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Transgender athletes and the ‘fairness doctrine’ of sports

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The debate about trans athletes seems to revolve around ‘fairness.’ So how ‘fair’ are sports today?

Australian Track and Field Championships
Every sport has rules that govern “fairness.” Yet how we each look at what is fair, and what is not, can be very different.
Photo by Matt King/Getty Images

This article is the latest in a series exploring the conversation about the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sports. You can find the series here.

Fairness. There may be no word that gets tossed around more in the conversation about trans athletes in women’s sports than that one.

It’s easy to understand why. Sports rules and regulations exist to create a “fair” playing field for competitors. Olympic rules regulate the use of performance-enhancing drugs. NCAA rules tell teams how much they team can practice, and how often. NFL rules outline parameters to make sure a defensive back doesn’t get an “unfair” advantage over a receiver. Even mixed martial arts, which seems to the casual observer to be a clash of anarchy, has rules.

Without rules to govern fairness, we don’t have sports.

To a lot of people, a transgender woman participating in women’s sports automatically upends all concept of “fairness.” They see someone who was presumed male at birth — and who very well may have previously played in boys’ or men’s divisions in sports — suddenly putting on a women’s uniform and competing against women.

In a world where we’re told that men are always more athletic, stronger and faster than women, that’s what they see. Someone perceived as being “once a man” can’t possibly be on an equal playing field with women. At least, that’s how the thinking of a lot of people goes.

Yet having an honest conversation about the fairness of trans women in sports mandates a conversation about the concept of fairness itself, and the different ways it can be applied to sports and life.

Sports rules-makers choose what they make ‘fair’

Complete “fairness” in sports — a totally equal playing field for all — is a pipe dream.

The people who create sports rules select what elements of sports they will try to make more even and more fair. There are a number of dynamics that certainly get a lot of attention, like the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Sports’ obsession with muscles and strength goes back decades. Even USA Curling, which regulates a sport with no perceivable advantage gained by bulking up, has a ban on “performance-enhancing” drugs.

Yet there are a bunch of important, performance-defining ingredients of sports competition that get completely ignored by the people who make up the rules and policies.

In what town a kid is born, or the family she is born into, can have a huge impact on her ability to win a state championship or attract a big college scholarship.

Athletes raised in financially disenfranchised communities are left competing with rich kids. High jumpers who are 5-foot-6 are left in the same category as athletes who are a foot taller. Baseball players and football players who grow up in sunshiney states get 12 months a year of outdoor training, while those same kids in Maine and Montana have to make due with much less on-field time.

Simply being born in a town with a good track and field coach can give you an advantage over the kid in the town next door who’s left being coached to triple jump by the shop teacher.

We seem as a society content with ignoring the inherent advantages some kids have over others in sports.

Even at elite levels, elements of unfairness are left alone.

Many Americans take great pride in watching the Summer Olympic medal count every four years. As well we should. The United States has earned the most Summer Olympic medals of any country.

Yet is it really “fair” that countries like Angola and Moldova and Nepal have to compete in the same category as the Americans? Forget about the fact that these three countries combined have a fifth of the U.S. population. The vast resources available to United States athletes makes it virtually impossible for any of these much-poorer countries to compete in any one given competition with the United States, let alone compete on the medals table.

Those three countries – Angola, Moldova and Nepal – have a combined five Summer Olympics medals. Ever.

The United States has 2,522. The Americans won more medals in women’s swimming at the 2016 Olympics than those three countries have won in all the sports, in all the Olympics combined.

Many of the same people today attacking trans women in sports as “unfair” are the same people high-fiving one another every time the U.S. gets another 40-point win against Nigeria in men’s basketball.

My point isn’t to say that these fans are wrong, or that this system is broken. The point is that we pick and choose the bases upon which we determine “fairness.”

The rules of sports – the foundation of fairness – are often inherently unfair to the people who don’t write the rules.

Is gender the best basis of “fairness” in sports?

When I was in high school, I was pretty fast on the track. I set some high school records that have still never been broken. I won some MVP awards for my team.

Yet if Usain Bolt and I raced against one another, he would win 10,000 out of 10,000 races. I would have no chance against him at any time, anywhere, no matter the conditions. His natural-born gifts make him simply faster than I am in a way that is not competitive.

So why are the athletic advantages he has over me deemed “fair”?

From birth, he was assigned gifts I could never dream of. To be sure, excellence in sports takes a lot of hard work and determination. You can’t get to the pinnacle of a sport simply based on your physical gifts. It takes a lifetime of dedication.

Yet no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much time I dedicated to training, Usain Bolt would lap me in the 100-meter dash. And the world would cheer, extolling the virtues of this great athlete whose world record in the 100-meter may stand for decades.

This is no slam on Bolt – He’s one of my favorite Olympic athletes of all time. But how is it “fair” that I have to compete against the fastest man in history to win Olympic gold? And this isn’t about me being some middling talent. The other fastest men in the world couldn’t touch him either. How is it that we’ve said that’s “fair”?

I’ll tell you about another athlete who would crush me in competition. Katie Ledecky has been absolutely dominant in women’s swimming the last few years. At the 2016 Summer Olympics she won the 400-meter freestyle by an eye-popping five seconds. With her time she would have beaten eight of the men at the Olympics that year. She has multiple world records, multiple American records, and in the last three World Championships she has won a combined total of 14 gold medals.

I have really bad shoulder joints and was afraid of the water until I was older than Ledecky is right now.

Yet for some reason, this gender-based concept of “fairness” says that my “advantages” over Ledecky are unfair… all because I’m a man and she’s a woman.

To take it another step, Ledecky’s advantages over every other woman are equally deemed “fair,” even though she’s making a mockery of her competition. No doubt she’s worked hard. Again, as I said, you can’t get to where she is without a ton of work. But also to get where she is today, she needed natural-born gifts that most people don’t have, much like Michael Phelps before her. Those gifts have simply made her untouchable in the water.

Is that fair? Our system, where all the women are lumped in together and all the men are lumped in together, says yes.

Yet there’s a growing chorus to divide sports differently. Some sports already do that. Recreational softball is often based on each athlete’s individual skill level, whether they are a man or woman. Combat sports divide categories by weight, even when in some states high school boys and girls wrestle one another.

If “fairness” is going to be the guiding principle in our conversation about trans inclusion in women’s sports, then maybe it’s time to open up long-held assumptions of how we divide sports in the first place. A sports world divided by gender contributes to the false notion that every woman is weaker, slower and a worse athlete than every man. And Katie Ledecky has something to say about that.

Kirsti Miller, a rugby player in Australia who casually refers to herself as “the grandmother of trans athletes,” would like to see sports divided not by gender, but by ability. That would, of course, open its own can of issues.

Still, as we wrestle with the “fairness” of gender-based sports, it’s a worthy debate to have.

The “unfairness” of being transgender

There is a collection of people, like tennis great Martina Navratilova, who fear athletes may choose to transition genders so they can pursue a mythical women’s sports contract that will bring them fame and fortune — That they would take advantage of shifts in perception of “fairness” for their own gain.

The implication is devoid of example, experience and reason.

Instead, transgender athletes are inherently transgender. It is part of their being like I am a man, or that I am white. To believe otherwise is, frankly, to be blind to the stories of trans people. Truly no one would choose this.

I’ve listened to a lot of those stories. Dozens of them. And I keep coming back to some simple truths...

  • Transgender people emerge into a world where their very existence is questioned, or even reviled.
  • They are murdered at an alarming rate.
  • Society’s pressures on trans people put them at greater risk of suicide than any other segment of our population.
  • A group of people on social media, and various journalists across news media, insist on calling transgender women “men,” completely invalidating the journey of these people.

I could go on and on.

None of it seems very “fair.”

The fact is that the lives of many transgender people are more difficult than most of us could ever imagine. I struggled with being gay at the core of my soul for much of the first 22 years of my life, yet my journey wasn’t anywhere near as full of torment as people who feel the sex assigned to them at birth – something around which most of us build so much of our human identity – is wrong.

It was talking to Miller that the unfairness faced by transgender people again hit home.

”I had achieved everything you could want in life,” Miller said of her pre-transition life, trying to give me a sense of the toll transitioning takes on people. “And I got kicked to the bottom of the pile. And now I’m sitting firmly at the bottom. Who else on this planet is having their very existence on this planet questioned in such vile ways?”

Listening to transgender people that my perspectives on “fairness” in life and sports have shifted. Instead of sitting on my soapbox and relying on old gender tropes, I’ve opened my mind to more empathy and the possibility that one person’s “fairness” is another person’s struggle.

As we debate the extent of transgender inclusion in women’s sports, and as the conversation revolves around values and assumptions of “fairness,” it’s important to keep this debate about the concept of “fairness” in perspective.

Interestingly, how to best handle the “fairness” of transgender inclusion in women’s sports attracts a wide array of opinions even within the trans-athlete community.

Finding balances between all of these concepts and elements of fairness is important.

There are a lot of ways to slice and dice competitive fairness. Athletes of all kinds of different backgrounds may have different feelings about concepts of fairness. Listening to what people have to say about their own perspective of what’s fair and what’s not can help cut through a lot of this growing debate.