Male, Female, and Transgendered Athletes and the Future of Sports

by Mike Kimel

Male, Female, and Transgendered Athletes and the Future of Sports

Men and women don’t compete directly against each other in sports ranging from basketball to golf to track and field. This seems intended to simultaneously acknowledge and paper over the performance difference between men and women in those activities. The process is enforced asymmetrically – a woman good enough to play in the NFL or the PGA would be welcomed in, but a man would be prevented from playing in the WNBA or running in the women’s 100 meters in the Olympics.

However, sports fans tend to like to gravitate toward watching the best. In general, given the choice between tickets to the NBA finals and the National Basketball League of Canada finals, the vast majority will go to the former. For the same reason, the PGA is more popular than the LPGA, and men’s tennis gets more viewers than women’s tennis.

That isn’t to say there aren’t occasional exceptions to the “people will gravitate to the best performers” rule of thumb, but it requires tv-friendly novelty interest. For example, the 2014 World Series final between a team from Chicago and a South Korean team drew over 5.3 million viewers a game on ESPN, but the average Chicago Cubs game that year had a fraction as many viewers. That explains why occasionally, the women’s national soccer team, which is often a contender for women’s world champion, can command more viewership than the men’s national team. It doesn’t change the fact that men’s team can easily beat the women’s team.

Differences in performance lead to disparate outcomes between men’s and women’s sports, and disparate outcomes lead to calls for change. We see that in the recent lawsuit by the Women’s National Soccer team, and as well as in the fact that the prize money for women is now the same as for men in tennis. And yet, is it true equality that people want? The performance differences don’t go away, and they are definitely real. The most recent iteration of the “battle of the sexes” in tennis tells us that the number 203 ranked men’s tennis player in the world can play a round of golf, drink a few beers, and then quickly dispatch the numbers one and two female tennis players in the world in rapid succession, while getting in a cigarette or three to satisfy his nicotine addiction. Given that, arguing that the men’s and women’s Wimbledon champion had the same accomplishment is equivalent to comparing the ascent of Everest with taking the escalator to the second floor at the mall. Both require an increase in elevation, but one is quite a bit harder than the other.

That argues for eliminating the men’s and women’s divisions, and putting everyone in the same bracket. But that too would be deemed discriminatory, since then there would be no women rewarded for performing at the top levels. So collectively, we compromise and tell each other stories.

But these compromises and fictions have been getting harder to maintain, and will get harder still as athletes who are trans, hermaphrodites, intersex, or gender mosaic become more public. Historically, some of those who don’t fall into binary classifications (as well as some plain and simple cheaters) have fared very well when competing as women. These include Olympic and world champions in a variety of sports from track and field to skiing. Generally, if and when they were found not to fit the contemporary definition of a woman, they were booted unceremoniously from the sport.

But such norms no longer apply. Caster Semenya, likely to take home gold in the women’s 800 and 1600 meters at the upcoming Olympics in Rio, was at one point prevented from competing after failing a gender test. The gender test rules have since been changed.

This will have ramifications well beyond Semenya and the women of more binary definition who she will easily beat in August. Athletes tend to be very competitive, and many are willing to risk their health or their lives in order to compete. Taking banned substances, including steroids that reduce one’s longevity and mess with one’s sexual function is already rampant in a number of sports.

Going forward, we will start to see more athletes compete as women who, in the past, would have been disqualified due to gender identification rules. For instance, recently there were rumors that Iran may field a women’s national soccer team that includes eight transgendered individuals. Whether true or not in this case, given current rules governing sport, the question is, why only eight?

Conversely, men’s sports won’t be affected very much – transmales tend to be less, not more successful after transitioning. In fact, the first open transmale athlete in Division I basketball was allowed to compete as woman despite identifying as a man. Nobody had the heart to make him compete against men. More recently, a Harvard swimmer who transitioned is now swimming against men. News stories about him politely note that he used to win swim meets when he was a woman, but is no longer a contender despite significant improvements to his time.

So we get, in the end, to a few points: there is a disparity in outcomes and performance between transmales and transfemales. At the highest levels, there is also a disparity in outcomes and performance between females who aren’t trans and females who are trans. There also remains a disparity in outcomes and performance between men and women. And of course, in recent years disparities in outcomes have often been cited as evidence of disparities in opportunity.

How all of these points will play out in the end, I don’t know, but world is changing.