Two of T.J. Kerr's wrestlers are out in the hallway. This is evident first from the sound of their voices and then from the smell of perfume wafting into the coach's office. Then come the visual cues. Two wrestlers wearing dresses appear in the doorway.
Kerr is unfazed. He glances up from his desk and nods. "Make sure you're here on time for practice," he says. "Two-thirty."
As the head wrestling coach at Cal State-Bakersfield since 1985, Kerr has produced an NCAA champion and an Olympian, and has won a Division II title, and he knows such achievements don't occur without practice. His wrestlers understand. "Two-thirty!" one of them says, and then the two women head on down the hall.
Here in the John B. Antonino Wrestling Complex—a squat, nearly windowless bunker at the back of the Bakersfield campus—the walls are covered with photographs of wrestlers in various states of stress who are pretzeled, bloodied, bruised and dominant. But in this bastion of masculinity one is not puzzled by the sight of the coach knocking on his own bathroom door. "It is the coaches' locker room, but the women use it too," explains Kerr, rapping lightly. "Around here it's always a good idea to knock."
This fall 16 women became members of the Bakersfield men's varsity wrestling team. Girls wrestle on boys' teams in high school, and USA Wrestling—the governing body of the amateur sport—has 1,520 female members and a national women's team. There are college wrestling clubs for women, and in the past a few women have joined men's college teams. But Bakersfield's program represents women's strongest push under way, and it has put this 4,124-student college located in a dusty oil and farming town at the forefront of the effort to make women's wrestling a varsity sport.
Kerr originally championed the right of college women to wrestle for one reason: He wanted to save his men's team. The cumbersomely named California National Organization for Women and California State University Consent Decree states that all California state university systems must offer men and women proportional opportunity in athletics. At Bakersfield, where 62% of the students are women, all-male sports are in a precarious position.
Kerr, who is president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, started looking for options two years ago. He found he couldn't start a women's team because the NCAA doesn't recognize women's wrestling as a sport. Besides, there weren't any women's college teams to wrestle against. NCAA regulations did, however, allow for mixed teams.
So Kerr, a practical fellow, took action. In the spring of 1994 he began recruiting women, and he hasn't stopped since. Kerr has stumped furiously and endlessly, pitching the merits of his nascent program to women in an aerobics class he taught; to reluctant parents; and, via letter last summer, to every incoming female undergrad.
But not everybody readily accepts the idea of women wrestling. "You've got to be kidding me," junior Erin Kelly, a former high school tennis player who now wrestles at 103 pounds, told her then boyfriend when he suggested last year that she join Kerr's squad. Jessica Ramsey, a junior who wrestles at 110 pounds, screws up her face. "I thought, Wrestling? You mean all the grappling? Close contact? Ick."
Tom Brand, the father of sophomore wrestler Kris Brand, admits that when his daughter came home from her Fresno, Calif., high school one day two years ago and announced that she wanted to join the boys' team, "it wasn't what I imagined my little girl would do." But he is thrilled with the idea now and happy that Kris is able to continue to wrestle in college.