The Case of Transgender Athletes. Why Sports Aren't Fair and That's OK | Opinion

Between the growing number of states passing legislation to prevent transgender and intersex athletes from competing as women and the opportunity presented by a new administration, the debate about who gets to play and how in the United States is heating up.

Montana joined Idaho and 14 other states with legislation passed or pending to prevent transgender and intersex athletes from competing as women. Recently, the Women's Sports Policy Working Group—a new collection of scholars and elite athletes absent of transgender members—presented a controversial plan that would allow transgender women to compete as women only if they take hormones or medically transition, a policy which poses problems for intersex women as well as transgender women who do not take hormones or pursue medical transition.

In the cases of both transgender and intersex athletes, supporters of gender testing and medical intervention argue that these policies are needed in order to make sports fair for women. But the hard truth is that sports aren't fair.

They aren't fair for a broad range of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with anatomy or hormones. No one can excel at a sport to which they've never been exposed, and categories of inequality like social class, race and nationality dictate who has the opportunity to pick up a golf club, a soccer ball or a baseball bat.

Social class is an especially important determinant of both access to and success in sports because, put simply, playing sports costs money. Typically, American families spend $700 per year on their child's sports activities, but for some families the costs climb as high as $35,000. Among families earning less than $50,000 a year, cost was cited as the main reason for their child opting out of sports. At the elite level of any sport, the majority of athletes who are still on the field are there because of an invisible accumulation of unfair monetary advantages.

In addition to social class, there's the leg-up that comes with knowing the right people, still an important component of sporting success. NFL quarterbacks and brothers Peyton and Eli Manning benefitted from having a father who played in the NFL, providing insight, knowledge and connections. In fact, in many men's professional leagues participation is passed down like an inheritance.

Is it fair that Ken Griffey Jr., a Hall of Fame baseball player, was able to learn to play from his father, a three-time All-Star? Or that NBA star Stephen Curry benefited from his father, Dell Curry's experiences during his own extensive NBA career?

Sports aren't fair for physiological reasons too, not only because of differences that have to do with gender alone. Men and women—whether cisgender or transgender—exist along a continuum of size, speed and ability and there are only a handful of sports which account for these natural physical differences in the interest of "fairness."

Weight classes exist in boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling and ultimate fighting because it's deemed unfair for a 126 pound featherweight to compete against a 200-plus pound heavyweight. Most other sports have no size or weight restrictions on athletes, accepting these physical inequalities as a normal part of competition.

High school sports
People watch a football championship game on December 5, 2020, in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Athletes do bring genetic advantages to the field, but we are blind to those advantages that have nothing to do with gender. Studies show that some elite runners and cyclists have rare conditions that give them extraordinary advantages when it comes to their muscles' ability to absorb oxygen and their resistance against fatigue.

Some basketball players have acromegaly, a hormonal condition that results in very large hands and feet. This condition is surely a genetic advantage in the sport, but players with acromegaly are not banned.

Some doctors speculate that Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that results in the long, flexible arms and legs that made Phelps such a force in the pool. Major league baseball players tend to have extraordinary eyesight, which allows them to see the seams on a tiny ball hurtling toward them at high speeds and hit it with greater success than those with poorer vision.

In all these ways, sports aren't fair and yet, these types of inequalities are not just acceptable, but mostly unnoticed. For those like Republican legislators in Montana and other states, the real reason for clinging to the necessity of gender testing isn't about fairness, but the need to protect and reinforce the idea of gender itself.

In a world that is increasingly gender integrated and where the strict roles laid out for men and women are loosening, sports remain one of the last strongholds for the cult of gender differences. Preventing transgender and intersex women from competing has nothing to do with fairness, but with the ways in which their inclusion calls into question the meaningfulness of gender as a category in the first place.

Sports aren't fair in all these ways, but there are more important values than fairness at stake in the debates about transgender and intersex athletes—values like equality, teamwork, access and inclusion.

High school sports are an important way for athletes to build self-esteem and develop connections to both their schools and communities. The American Psychological Association is one among many organizations that recommend allowing transgender kids to compete in sports in ways consistent with their gender identity. Their studies have shown no signs that doing so impacts the sport.

Transgender children and teens are already at risk from higher rates of bullying and harassment. Almost half of all teenage transgender boys and 30 percent of teenage transgender girls have attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

How can we justify depriving this vulnerable group from the potential benefits of sports? In the end, it's that cruelty that truly isn't fair.

Robyn Ryle is a professor of sociology and gender studies and the author of "Throw Like a Girl, Cheer Like a Boy: The Evolution of Gender, Race, and Identity in Sports" and "She/He/They/Me: For the Sisters, Misters and Binary Resisters."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.