The transgender issue is a wake up call for sport
Thinking that common sense will fix everything and that leaders will come to their senses is dangerous and will soon lead to a sport environment we don't recognize.
The NCAA swimming season is over. Lia Thomas, possibly the most famous transgender athlete in the world, has finished her college career. Those who have blamed the transgender dustup on Thomas can now breathe a sigh of relief…right? No. Lia Thomas is not and never has been the problem with transgender athletes in sport, she was a distraction. All of the arguments over whether she was a cheater, or even if she was a nice person, were tangential to the real issue of poor leadership actually creating a situation that was obviously unfair to women. However, while this issue can be laid solidly on the doorstep of the NCAA for being afraid to do anything about a clearly unfair situation, the issue is much more than just poor leadership from the collegiate governing body. The undertone surrounding the lead up to Thomas winning an event at the NCAA Division 1 women's swimming championship indicates stormy weather ahead for anyone concerned about common sense in sport governance.
The transgender sport issue is fueled by an ideological agenda whose proponents would be more than happy to adopt scientific arguments if any existed to support their cause. But there is no scientific justification — absolutely none at all — for including biological males in women's sport, thus arguments have to rely on emotional appeals and dogmatic sophistry masquerading as science. For example, claiming that incidental attributes like longer arms or being taller carry the same performance advantage as male puberty, or that genetic variations within sex categories are reason enough to dismiss differences between sex categories. These sophistic claims sound right to the uninformed and are often repeated in various online forums. As I wrote previously though, the justification for allowing trans women into women's competition based on science simply doesn't exist. When this becomes evident the arguments turn to emotion.
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Emotional arguments usually follow a pattern: Start off with appeals to authenticity i.e. allowing trans women to compete as their authentic selves by claiming that they are women. Then claim that trans women are being excluded from sports, or that exclusion is an example of hate, bigotry, or transphobia. The claim that trans women are women works only through social consensus. It doesn't matter in the workplace, shops, church, schools, or other places of human interaction in everyday life whether you want to be treated as a man or woman. In sport though it does. It's the physicality of sport that makes the difference.
While most sport practitioners object to trans women competing against natal females and understand why it creates an obviously unfair environment, there are others who favor it based on misguided ideas of inclusion, or are are simply uncommitted, taking a wait for the science attitude. Arguments that occur in online forums, on swimming pool decks, in basketball gyms, and around running tracks may give the impression that common sense is winning, and in many ways it is, but transgender ideology is part of a larger social agenda and has managed to insert itself where it counts, at the highest levels of sport governance and in some important political circles.
It's important to activists that gender issues remain fluid, and that more instances of trans women displacing natal females in sport competition take place if only to make such incidents more common so that they may eventually be considered normal. So it was no surprise that Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson declined to define what a woman was recently. If Judge Jackson offered any kind of answer based on science she would have been castigated by those who are emotionally bound to the narrative that a trans woman is really a woman; a woman not in a social consensual sense but a real, actual woman. Deviation from this point invites trouble. Judge Jackson knew that answering the question with a straightforward, dictionary definition of a woman — an adult human female — would not go over well on the Democratic side of the hearings and would only open her to more vexing questions from the Republican side. It's probably a good bet that this issue will eventually end up before the Supreme Court in some form.
Emotion vs science
Transgender activists have tried associating themselves and their agenda with the Race Class narrative. This has not been received as well as they hoped but there has been some success. The trans agenda is making progress in what many would say is a good cause. But in sport it has not been successful and activists know they cannot win the sport argument based on science. Science offers no support at all for including trans women in female sport, thus a different strategy is needed and the Race Class narrative has been redefined as the Race Class Gender narrative.
"Right now, our opposition wins the debate on trans youth in sports against any and all arguments we have tried for our side. There is a huge gap in awareness and concern, with most base and persuadable respondents unaware of proposals regarding transgender girls’ participation in sports, while a strong majority of our opposition has heard some or a lot about it. When pressed, our audiences hold contradictory views, with a third supporting both a policy to ensure transgender student-athletes can play on the team that matches their gender identity and a policy to require that student-athletes play on the team matching their “biological sex.” Our base and persuadables want to support transgender student- athletes, but are extremely susceptible to our opposition’s argument that excluding trans youth is necessary to protect the fairness of women’s sports." (Messaging Guide: Transgender Youth and the Freedom to Be Ourselves)
As part of the Race Class Gender narrative several messages are suggested to support the trans sport issue. It should be noted that in the messaging documents linked below the trans women in sport aspect is downplayed and trans athletes in general are emphasized. However, the issue of trans sports is really just an issue with trans women because that is where fairness of the competition is a concern.
Message: Ignore the fairness issue completely
If the goal is simply to get trans women into female sport then one strategy recommended by the Movement Advancement Project is to ignore the fairness issue altogether:
"Local schools across the nation are already creating policies that protect transgender youth and ensure a level playing field for all students, and they're working. Banning transgender youth from participating in sports undermines those efforts." (Talking About Transgender Youth Participation in Sports)
The Movement Advancement Project never explains how these policies are working, they simply claim that they are. Much of the messaging they recommend emphasizes that transgender youth are being 'banned' from sport. This is simply not true. Legislation on the trans sports issue mandates that athletes must compete in the category corresponding to their natal sex. This is not the same as being banned.
Message: Remove competition as the primary driver in sport
Another strategy is to change the very nature of sport itself by deemphasizing competition and shifting to a collective mentality that highlights teamwork and other values learned through sport. This strategy misses the mark completely. Sport is competitive; take that away and it becomes something else. The values learned through sport aren't there if sport is not competitive. Teamwork and other values we associate with sport are byproducts of sport's competitive nature.
Message: Discrimination against trans women is discrimination against all women
This strategy is remarkable for its tone deafness.
"Women’s sports have never existed on an equal playing field. For too long, we have devalued women’s sports, and we see this in the way that professional women athletes are underpaid compared to men and how transgender women athletes are targeted, attacked, and forced out of their sport. And instead of striving for equality in sports, certain politicians are distracting us from the real issue by blaming transgender women, instead of helping make sports a better place for all women." (Messaging Guide: Transgender Youth and the Freedom to Be Ourselves)
Read that again! In other words, by keeping trans women out of female sport the long legacy of discrimination against women in sport is continued. This message assumes the claim that trans women are women is so widely accepted that an argument can be made that they are being discriminated against as women if they are not allowed to compete in women's sport.
Message: Attack those opposing trans women in female sport
When all else fails, go on the attack. As one who has always spoken out against trans women being allowed in women's competition I'm used to being called a hater, a transphobe, or a bigot, along with a few other colorful epithets. Activists paint opponents of the trans agenda this way in the hope that persuadables will be more likely to agree with the Race Class Gender narrative.
"Opposition rhetoric on sports is more directly transphobic and dehumanizing than their discourse on other issues." (Messaging Guide: Transgender Youth and the Freedom to Be Ourselves)
The issue is fairness
Regardless of the many messages, attacks, or strategies mounted by the Race Class Gender narrative, the core concern over trans women in women's sport is simply fairness. There is no science supporting the notion that trans women can compete fairly with natal females. Discussion of testosterone levels and ongoing research is just noise. The performance advantage provided through male puberty is real and no science is ever going to disprove it. You don't have to be a scientist to know this.
However, as we have witnessed with the Lia Thomas incident, poor leadership, wokeness, and just plain stupidity seem to be the guiding principles when it comes to the trans issue in sports. Common sense is in short supply in the sport world right now, opposition to it is organized, and the Race Class Gender narrative is becoming entrenched in upper level sport governance. Thinking that common sense will fix everything and that leaders will come to their senses is dangerous and will soon lead to a sport environment we don't recognize.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was referred to as ‘Judge Brown’. Her name has been corrected above.