Losing by Decision
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.
But when this year's wrestling season ended last week, the battle to let girls compete had fared little better than Courtney Barnett. The good ol' boys who dominate the sport and control the quasi-private organization which governs it remained steadfast in their determination to keep girls off the mat. And, for at least another year, they appeared to have won handily.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Joe Fish decided not to issue a preliminary injunction which would have halted wrestling--and the state finals--until girls are included in the sport.
Fish's ruling came in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Rai Barnett and Karen Herring in late December. The American Civil Liberties Union sued TIWA, the Texas Wrestling Officials Association, and the Highland Park, Irving, and Richardson Independent School Districts. The school districts were included in the suit because they refused to allow their male wrestlers to compete against Courtney Barnett. In contests with those schools, she sat on the bench.
Fish ruled that the ACLU had failed to prove the girls would suffer "irreparable injury" by not being allowed to wrestle. The decision came one day before the TIWA's state wrestling tournament began in Amarillo, and allowed the all-boys championships to go on as scheduled. A few girls wrestled at state, but their matches were exhibition only.
Rai Barnett says she will continue to push the cause, perhaps by seeking a permanent injunction against the wrestling organization. "We never went into this determined for Courtney to wrestle boys. If there were enough girls for her to wrestle, she'd be happy to wrestle girls," she says. "But until the TIWA or the schools are willing to put a girls' program together, Courtney wants to wrestle. And boys' programs are all she has."
The drama will continue to play out, and it is abundantly clear that a mere stroke of a federal judge's pen will not put an end to the fight.
Wrestling referees continue to vow that "hell will freeze over" before they allow girls on the mat with boys. Entire teams have threatened to keep walking out of meets rather than facing the prospect of competing with--and possibly losing to--girls. Even the parents of some of Courtney Barnett's own male teammates seem eager to keep the cauldron boiling.
Minutes after Barnett was hurt and escorted off the mat, and after Rai Barnett had left the bleachers to gather up her daughter, the mother of another Martin wrestler turned around in her seat, commenting to anyone willing to listen. "Did you see her elbow? It was completely twisted around," the mother said, demonstrating by twisting her own arm sideways. "It was gross! She shouldn't even be down there. That's what's going to happen as long as these girls insist on wrestling our boys."
"These" girls and "our" boys. The classic language of division has characterized this battle since it began in Arlington more than a year ago.
Wrestling officials and parents in Texas seem to be having remarkable difficulty coming to grips with an issue that has long since been settled elsewhere. At least 20 other states have either created separate programs for girl wrestlers or allow girls to participate on boys' teams. Most of those states--notably California, Colorado, and Oklahoma--routinely field girls on high school teams. Arlington Martin Coach Tony Warren, who began wrestling in the fourth grade in his hometown of Harrah, Oklahoma, says boys now come up through the Oklahoma public school system knowing they're likely to face a female opponent.
"In most places, coed wrestling is like breathing," the 31-year-old Warren says. "It just isn't a big deal."
Still, more than 22 years after federal law mandated that females have equal access to sports programs in the public schools, Texas continues to stand firm against female wrestling.
The opposition is largely spearheaded by the Texas Interscholastic Wrestling Association, an organization that likes to consider itself private, even though it is supported by membership dues from public schools.
Wrestling has historically amounted to little in a state dominated by high school football. TIWA was set up 31 years ago in an effort to develop the sport.
As recently as two years ago, wrestling was treated as a club sport at most schools. But TIWA officials, who liken the sport's growing popularity to soccer in its early years, say interest in wrestling has more than doubled in the past nine years, with some 3,000 high school kids now participating across the state.
TIWA effectively maintains a stranglehold on the sport, writing the rules and governing the programs.
Other high school sports are governed by the state-sanctioned rules of the University Interscholastic League which require that girls have equal access to athletics. But the TIWA, led from Dallas by former Penn State wrestler Jerry Giunta and two assistants, plays by its own rules. (That will change in the 1998-'99 school year, when the UIL has decided to officially adopt high school wrestling. It is unclear what effect the takeover will have on the question of female participation.)
Until now, the wrestling association has been able to set its own agenda. Near the top of its list: No girls allowed.
That wasn't a problem until late January 1996, when two Arlington girls decided to grapple with the system. The Dallas suburb has become the battleground over female wrestling simply because several girls there stepped forward and wanted to join their high school teams.
Last year, Melony Monahan, then a sophomore at Arlington Sam Houston High, and Amy Bennett, of Arlington High, worked out all season with their respective wrestling teams. At meets, they wrestled each other and three other girls from Arlington and Grand Prairie schools. The matches were considered exhibition duels and did not count for team points.
When it came time for the 1996 state tournament, however, the TIWA judicial board decided it was time to quash this fledgling challenge to its all-male stance. The association decreed that theirs is an all-male organization, and that no girls would wrestle. After pressure from Arlington Martin's Warren and a handful of other coaches, however, the TIWA reversed itself the next day, and girls were permitted to wrestle each other in exhibition matches.
Still, with only five girls interested, the competition was always slim. The same girls wrestled each other again and again. In Monahan's case, according to her mother's affidavit in the recent ACLU lawsuit, this meant that her daughter was frequently mismatched in weight and strength against other girls, increasing the likelihood of injury.
The girls finished out the 1995-'96 season in a holding pattern, but were determined to press on during the 1996-'97 school year, says Warren, a regional representative to the TIWA. In November 1996, Courtney Barnett, a junior and a nationally ranked judo competitor with no wrestling experience, walked into the Martin boys' practice and asked Warren to sign her up.
"She filled out the proper forms. She passed the physical. She had the grades," Warren says. "She did everything the boys have to do, and there was no reason to keep Courtney out. I tried to convince the TIWA from the day this started that their stance was very likely illegal. I've told them again and again: 'Gentlemen, you are just asking to get sued.'
"Their response has been 'too bad, we're not going to let these girls overshadow the guys,'" Warren says. "But they wouldn't put in a women's division, either. It put the girls in an impossible spot. The TIWA had every chance to prevent this lawsuit. Unfortunately, they chose the black-eye route."
Arlington attorney Michael Williams represents the TIWA and the Texas Wrestling Officials Association, which provides referees for high school matches.
Williams says his clients have strong personal beliefs about the "appropriateness of boys wrestling girls." Those beliefs continue to drive their fight to keep girls off the mat, although Williams quickly admits that such morality-fueled arguments have failed to hold up in similar cases across the country.
"A number of things bother my clients about girls wrestling boys," Williams says. "There is the safety issue. The referees are concerned about sexual harassment issues. That if they touch a girl during the course of their officiating it could be construed as inappropriate."
None of those concerns, however, were included in the answer Williams filed to the ACLU's lawsuit. He instead contested the ACLU's argument that TIWA--because it accepts membership dues from public schools, relies on wrestling coaches who draw taxpayer-funded salaries, and holds its meets in public school gyms--is a "state actor" and should be required, under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Equal Rights Amendment, to include girls in the wrestling program.
"Whether the TIWA's position is discriminatory or not, we're arguing that the law does not apply to this private organization," Williams says. "We're arguing that the TIWA is no different than the Texas Municipal Employees Organization, the NEA (National Education Association), or any other membership organization. And they can run their organization as they choose."
In his ruling, federal judge Fish effectively ducked the question, even though it beats at the heart of the ACLU case.
Anthony Hume, the Dallas attorney who has been retained for the plaintiffs by the ACLU, characterized himself as "bleeding" after Fish declined to issue a restraining order to halt the state wrestling finals.
Fish, Hume contends, took "the path of least resistance" by addressing only the issue of whether the girls would suffer harm by not being allowed to wrestle. The ruling does not explore the TIWA's role as a "state actor."
"This really doesn't change anything," Hume says. "This still leaves open some very disturbing issues. The mothers of these girls are mad as hell. And their daughters still have another year left to wrestle."
Courtney Barnett's brother Joe was the first of the family's two kids to take judo lessons. He is five years her senior, lean and lanky like his sister. Courtney Barnett remembers her brother practicing his throws on her, and the two of them play-wrestling on the floor.
"I always wanted to do what he was doing. If he did something, I wanted to do it better," Barnett says. By the time she was 12, Barnett was taking judo, too. It didn't take her long to make her mark on the sport. She now has a brown belt and ranks number three nationally in her age group. For years, the Barnetts have spent summer vacations and many weekends on the road, traveling to judo competitions around the country.
Last November, they added wrestling to their schedule.
"I came to Coach [Warren] and asked him if I could wrestle with the team," Barnett says. "I told him I've played judo for a long time, and that wrestling was kind of similar to judo. It's just something I'd been thinking about trying."
One week before her season-ending injury, Barnett is sitting at a round table in the Martin High School cafeteria, talking about her adventures in wrestling. The team's daily practice is set to start in 35 minutes, and her teammates have begun to roll out the school's black-and-red wrestling mat. Barnett has not yet suited up--she is dressed in a simple white shirt with a crisp collar and brown wool slacks. Her light brown hair is thick and grazes her shoulders. She wears a hint of peach-colored blush on her milky cheeks, and a wisp of mascara on her lashes. It is nearing 4 p.m., and she is tearing into a vending machine bag of Cool Ranch Doritos like it's her only meal of the day. And it turns out it is.
Barnett is 5 feet 7 inches and 112 pounds. "I'm naturally pretty lanky," she says. But for wrestling, she struggles to make weight just like the guys on the team. This week, though, weight control hasn't been a worry. She will not be attending an upcoming invitational meet at Jesuit College Preparatory School in Dallas. "The private schools have made it real clear that they won't wrestle if I even step on the mat," she says matter-of-factly. "So what's the point of even going? I wouldn't hurt my team like that."
She works out every day with her team. She attends every meet she can without risking her team's participation. But Barnett has spent vastly more time this year on the bench than on the mat. That's because TIWA officials and competing coaches have promised to walk out of the meets if she wrestled, or to force her opponents to forfeit if she touched the mat. The only time she has been allowed to wrestle this year has been against other Arlington ISD teams.
To understand the tortuous lengths the TIWA and its supporters have gone to to keep girls out, one need only read highlights from Rai Barnett's affidavit filed as part of the ACLU lawsuit:
When Highland Park High School wrestled Martin High this year, officials for the TIWA and the Texas Wrestling Officials Association announced that any Highland Park wrestler who wrestled Barnett would forfeit his match.
Last November, at South Grand Prairie High, a girl on the team decided she didn't want to wrestle. So Barnett faced her first coed match. Her male opponent refused to wrestle her, citing religious reasons.
At the North Texas Open meet at Irving MacArthur High School, Barnett was permitted by the school--and officials for TIWA and TWOA--to wrestle, but only with girls. Again, she faced the same group of girls she had wrestled in the past, some of whom she has pinned in less than a minute.
In a three-way meet between Martin, Plano East High, and St. Mark's School of Texas, officials enforced the "touch-the-mat rule," barring her from participating individually or as a member of her team.
Later in the season, when Barnett arrived at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas to compete with her team, the Lake Highlands coach, the athletic director, and the Richardson ISD superintendent prohibited Barnett from even weighing in with her team.
But the churlishness was just beginning. On December 10, the referees who make up TWOA finally gave up altogether on the coed question. They had walked out on previous matches. They had raised the "groping" issue dozens of times. Finally, the refs agreed simply to disband, ostensibly to avoid being named as a defendant in the lawsuit the ACLU filed on behalf of Barnett and Herring. On January 28, the refs had a collective change of heart, and re-formed their organization. This was done, said TWOA President John Rizzuti, "to preserve the integrity of the state wrestling meets."
And as if things weren't confusing enough, on December 23, two Arlington parents describing themselves as "concerned citizens" seeking to promote female high school wrestling in Texas announced that they had formed the Texas Interscholastic Girls Wrestling Association (TIGWA). Tom Harrison, a longtime Arlington wrestling booster, appointed himself executive director. He said he would model the girls' association after the TIWA. "It will save us time and money to use their methods and concepts to get up and running quickly. We want to have girls competing as soon as we can."
What Harrison did not mention in his press release is that his son, Matt, a high school senior, wrestles on the Arlington Martin team. Matt Harrison is one of the team's brightest stars. In Amarillo on February 15, he easily won the state title in his 112-pound division. During the regular season, he wrestled in the same weight class as Barnett.
Barnett is no competition for Matt Harrison, who has been wrestling under his dad's tutelage (Tom Harrison was a collegiate wrestler, and is state director of USA Wrestling, the training organization for Olympic wrestlers) since the age of five. So why is her participation on the boys' team a problem? It's the principle of the thing that raises Tom Harrison's hackles.
"Girls should be offered every opportunity, and participate with their own gender and to their own physical abilities," he says. "They are different than boys. You can say you don't notice the differences, but out on the mat, believe me, it's very hard not to."
Still, in his zeal to set up a separate wrestling program for girls, Harrison somehow neglected to ask Barnett or Melony Monahan if they would join a new girls' organization.
"Wouldn't you think he would have asked us for our opinions? I mean, it's kind of about us. I've never even heard from him or anyone in that group," Barnett says.
Teenage girls can be very scary creatures. The way they move, the way they talk, the way they act--all that budding sexuality can be positively frightening. You might expect that reaction from the boys Courtney Barnett wrestles. But they don't seem to have a problem.
Kevin Paige, a 17-year-old Martin senior, wrestles at 152 pounds. When he discusses this whole controversy, he rolls his eyes and is quick to point out: "Courtney works hard. She's on our team. I don't think of her any differently than anyone else."
His teammate, Bo Hopkins, also a senior, had a stellar season as a 180-pound wrestler. "The biggest problem most guys have is being afraid of losing to her. Losing to a girl, you know. They don't want to. But nobody wants to lose. If it's a fair match, you know, it shouldn't matter."
David George, a 16-year-old Martin sophomore and 119-pounder, often matches up with Barnett in practice because she can move up seven pounds without being too mismatched. They get along fine. George has trouble with all this debate about her ability, the groping issue, everybody's opinions. "They're not out there trying to wrestle. If they're not out there, who cares what they think? When you're out there, the only thing you're thinking about is winning. As long as Courtney's on my team, I'm going to support her."
No, it's the adults who are running scared. The whole idea of change, of opening up the club doors to girls, makes them shudder. The fear comes through clearly in the minutes of TIWA meetings and in the organization's newsletter, Mat Talk.
In a fax the TIWA sent out last year to its judicial committee members soliciting opinions on whether girls should wrestle exhibition matches at state, there was no mistaking their position.
"We probably should [allow girls exhibitions], but I hate to see it happen, especially with us trying to get accepted into the UIL," wrote Jim Brock, an Amarillo committee member. "They will not want any more problem sports, and that's what they would see wrestling [female] as being."
If the girls did wrestle, Brock wrote, he preferred they did so "between midnight and 2 a.m., in case they have live TV...I am sorry," he added, "but I am strongly opposed to female wrestling. It seems to categorize us with 'W.W.F. RASSLIN.'"
And from judicial committee member Bill Dushane, the wrestling coach at St. Thomas High School in Houston: "These girls have no right to be allowed to wrestle in the finals when the boys have infinately [sic] more hoops to go through to attain this honor. I feel this would greatly take away from the boy's [sic] accomplishments of attaining the finals. I would be willing to concede at the most an exhibition match before any of the boys matches take place. This is already going beyond the guidelines set forth at our meetings. Please do not detract from what our boys have accomplished!!"
Beyond the argument that boys should not have to share the spotlight, the coaches' and officials' fears of inappropriate groping and touching between males and females have been instructive. John Rizzuti, the president of the Texas Wrestling Officials Association, has blustered and ranted on that topic for months. A stocky ex-wrestler who runs his own public relations business, Rizzuti has framed the argument against coed wrestling as a fight to protect the girls.
Rizzuti sees female wrestling as a Pandora's box of sexual temptation--girls getting groped on the mat by male opponents, or referees getting sued for sexual harassment if they touch a girl wrestler in the wrong way.
"All of the officials have daughters, and we know what it is like out there on the mat," Rizzuti says. "There could just be some inappropriate holds and other things going on. That just can't happen."
That teenage boys think about sex from time to time is undeniable. But when engaged in pitched battle on the mat--before bleachers full of parents and fans--boys and girls aren't really thinking about sex, wrestlers say. That might explain why no complaints reflecting Rizzuti's concerns have surfaced in the 20-plus states that already allow female wrestling.
Spend an afternoon watching the Martin High Warriors practice, and the idea of groping and grabbing seems more at place in the back seat of a limo on prom night. The kids work hard--for two hours straight--jumping to Coach Tony Warren's commands. Thirty minutes of warming up, with push-ups, squats, jumping rope, and rolls. They pair off in teams and scrimmage, with Warren tracking the time it takes for them to take each other down. They take elbows in the eyes, knees in the rib cage, hits to the nose. They dislocate fingers and elbows.
Brutal at times, and not exactly sensuous or erotic.
Two days before the February 8 regional meet at Arlington High School,
Warren summed up his team this way: "They're ready, but we've got quite a few who are banged up."
Groping? Sex? If you're wrestling for keeps, who has the time or the energy?
"Nobody has ever tried anything. Or if they have, I sure haven't been aware of it," Barnett says. "The way I see it, if you're thinking about sex, you're not really wrestling. That's not what this is about at all."
When Rai and Mike Barnett attend their daughter's matches, they usually sit alone. Sometimes the other team parents acknowledge them with a smile, but not often. Rai always takes a paperback along. She sits tall in the bleachers, usually about halfway back, reading in lieu of talking to other parents. "I know a lot of people are upset about what we're doing," she says. "They prefer not to talk to us."
Mike, a manager with SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceutical Company in Arlington, usually sits with Rai or stands at the top of the bleachers cheering Courtney on. They videotape everything. They have detailed every match their daughter has been allowed to wrestle--which has been only a handful. At a December 21 invitational in Coach Warren's hometown of Harrah, Oklahoma, "the crowd cheered her on and treated her very well," Rai Barnett says. "She wrestled right along with the boys. It made her feel good."
The fight in Texas continues, Rai Barnett says, because Courtney will not give up. "She's a normal teenager who just happens to be competitive. She does all the normal things. She goes on dates. She took piano and ballroom dancing when she was younger. But she was never one to accept why her brother could do things that she couldn't. She doesn't take no for an answer."
Nor does she take kindly to criticism of her motives. In the caste system governing who's who at her sprawling suburban high school, Barnett has been called an attention grabber, a dyke, and a bitch. She has been interviewed so many times now--with appearances on Nightline and 48 Hours, and in stories for The New York Times and The Guardian of London--she practically answers reporters' questions before they're formed.
"The guy from London, his first question was whether I was a lesbian. So now, before anyone can even get to that question, I go, 'I like guys. I really do. I go on dates.'
"Geez," she says. "It can get so weird."
The glare of the spotlight, the pressure of being the test case, is something she can seldom ignore. "I can never let up. I worry that as soon as I do, if I slag a little in practice or complain, everyone will say, 'See, we told you. She can't cut it. She has no business out there.'"
Her fear of crumbling under others' scrutiny carries over even to her appearance. At practice, while many of the boys wear T-shirts, skimpy jerseys, and shorts, Barnett always shows up in heavy layers--sweatpants, T-shirt, sweatshirt on top. Her body under all the bulk is almost formless. She pulls her hair into a tight ponytail on top of her head. She rarely cuts up with the guys. And unlike her teammates, she never spits in the trash can.
At practice, she seldom wins a scrimmage. Her male opponents almost always take her down first. Two days before the regional meet, Coach Warren, in an effort to produce results, was penalizing wrestlers who took the most time to floor their opponents by making them do extra push-ups or other grueling exercises. Barnett was singled out every time.
Her left arm in a sling for three weeks while her elbow mends, Barnett finished the 1996-'97 season watching her teammates practice for the state tournament. While they were grappling on the big black-and-red mat in the school cafeteria, with Warren barking out tips on wrestling holds, she sat on the sidelines.
It was an odd spot to see her in, there alongside the two "team girls" who keep statistics, untangle jump ropes, fetch ice packs, and coo over the injured boys. As she sat there watching, tapping her foot impatiently, calling out advice to her teammates, it was only too clear that Barnett's place is not with the girls who serve. She wanted to do.
It was going to be a long three weeks.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.