By Ken Reed
The foundation of athletic competition has always been fairness, creating a level playing field, if you will. Everyone begins from the same starting line in the 100-meter dash. Both teams get an equal number of at-bats in baseball. The examples go on and on in the world of sports.
That quest for fairness was also the genesis of Title IX. Prior to June 23, 1972, when Title IX was enacted, female athletes simply weren’t getting the same opportunities to compete in high school and college sports as their male counterparts. That was wrong and unfair.
While there are certain situations in which coed sports participation is fine, usually at the recreational level, in high-level sports competition, men have always competed against men and women have always competed against women. The reason is simple: there are clear biological differences between the two.
So, where do transgender athletes — most notably, transgender females (biological males) — fit in this picture? Society is still grappling with that question.
“Our aim has been on protecting the girls’ and women’s competitive categories, while crafting accommodations for trans athletes into sport whenever possible.” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, one of the leaders of the Women’s Sports Policy Working Group, a collection of Title IX advocates.
That’s certainly a great goal but it’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, as a society, we must try to achieve it.
It seems to me, 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.
Those performance gap stats simply don’t allow for a level playing field. As such, the traditional need for separate women’s and men’s sports.
Some sports have tried to accommodate transgender athletes by requiring biological males to take testosterone suppression medication for a period (often one year or more) in order to compete on a women’s team. On the surface, that seems 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.
While hormone therapy could ultimately be the primary solution to this issue, more study is needed to determine if actual fairness is achievable, sport by sport.
I must note that I have deep empathy for transgender athletes wanting to compete with the gender they identify with. They certainly shouldn’t be demonized for wanting to compete and become the best athletes they can be. I also believe the vast majority of transgender athletes, if not all, want a completely level-playing field.
Years ago, I interviewed Bobbi Lancaster, a transgender golfer trying to earn an LPGA tour card. She came across as a terrific person who was doing everything possible to compete fairly.
Born Robert Lancaster, Bobbi underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2010. She also was on long-term hormone therapy. In the lab, she looked like a female. Her testosterone levels were almost nothing and her estrogen levels were very high.
“I believe ‘fairness’ is the key word in athletics,” said Lancaster.
“We have to constantly develop and modify policies to make sure sports remain fair. And that includes competitions involving transgender athletes.
“Personally, it’s really important to me that I believe I’m competing fairly. At this point, I think I am.”
Bobbi’s quest to make the LPGA tour ultimately failed but she has become an inspirational advocate for transgender rights. (Her compelling memoir is educational, heartwarming, and funny. I highly recommend it for many reasons, including the chance to learn about some of the common misunderstandings regarding transgenderism, as well as for its great lessons about the importance of being true to yourself.
Anyway, what progress can be made on this issue today?
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 can become unfair due to the puberty-induced biological differences.
With some individual sports, the answer seems 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 currently 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. Accommodations could possibly be made to allow transgender female athletes to practice on a school’s girl’s/women’s teams.
Meanwhile, scientific research needs to continue regarding hormone therapy in the quest for a solution that can help ensure fairness.
Most importantly, from an overarching perspective, what’s needed is a commonsense, humanistic, middle-ground type of approach to this issue.
That’s a harder path than the extreme positions on this issue – complete inclusion and complete exclusion — but it’s the necessary path for all of us to take.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a long-time member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
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.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
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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