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?
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?
Is it crazy for adults (parents and coaches) to force 11-year-olds (sometimes younger) to specialize in a single sport?
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 new. However, it has become a hot-button topic the last couple of years due to several American states banning transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports.
More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on preventing and combating discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. And the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act. If approved by the Senate and signed by Biden, the act would become one of the most sweeping federal LGBTQ civil rights bills ever to become law in the United States.
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. It’s simply not clear.
“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. Title IX is a U.S. civil rights law that protects people from discrimination based on sex, in education programs or activities that receive federal funding.
“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.”
There must be two goals here:
- Protect Title IX for biological girls.
- Accommodate the inclusion of trans athletes in sports as much as possible.
Unfortunately, advocates on both sides of this issue tend to the extreme. They are either 100 per cent in favour of full inclusion or 100 per cent for 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.
The starting point of any policy analysis 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 eight to 20 per cent, and up to 50 per cent in sports where explosive power is required.
Competitive athletics are based on fairness – a level-playing field. 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 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the U.S. 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 reveals that trans females retain some physical advantages over biological females even after a year of hormone therapy. 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 an event.
For team sports, allowing trans females to play on girls’ or 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: both extreme positions – complete inclusion and complete exclusion – are wrong.
What’s needed is a common-sense, humanistic, middle-ground approach. It’s a harder path but a necessary one.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports. For interview requests, click here.