Transgender Athlete Issue Requires a Commonsense, Middle-Ground Approach
By Ken Reed
Most of the sports issues I write about are pretty straightforward – at least in my mind. The solutions seem pretty clear.
Do big-time college athletes deserve a bigger slice of the billions being made from their efforts? Undoubtedly.
In an era in which childhood obesity is at epidemic levels, and teenage anxiety, depression and suicide rates are climbing, do we need more cardiovascular-based physical education in our schools? For sure.
Is it crazy for adults (parents and coaches) to force 11-year-olds (sometimes younger) to specialize in a single sport? Definitely.
But when it comes to trying to determine where and how transgender athletes – more specifically, transgender females (biological males) – should be allowed to compete, solutions aren’t so clear-cut.
The controversy surrounding transgender girls and women in sports isn’t a new issue. However, it has become a hot button topic the last couple years due to several states banning transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports.
More recently, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation. In addition, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, which if approved by the Senate and signed by Biden would become one of the most sweeping federal LGBTQ civil rights bills ever to become law.
Does either the executive order or Equality Act require full inclusion for all transgender female athletes? It doesn’t appear so, but there’s a lot of confusion around that question right now. It’s simply not clear at this point.
“We fully support the Biden executive order, ending LGBT discrimination throughout society, including employment, banking, family law and public accommodations,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, one of the leaders of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, a collection of Title IX advocates.
“Competitive sports, however, are akin to pregnancy and medical testing; these areas require a science-based approach to trans inclusion. Our aim has been on protecting the girls’ and women’s competitive categories, while crafting accommodations for trans athletes into sport wherever possible.”
Agreed. There must be two goals here: 1) Protect Title IX for biological girls; and 2) Accommodate the inclusion of trans athletes in sports as much as possible.
Unfortunately, advocates on both sides of this issue tend to the extreme. Either 100% full inclusion or 100% full exclusion.
“The uncompromising vitriol in public conversations regarding the participation of transgender girls and women in girls’ and women’s sports is unacceptable,” wrote the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group in a statement earlier this year.
Unacceptable indeed. Middle-ground solutions need to be developed on this issue.
The starting point of any policy analysis in this area must be the biological differences of the athletes involved. As a whole, it is both self-evident, and supported by science, that biological males have a significant physical advantage over biological female athletes when it comes to muscle mass (speed and strength), body mass, bone structure, aerobic power, etc.
The physical advantages kick in at puberty. After puberty, male bodies develop in ways that make them faster and stronger than female bodies, as a group. Research reveals that from puberty on, the performance gap between biological males and females typically ranges from 8-20%, and up to 50% in sports where explosive power is required.
Competitive athletics are based on fairness — a level-playing field if you will. Those performance gap stats simply don’t allow for a level playing field.
So, what to do?
Let’s start with youth sports. The physical advantages don’t start for males until puberty. So, trans girls should be allowed to compete on girls’ teams until the age of 12, when puberty typically kicks in.
After that it gets more complicated. Safety becomes a concern in some contact sports due to the physical differences. And head-to-head competition becomes unfair due to the puberty-induced biological differences.
The NCAA requires transgender females (biological males) to take testosterone suppression medication for one year in order to compete on a women’s team. For the past decade, that’s seemed like a fair solution. However, recent research has revealed that trans females retain some physical advantages over biological females even after a year of hormone therapy. As such, more study is needed in the hormone therapy area to determine fairness.
Individual sports seem pretty straightforward. In track and field, for example, separate heats and/or scoring could be used at meets in which trans athletes are integrated into the event.
For team sports, allowing trans females to play on girls’/women’s teams raises too many issues of fairness. However, teams of trans athletes could be created at the school district or county levels to compete against trans teams from other school districts or counties.
Overall, the general approach should be to have experts in each sport come together and decide on the specific rules for allowing fair competition.
While complex, one thing is very clear on this issue: Both extreme positions – complete inclusion and complete exclusion – are wrong.
What’s needed is a commonsense, humanistic, middle-ground approach. It’s a harder path, but a necessary one.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
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Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- League of Fans Sports Policy Director Ken Reed quoted in Washington Post column titled "What happened to P.E.? It’s losing ground in our push for academic improvement," by Jay Mathews
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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