Published Online: January 15, 1997

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Female Wrestlers Spur Officials To Go to the Mat

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When Courtney Barnett tried out for her high school's wrestling team in Arlington, Texas, she wasn't trying to make a political statement.

"I like the sport and didn't think it was a big deal," said the 112-pound junior, a first-team varsity wrestler at Martin High School. "Now everything's gone crazy."

By ''gone crazy,'' the 17-year-old was referring to a decision by the independent governing body for high school wrestling in the state to refuse to recognize matches involving female wrestlers.

"Boys ought to wrestle boys," said David Hadden, the assistant director of the Texas Interscholastic Wrestling Association. "And girls ought to wrestle girls."

To emphasize that point, members of the north-central chapter of the Texas Wrestling Officials Association, which supplies wrestling referees to high schools, refused in September to officiate at boy vs. girl wrestling matches. And rather than be legally forced to do so, the chapter decided last month to dissolve itself.

"We will simply not officiate these matches," said John Rizzuti, the former president of the group. "We believe it's completely wrong."

Full-Nelson

A lawsuit accusing the two organizations and three school districts of discrimination, filed last month in federal district court in Dallas, seeks to challenge that belief. Ms. Barnett and her mother, Rai Barnett, filed the suit along with Melony Monahan, a 16-year-old junior who is a captain of the varsity wrestling team at Arlington's Sam Houston High School, and her mother, Karen Herring. They are seeking $10,000 in damages.

The suit claims that the Irving, Richardson, and Highland Park districts discriminated against female wrestlers.

Anthony Hume, the Dallas lawyer representing the plaintiffs, sought late last month to get a restraining order and injunction to force the interscholastic-wrestling association and the districts to allow girls to wrestle boys, but the motion was denied.

Fear of Liability

Mr. Hume describes the situation as a cut-and-dried case of discrimination against women. "Sexism is like that old song," Mr. Hume said, paraphrasing the 1940s singer Gracie Fields' old line. "It's dead, but somehow it won't lie down."

In their defense, both wrestling organizations argue that the fear of legal liability, not sex discrimination, drove them to exclude girls from the sport.

"People have been portraying us as good old boys, but most of us have daughters who we encourage to play sports," Mr. Rizzuti said. "We don't have sufficient liability coverage because we're not governed by the state."

Texas high school wrestling is governed and officiated by volunteers, rather than the University Interscholastic League, which runs other high school sports programs in the state.

Mr. Hadden of the wrestling association said this leaves officials open to lawsuits for injury and, in matches where girls are involved, sexual harassment.

"What if something improper happens on the mat or something is misconstrued?" asked Mr. Hadden, who said he has never seen a girl vs. boy match.

But Fritz McGinness, an associate director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Kansas City, Mo., called the sexual-harassment fear "hogwash."

"It's an obvious defense mechanism they're using," he said. "I can't think of any such claim being made, ever."

According to the national federation, about 1,164 girls wrestle at the high school level in the United States. All 21 states that have girls wrestling at the high school level have mixed teams that allow girls to wrestle boys.

Ms. Barnett of Martin High, who also competes in judo and is ranked nationally by the International Judo Foundation, says she just wants to get all this over with and get back to wrestling.

"I've played sports all my life and never faced anything like this," she said. "All I want is the same opportunity as [boys] have. I don't want to be treated like a boy, just equally."

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