Tilting the Playing Field

Are trans athletes turning back the clock on women's sports?

Growing up, my mom did ballet, drill team, swim lessons, and tennis lessons, but never played any team contact sport until she joined a city league soccer team in her twenties. She played only two seasons because by then, she was working full time and could not commit to several evenings a week of practices. My mom was born in the mid-1950s and was almost finished with high school by the time Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded education program or activity, was enacted by Congress in 1972.

I was born twenty years after the passage of Title IX, and by then, the law was in full effect. My parents signed me up for AYSO soccer when I was five, and I played two seasons in that recreational league before moving with my team to the more competitive club soccer league. In second and third grade, I was going to soccer practice multiple times per week and my team was among the best in the state for our age group. While the decision was difficult even as a nine-year-old, I decided after my third-grade year that the pressure and time commitment was too much and I switched back to the recreational league, where I played for one year before playing for a different club in fifth and sixth grades. That was the end of my club soccer career, though I did play for my school in seventh and ninth grades.

My other major sports endeavor was basketball, which I played in elementary school and again at the high school level. I played through tenth grade; I was on the C-team as a sophomore, but juniors could not play on the C-team and I failed to make JV or varsity that year.

I played many years of soccer and basketball in my youth, and though I worked hard and dedicated myself to my sports, I was never bound to move on and play a sport at the college or professional level. I, like the majority of those who play youth and high school sports, was simply not good enough to play at that level, but the opportunities were absolutely present. Girls in my high school’s basketball program and from the competitive soccer teams I played on in elementary school were recruited to play their sport in college, including at least one who went on to play for an NCAA Division I school.

I got to grow up in one of the best eras ever for girls’ and women’s sports. There was never a sport I saw my brother or another boy playing that I wanted to play but was not allowed. My years in sports taught me so much that I carry with me today. I learned to work hard, both physically and mentally, and to accept disappointments when I knew I had tried my hardest. I learned to be more aggressive and assertive than I naturally would be.

When I was in ninth grade, I went with my school basketball team to play in a rural area. Our coach, not known for being particularly tactful, referred to one of the girls on the opposing team as “Amanda;” he thought that she was “a man, duh.” Apparently, my coach and some of my teammates thought that this particular player on the girls’ basketball team was a male. This was in 2006 or 2007, when the idea of a male playing on a girls’ sports team was asinine. 

Today’s high school girls are only about a decade younger than I, but their sporting world has already become vastly different. In the name of equality and inclusion, female athletes are competing against biological boys, who, by high school, have gone through male puberty and experienced the numerous physical changes that cause elite male athletes to be stronger and faster than their female counterparts. Even biologically male individuals whose testosterone levels are in the female range retain irreversible advantages such as higher bone density and oxygen capacity.

The decision of whether to allow biological males who identify as female to compete in girls’ sports is absolutely a civil rights issue, but not in the way in which it is being framed. Only 0.6 percent of American adults identify as transgender according to the New York Times, while approximately 50 percent of the population is female. It is therefore much more of a civil rights issue for females than for transgender individuals.

Asking girls to tolerate competing against biological males might seem like the kind and respectful policy to take, but there is more at stake than just winning and losing. High school track athlete Selina Soule is speaking out after finishing eighth in her race that qualifies only six spots for the New England regionals. And the New England regionals are where college coaches will be scouting for talent, offering opportunities and scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition, room and board, and elite-level coaching.

 As I was when I was cut from my high school’s basketball program, Ms. Soule is angry, but she has more reason to feel this way than I did. I lost the spot to girls who were better athletes than I. They were all girls, born female, and had gone through female puberty just like I had. They were better basketball players than I was, but we all came from the same starting line. Ms. Soule, too, lost out to some girls who were better than her, five of them to be exact. That would have placed her in sixth place, a qualifying spot to the prestigious regionals competition. But two of the runners who beat Soule were biological males, inherently stronger and faster because of their different physiology.

While today’s politically correct assessment is that sex is malleable, in 1972 when Title IX was passed, sex meant male or female as determined by physical appearance and/or genetics. Participation in sport is beneficial for all people and there are several possible ways to allow individuals of all sexual and gender identities to participate fairly, but placing people who were born male in the same competitions as those born female is not one of them. Perhaps leagues could begin offering an “open” division in addition to male and female divisions for individuals who do not meet the requirements for the gender-specific divisions, whether because they identify as transgender, have a naturally-occurring physical anomaly, or any other reason.

As a girl growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I had all the opportunities in the sporting world spread before me. I played all the sports I wanted and competed for roster spots and playing time against other girls. My peers and I were living the dream of those who crafted Title IX. It took a couple decades after Title IX’s passage to see its full effect, and now, not even fifty years after its enacting, we are at risk of returning to the days in which girls’ competitive sports opportunities are limited to ballet and drill team because girls cannot win when paired against males. Ballet and drill team are fine pursuits, but girls deserve more than these limited options. Today’s girls are the legacy of a long-fought battle for equality of opportunity in women’s sports, and allowing biological males to rip their hard-fought opportunities away from them is neither fair nor legal.

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