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


Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.