Hand-wringing about the sanctity of women’s sports reflects an unwillingness to understand what it truly means to be transgender.
In recent weeks, a number of state and federal GOP legislators have taken up the mantle of supporting women’s sports, and the timing could not be better. Now more than ever, women’s athletics needs advocates, what with March Madness underway and the NCAA continuing to amplify men’s basketball while virtually ignoring the women’s teams.
A viral Tik-Tok by Oregon player Sedona Prince highlighted the disparity. Prince videoed the well-appointed weight room for men’s teams playing in the tournament, then revealed that women received a set of hand weights for their own training. “If you aren’t upset about this problem, you’re part of it,” Prince says in the video, which ultimately shamed the NCAA into providing more equipment for the women’s athletes playing in college basketball’s most prestigious tournament.
Turns out, though, the legislators clamoring to support women as athletes were not worried about the disparity in college basketball or the egregious transgression of Title IX’s promise of equity. Nor were they responding to the toxic sludge that consistently seeps into sports media, where women are endlessly berated, their competitions deemed “boring” and “unathletic”—and where even a superstar like tennis champion Serena Williams is lampooned with racist, misogynistic slurs.
Instead, GOP leaders—including 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, writing for the National Review—have developed a new interest in women’s sports because of President Joe Biden’s executive order that recognizes transgender people as fully human, deserving the right to equal protection under the law.
And suddenly, supporting women’s sports has become critical to a population who have, without a doubt, never really supported women’s sports at all.
The Problem of Transgender Athletes
So far in 2021 alone, state legislatures have passed a record number of bills, now numbering 82 across 20 states, denying transgender people equal rights. Many of those bills include what amounts to a ban on transgender athletes. These laws, if passed, would require that young people prove their sex matches what appears on their original birth certificates to compete, which would essentially block transgender girls from ever even playing middle and high school sports.
Advocates believe these rules are necessary, and reflect a desire to protect and support women’s athletics from thousands of boys proclaiming themselves transgender simply to win competitions. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee voiced the concerns of many fellow GOP lawmakers, claiming that transgender athletes would “ruin women’s sports.”
Yet when pressed, few people can point to specific cases where transgender athletes entered girls’ competitions and won. According to the AP, such cases are rare, beyond two high school sprinters in Connecticut who dominated that state’s track and field meets in 2017-19. These two athletes are often cited, simply because there are few other examples to name.
Such hand-wringing about the sanctity of women’s sports reflects an unwillingness to understand what it truly means to be transgender, and assumes transitioning to a girl does not fundamentally change someone’s body—and thus the biological advantages that might come with being male. Nor do these bills consider the emotional and mental complexity of what it means to be transgender, or the considerable medical effort that accompanies transitions. It’s not like boys are putting on sports bras and claiming to be girls just to win races or dominate in basketball: instead, teens transition for far more complex, and far more significant, reasons.
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Where Misogyny Blooms in Sports Culture
Julie DiCaro’s excellent new book, Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America, names the deep misogyny that characterizes much of sports culture in the United States. As a sports journalist and talk show host, DiCaro describes the many ways that discrimination against women is woven into the fabric of sports culture. In the process, she (perhaps unwittingly) calls attention to the disingenuous nature of those claiming we must “support women’s athletics” by banning transgender women from competing.
Because the truth is, there are countless other ways women who compete face discrimination, from the absence of equitable financial support extended to professional athletes in basketball, soccer or hockey; to the appalling lack of women’s representation in sports media; to the paltry punishment meted out to domestic abusers in the men’s sports leagues; to the violent threats and sickening invectives women in sports—and in sports media—face for simply doing their jobs.
On the rare occasion when I suggest through social media that women’s soccer players deserve equitable pay, I’ve been called a cunt and worse—as if such a claim was the most offensive idea imaginable. I’ve wondered why the goal of pay equity feels so threatening, why it provokes such outrage from some men. DiCaro notes that she has received death threats because she deigns to be a woman in sports media—the 2018 video #MoreThanMean went viral as men read Tweets DiCaro and another sports journalist received, just for reporting as women about sports.
The Threat is Real for Women’s Sports
DiCaro’s book makes clear that women’s sports need more supporters in the United States and elsewhere. Allowing girls to compete on a level playing field leads to more success in education and better outcomes for their futures vocations. Transgender girls deserve these opportunities as well, though current legislative attempts to ban transgender athletes will deny them any chance to compete.
But the threat to women in sports is not transgender athletes, it is misogyny, and an attendant unwillingness to cede that women not only deserve equal opportunities to compete, but that their athletic efforts are worthy of our collective attention.
Ultimately that kind of misogyny colors even lawmakers’ vapid claims that they want to support women by denying transgender people their rights; it is premised on a kind of paternalism that says girls will not ever be able to win if a boy, identifying as female, enters a competition. Transgender athletes now competing in middle and high school sports know this is emphatically not true, that they have to work as hard as their cis-gendered peers, and that most often, they do not dominate the sports. Yet they persist, for the simple love of playing the game.
Those now advocating for women’s athletics can still make a difference, not by passing trans-discriminatory bills, but in other more constructive ways: By advocating for pay equity for women’s professional athletes. By buying tickets for women’s games, and insisting that those games be shown live on various platforms. By demanding that sports media be more equitable, and that more women journalists deserve a voice in broadcasting. And by neutralizing rhetoric that would call someone a cunt, just because she champions women’s soccer.
In other words, they could support women’s sports by actually supporting women’s sports, rather than writing discriminatory legislation that is, in the end, just another form of misogyny.