Losing by Decision

The good ol' boys are winning their fight to keep Courtney Barnett and other girls out of high school wrestling

On the final night of Courtney Barnett's high school wrestling season, she is waiting, as usual. Waiting to see if any of the boys on the opposing team will agree to face her. Waiting to learn which weight class she might compete in. Waiting to see if a referee will deign to officiate a match involving a girl.

Waiting, when it comes right down to it, to find out if she'll be allowed to wrestle at all this night.

Tony Warren, Barnett's coach at Arlington Martin High, is standing face-to-face with a referee on the gymnasium floor at Arlington Bowie High School, site of the Junior Varsity Region VI Wrestling Championships of the Texas Interscholastic Wrestling Association.

Warren is holding a discussion like so many others he has found himself caught up in this year. For him, this haggling with referees and other coaches over whether Barnett will be allowed to wrestle is like a never-ending film loop--the same arguments over and over, with no end in sight.

Watching from the stands, Barnett's parents, Rai and Mike Barnett, know exactly what is going on. They can practically read Warren's lips: Yes, the coach is saying, Barnett is on the Martin team. Her regular weight division is 112 pounds. She's a girl on a boys' team, and she has the right to wrestle. Let's get her an opponent.

"We go through this every time Courtney wrestles," says Rai Barnett, behind a knowing smile. "They make the rules up as they go along. We just wait to see what happens."

Finally, after nearly five minutes of debate, Warren returns to his seat and confers with Barnett. She dashes across the gym to tell her parents the news: "OK. I'm going to wrestle 112 but I have to go against a guy who's only been wrestling five days."

Mike Barnett, a plug of a man in rumpled gray sweats, leans forward from his bleacher seat and offers his 17-year-old daughter a piece of advice. He has assumed the role of unofficial coach during Courtney's five years of intense judo competition--her first love and the sport that catapulted her into wrestling last November.

"I'm thinking," says Mike Barnett, in a mock-gruff tone, "you get in there, pin his ass, and save your energy."

Courtney, stretching her neck from side-to-side, jogging in place to get the kinks out, nods eagerly. She lopes across the floor on long, coltish legs and takes her place on the Bowie Volunteers' Orange Crush-colored mat.

Joining her in the ring is not the novice 112-pounder from another Arlington team Barnett expected. Rather, a member of her own Martin Warrior squad steps forward to wrestle her. He weighs 119 pounds. Later, Rai and Mike Barnett will learn that the 112-pound boy from an opposing team declined to wrestle their daughter, which is within his rights under TIWA rules. Officials then decided to match Barnett with an opponent from her own team who is seven pounds heavier.

The match begins. After several seconds, Barnett's opponent appears to be on the verge of pinning her. But in a flash, the match is over. Barnett is sprawled on the mat, writhing in agony, her left elbow splayed and twisted. The ref hovers over her. Coach Warren runs to the mat. Mike Barnett hustles to his daughter's side. Rai Barnett gathers up her coat, paperback book, and Courtney's gym bag and heads toward the floor.

All at once, the gym is chaos. "Is there anyone with medical experience in the audience? Anyone!" an official pleads over the public address system. A trainer darts in from the locker room and applies an air splint to Barnett's left elbow. Her dad, her coach, and two other men carry her off the mat and into the locker room.

Rai Barnett returns for the rest of the gear, and grimly notes her daughter's condition.

"She's dislocated her elbow. She's out for the rest of the season, I'm sure. She dislocated her hip once in judo, and she was on crutches for two weeks."

It is not a good moment for Courtney Barnett, who has spent the entire season fighting for the simple right to compete as an equal in high school wrestling. All season she had to prove herself--to her male teammates, to other girls, to team parents, to the media. And now, in the single instant it took for her elbow to give out, every stereotype she had been battling came crashing down around her.

Everyone told her: Girls can't wrestle boys. They'll get hurt.
Or they said: Girls wrestling boys is unseemly. It's poor form. It's too sexual.

Or, the argument that seems to grate on her most of all: If girls wrestle, they'll embarrass the boys. They'll detract from the accomplishments the boys have worked so hard to attain.

Rai Barnett and Karen Herring, the mother of another girl wrestler in Arlington, have done what they can to help their daughters beat the stereotypes. The parents complained. They wrote letters. They convinced the Arlington Independent School District to back them up with a legal opinion advising the TIWA that it must permit girls to wrestle.

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