ACLU Fights Collegiate Ban on Women Wrestling Men

National wrestling champion Marina Goocher. Photo courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union.

DETROIT (CN) – The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday in a sharply worded letter that the governing body for college club wrestling programs is discriminating against a female national wrestling champion by barring her from competing against male student-athletes, effectively benching her for the entire season.

In the letter sent to the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, or NCWA, the ACLU of Michigan pushed for University of Michigan-Dearborn student Marina Goocher to be allowed to wrestle men because there are no other women wrestlers in her weight class in the Midwest who she can compete against.

“Ever since I can remember, wrestling has been a central part of my life and my identity,” Goocher said in a statement. “When I enrolled in college, the wrestling coach and the wrestlers, all of whom were men, warmly welcomed me because they knew I could help the team win. But right now, as the wrestling season begins, I have to sit on the bench the entire regular season simply because I am a woman.”

The ACLU, National Women’s Law Center, Women’s Sports Foundation and ACLU of Michigan addressed their letter to NCWA Executive Director Jim Giunta and the NCWA Legislative Council.

In a prepared statement, the NCWA said that it could not comment on Goocher’s claims but said that it would investigate. The organization noted, however, that Goocher is not registered with the NCWA and said that its body is not set up to create co-ed wrestling competitions “because those collegiate opportunities already exist for the athletes who desire them.”

“In fact, no one is preventing Ms. Goocher from competing against men at the college level, and she has many opportunities to do so. Almost every weekend this season, she can compete against men in open collegiate wrestling tournaments,” the NCWA said. “Because those opportunities already exist, the NCWA focuses on providing women the opportunity to experience the sport of wrestling on a large scale within a women’s league.”

The statement goes on to list nine open events from October through November and states that Goocher could participate in those competitions “if she is not interested, as we are, in promoting and developing a women’s league.”

“We wish Ms. Goocher the best of luck in pursuing her dream of wrestling men,” the statement adds.

The NCWA says its liability insurance policy bars women from wrestling against men, but the ACLU says that the association’s policy is discriminatory, unconstitutional and leaves it open to a legal challenge.

The letter says that the association’s rule is preventing Goocher, who won 100 varsity bouts at Riverview Community High School in Michigan against male wrestlers, from competing against others in her weight class, “some of whom are less talented and/or have less experience, simply because of her gender.”

“Indeed, it is ironic that in an age when women serve in combat positions in the military with men and die for their country, they are unable to simply wrestle with men on club wrestling teams,” the 11-page letter states.

Based in Dallas, Texas, the NCWA manages club wrestling programs in colleges in the United States and Canada. Since the University of Michigan-Dearborn does not have a women’s team, Goocher was told that she would have to sit out the regular season.

In a November 2016 email attached to the ACLU’s letter, the NCWA clarified its policy in a note to UM-Dearborn club wrestling coach Grant MacKenzie.

“This should go without saying, but from time to time questions arise concerning male vs. female competition. The rule is simple,” says the email. “Women wrestle women, men wrestle men in practice and competition. Period.”

Calling the association’s policy “antiquated” and based on “unfair stereotypes,” the ACLU’s letter argues the insurance policy provides for no such bar on women wrestling against men.

“NCWA’s assertion that women wrestling men will put the organization at greater risk of liability is simply contradicted by the plain language of the insurance policy. Although NCWA proclaims on their website that its insurance policy does not cover male vs. female competition, the text of the insurance policy itself makes no distinction between men and women,” the letter states.

The ACLU said in a news release that Goocher’s male teammates want her to play on their team. Under the current rules, she will only be able to compete in a postseason national club tournament with other women. Goocher has already won the competition two years in a row.

Goocher started wrestling when she was 5 years old and has notched up four girls’ titles in her weight division from high school or younger and two titles in college.

High schools and the NCAA allow women to compete against men. The ACLU says the NCWA should follow suit.

The letter cites a similar case in Pennsylvania where a school district prohibited a female wrestler from competing against males by citing safety concerns. The student and her parents fought the rule, filed a lawsuit in 2014 and prevailed in federal court, according to the letter.

The ACLU says several female athletes have wrestled on men’s college teams including Olympians Kelsey Campbell at Arizona State, Patricia Adura-Miranda at Stanford, and Sara McMann and Lock Haven University.

Galen Sherwin, an attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, said the current policy is based on assumptions and “outdated notions about the propriety of physical contact between men and women.”

“Women like Marina prove these stereotypes wrong. All women deserve equal opportunities to participate in athletics, including contact sports like wrestling,” Sherwin said.

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