The real threat to women’s sports? It’s not trans women

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games
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Transgender women have been eligible to compete at the Olympics since the 2004 Athens Games, but at this summer’s Tokyo Games, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard could become the first.

According to International Olympic Committee guidelines, last updated in 2015, transgender women are eligible to compete if their total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months. Weightlifting’s international federation follows these guidelines and Hubbard, who transitioned nearly ten years ago, is playing by the rules.

But the news of Hubbard’s likely Olympic qualification still sparked debate. Some media outlets promoted narratives about unfairness, while an Australia-based group that claims to advocate for women’s sports issued a statement against Hubbard competing in Tokyo, saying that including transgender women “removes the basis of equality between men and women.”

Hold up.

Firstly, trans women are women.

Furthermore, arguing that trans women are a threat to “fairness” or “equality” in women’s sports isn’t just transphobic. The argument is also built upon a fallacy. Because women’s sports aren’t fair.

If women’s sports were fair, all athletes would have equal access to competitive opportunities.

And yet…

There was no widespread outrage five years ago at the 2016 Rio Games when the Olympic weightlifting program included 156 quota spots for men compared to 104 for women.

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will actually mark the first time that weightlifting – a sport that has been included on every Olympic program over the last century – will welcome an equal number of men and women. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics are expected to be most gender-balanced Games in history, with women slated to make up 49 percent of all participants.

But an opportunity gap persists in other sports.

Sixteen men’s soccer teams will travel to Japan this summer, compared to 12 on the women’s side.

Cycling has spots for 300 men, but only 228 women.

And boxing – the most recent summer sport to include women – remains the most skewed; 206 men will travel to Tokyo, compared to only 80 women.

(Men, likewise, are excluded from two summer sports: artistic swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.)

Outside of the Olympics, the playing field is far less level.

According to data compiled by the Women’s Sports Foundation, 87 percent of NCAA institutions are currently not in compliance with Title IX. That means nearly nine out of ten U.S. colleges are currently offering male students more access to sports than female students.

At the professional level, the gender opportunity gap is even wider.

For the top basketball players in the world, there are 450 roster spots in the NBA, compared to only 144 in the WNBA.

In cycling, the best men compete in the grueling 21-stage Tour de France, while the current women’s equivalent is a single-stage “token gesture” race called “La Course.” British cyclist Lizzie Deignan won La Course” in 2020 and used her victory to advocate for a full women’s Tour de France.

And if women’s sports – and sports in general – were fair, that would mean doping isn’t a concern.

Yet… At the 2012 London Olympics, 21 medals were awarded in women’s weightlifting. Do you know how many of those medals were later stripped due to doping violations?

ELEVEN.

OUT OF TWENTY-ONE.

FIFTY-TWO PERCENT.

There will be no apology for the all caps because that is OUTRAGEOUS.

(On the men’s side, 7/24 medals were later stripped. So… also not great.)

If you want to be upset about an athlete being denied their Olympic moment, you would be much better off directing your energy at an actual threat to fair competition: dopers.

And if women’s sports were fair, that would mean women are paid equally.

Yet… If you’re a professional women’s hockey player, it will take you hundreds of years (yes, hundreds) to make what the average NHL player makes in a single season.

In basketball, Stephen Curry – the highest paid NBA player – will make the equivalent of 350-plus WNBA salaries this year alone.

Even tennis – the sport so often lauded for its commitment to equal pay – has a gender pay gap outside of the four Grand Slams. In 2020, the top 200 men on the ATP tour averaged $568,257 in prize money, nearly twice the average of the top 200 women on the WTA tour ($388,739).

And if women’s sports were fair, that would mean women’s sports are invested in equitably.

Yet… As was evident at the NCAA women’s division one basketball tournament earlier this year, women’s sports are often treated like a burden, rather than an opportunity for growth.

In addition to providing men’s players with better weight training facilities, the NCAA also provided them with a more robust digital media hub and marketing opportunities, two key tools to increasing viewership and revenue.

These aren’t accidents. They are decisions. From the omission of the word “men’s” from the men’s Final Four logo to withholding “March Madness” branding from the women’s tournament, the NCAA has continually perpetuated the idea that men’s basketball is the norm, and treated it as such.

The takeaway? Don’t blame the women’s game for not making money when the real culprit is decades of underinvestment, fueled by sexist beliefs.

And if women’s sports were fair, that would mean women have equal access to coaching and administrative opportunities.

Yet… Since the U.S. enacted Title IX in 1972, the number of female head coaches of women’s collegiate sports teams has declined significantly, from 90 percent in 1971 to 43 percent in 2019.

More often than not: the person making those hiring decisions is also a man. Across all three NCAA divisions, nearly 80% of collegiate athletic directors are men (and of those, over 85 percent are white).

The disproportional hiring of men is also true in Olympic sports. At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, only eight of the 66 coaches for the U.S. team were women (seven of whom worked in figure skating).

Even the best professional women’s teams aren’t coached by women. Only one of the ten current NWSL teams is coached by a woman. Five of 12 WNBA teams. Three of six NWHL teams. And of those nine women, almost all are cisgender white women.

Women are also underrepresented in the operations and administrative positions that govern sports and leagues.

Of the 31 international federations that oversee summer Olympic sports, zero have executive boards with equal gender representation (according to 2018 data from the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations).

In fact, only 1 of the 31 federations had a board with at least 40 percent women, while 18 of 31 had less than 25 percent representation of women.

And if women’s sports were fair, sexual harassment and abuse would not be an issue.

Yet… Athletes like Greek sailing champion Sofia Bekatorou feared that speaking up could jeopardize an Olympic dream.

Institutions like Louisiana State University failed to adequately investigate sexual misconduct complaints.

And of course, Larry Nassar was able to abuse hundreds of gymnasts, enabled for decades by those around him.

There are plenty of threats to “fairness” and “equality” in women’s sports.

But those threats don’t include trans women.

While the IOC first created a policy to include trans women in the world’s most elite competition nearly two decades ago, legislators in state houses across the United States are currently waging a fight to bar trans girls of all ages from participating in recreational sports.

Since January, over 30 U.S. states have either discussed or formally introduced legislation that would prohibit or limit transgender children from playing sports. Many of these bills are promoted under a false narrative of wanting to “protect” or “save” women’s sports. These bills often cite “fairness” as the reason to exclude trans women from women’s teams. Some even include the word in the title, like Idaho’s “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”

The Women’s Sports Foundation has condemned this legislation, imploring the legislators, “to stop using girls’ and women’s sports as a vehicle to discriminate.”

Not only is the attempt to bar transgender women – a group that is disproportionately affected by discrimination, harassment, and deadly violence – often transphobic and dangerous, but it also undermines the very cause it purports to uphold.

As Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve recently wrote in an essay for Sports Illustrated, “Transgender exclusion pits woman athletes against one another, reinforces the harmful notion that there is only one right way to be a woman and distracts us from the real threats to women’s sports.”

In the fight for fairness in women’s sports, don’t become distracted from the real threats: access, pay, investment, representation, sexual abuse, and doping, to name a few. Because to confront those issues, it’s vital to make sure all athletes marginalized by gender – and not just cisgender women (and not just cisgender white women) – are at the table.

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