconstrued.
"A girl's head could come up against a guy's private parts," he says. "To force me to referee that when I have a daughter, I would be very uncomfortable."

Then, of course, there is the issue of sexual harassment. Referees often have to touch the players to keep them from flying off the mats and into the spectators. "What happens if the guy's hands happen to graze the girl's breast? That could be sexual harassment. We could be sued."

Those arguments are spurious at best, says Tony Warren, wrestling coach at Arlington Martin High school. Warren has coached the two girls causing this tempest. Wrestlers fight by weight, he says. A 103-pound girl would wrestle a 103-pound boy. In high school, since girls mature faster than boys, a girl would have a bit of an advantage over her same-weight opponent, he says.

"There is no truth to the idea that girls are more likely to get hurt," he says. "It is based on a lack of knowledge."

As for the sexual issue--of girls getting groped in the ring--Warren says that, while it could happen, it is unlikely. Of the nearly 1,200 girls who are wrestling across the country, neither Warren nor Rizzuti has heard of a case where a girl has been unduly injured or has sued anyone, referee or opponent, for sexual harassment.

"If anyone ever set out on that mat with those intentions in mind, that person would get hurt. If you aren't focused, then injury will occur," Warren says.

The real issue, as he sees it, is that the "good-old-boy" network of volunteers that run the TIWA and TWOA don't want girls to wrestle, period. The whole issue really began last year, when Warren brought two girls from his district to the state wrestling championships. He wanted the girls to wrestle for a title. They had, after all, fought 15 matches, against each other and other girls. They had earned a shot at a title, he says.

The TIWA balked. Two girls do not make a wrestling division. David Hadden, TIWA assistant director, says that the rules state that there has to be representation in most of the weight classes. There are 15 different classes, but only two girls, therefore no championship match.

But TIWA did more. The group had grown weary of the bickering about girl wrestlers. Hadden said members felt it was taking up too much time, so they disbanded the girls' division in hopes that some other organization might come along and run girls' wrestling instead.

"We support the idea of a female division," Hadden says. "We offered our help as consultants. We just can't handle it. We are overwhelmed."

But by taking a dive, the organization has effectively left female wrestlers in the lurch. Anthony Hume, an attorney representing the two Arlington girls, says that what's at stake isn't whether girls and boys can wrestle each other. That is a given. In more than 20 other states, co-ed wrestling is a reality that has spawned few problems. The issue, Hume says, is whether a private group can effectively discriminate against girls and whether publicly funded schools can remain a part of such a group.

"Can a referee refuse to officiate or disqualify a team that is stained by the presence of the feminine gender?" Hume asks. "In my opinion, this is a dead issue. The officials can have their very strong belief, but the remedies are there. These girls should wrestle."

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