Against the Ropes

The state says female fighters cant throw a punch without a pregnancy test

Jun 28, 2006 at 4:00 am
Longtime wrestling promoter Tony Casta was scurrying around the South Broadway Athletic Club a few months ago, setting up for the much-anticipated first match between his newest recruits, Christie Summers and Jennifer Starr. Then out of the blue, Casta says, a state inspector announced that the Saturday-night bout would not take place unless the promoter called for a doctor.

The same thing happened to promoter Sam Richardson and his female wrestlers, Jenn Natalia and Jewells, at the Knights of Columbus Hall in House Springs.

On both occasions, the inspector for the Missouri State Office of Athletics said the matches were off — unless pregnancy tests were administered to the women competing.

"I told him this was wrong," says Casta. "I think it's ridiculous."

But the promoter proceeded to find a neighborhood physician, who agreed to do both tests on-site for $60.

Jenn Natalia and Jewells, who learned of the rule five minutes before their scheduled takedown, were enraged that they could not fight.

"Nobody was enforcing it beforehand," complains Julie "Jewells" Utley. "I wrestled in a match in December and no one said anything about it."

The Office of Athletics has regulated boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and full-contact karate since 1983. The agency collects ticket taxes and a raft of licensing and permit fees from promoters, contestants, managers, timekeepers, referees — even the valets who help contenders disrobe in the corner of the ring.

The office's inspectors, who oversee every boxing match, have the right to say how much petroleum jelly a fighter may smear on his body, and whether "head and facial hair presents any hazard to the safety of the contestant."

Last November the licensing board began mandating that the state's 27 licensed female boxers and wrestlers — and 72 others who travel to Missouri for competitions — furnish negative pregnancy results. The test must be performed no more than seven days before a match, and a physician must administer the test and sign off on the results. Over-the-counter tests are prohibited.

State officials say there was no particular incident that precipitated the rule and have not heard of any fetus being aborted during a boxing or wrestling match.

"Several states have adopted something similar, and that's what we based our decision on," says Kim Grinston, attorney for the Missouri Division of Professional Registration, which oversees the Office of Athletics.

Local wrestlers call the regulation insulting and invasive. "If I found out I was pregnant, I would not get in the ring," says Carla "Lacey" Hall of Lonedell, Missouri. "Who would?"

"It's cost-prohibitive," adds Utley, "especially for the girls who don't have insurance."

Utley contends that the regulation also violates the female athletes' civil rights by differentiating them from male competitors and seeking to "protect us from ourselves."

"We're people," Utley says. "We're not these 'pre-pregnant' things that exist solely for the purpose of child-bearing. We should take care of our health for ourselves, not because we might have children eventually."

("Pre-pregnant" is a term coined earlier this year in federal guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the guidelines urge all women to treat themselves as if they could conceive at any time.)

In March Utley filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, and Tony Rothert, the group's legal director, says he's considering legal action against the state.

"If we're talking six months along, then maybe the state has some interest in prohibiting people from particular activities they find dangerous," says Rothert. "But one, two, three weeks along? That's a risk for the woman to assess for herself.

"I haven't heard anyone at the state say this rule is about protecting fetuses," he continues, "but obviously you suspect it, given that the change happened in the current administration, which seems to make regulations for that purpose."

Replies Kim Grinston: "This is not a pro-life thing, or a Republican thing, or a Democrat thing. We wanted to make sure Missouri was consistent with regulations in other states."

Grinston says Missouri reviews rules constantly to make sure they fall in line with other states'. In this case, the Office of Athletics last year learned that 30 states require boxers to submit pregnancy-test results.

"I would agree that there's a national trend toward pregnancy testing, but the frequency is a problem," says Rothert. "If you have three matches a month, and you need to get tested before each — there's not that many opportunities to get pregnant in a month. And there's no exemption for people who know they're not pregnant because they haven't had procreative sex, or they're on birth control, or they're sterile. If you have your tubes tied, you still have to get tested. If you have sex with women, you still have to get tested."

The Office of Athletics says it is reviewing the rule, but many wrestlers and promoters are unappeased and are battling for complete deregulation of the wrestling industry.

"Every year they pile on more and more rules, and it seems like the costs keep getting higher and higher," says Andrew Hall, who wrestles tag-team with his brother under the moniker "the Lumberjacks."

Promoters pay the state $400 every two years for a license, and they also pay taxes on every ticket sold, plus permit fees for each match — $150 for wrestling and $25 for boxing.

As for income, some wrestlers earn nothing more than a post-bout meal; others might make $50 a match. Their two-year license costs only $40. But as of last year, wrestlers must also foot the bill for HIV and hepatitis tests in order to qualify for a license.

"They want us to have the tests every two years," complains Hall. "What good is that going to do us?" He adds that the escalating costs send wrestlers to Illinois, which does not regulate the sport.

"We're fed up with being treated like we're a real sport. We're just entertainment. Everything is predetermined. It's all rigged," says Hall.

Seconds Casta: "We could go to the Muny or the Fox Theatre, run a show for a week at either place, and have the same exact show, the same exact moves, the same exact outcome of every match. Is that a sport? No. That's entertainment."

Andrew Hall and his wife, Carla "Lacey" Hall, have begun collecting like-minded letters from fellow wrestlers and are calling upon State Representative Brian Nieves to push for deregulation of the industry during the next legislative session.

"Come fall the representative would like to work toward getting a bill going," says Rita Clarkson, Nieves' legislative aide. "But he'd like to do some more research himself first."

Meanwhile, women such as Julie "Jewells" Utley are boycotting their beloved sport. "Until this rule is gone, I'm going to be a valet — a cheerleader, basically."