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

Author’s note: On August 2, 2021, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first transgender woman to compete at the Olympic Games. She failed to record a clean lift. 

Originally published May 13, 2021 

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.

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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.)

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: How will the IOC’s framework impact transgender athletes?

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.

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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.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Raven Saunders makes ‘X’ on podium, representing where the “oppressed meet”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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    Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

    Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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    It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

    “We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

    The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

    The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

    While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

    “I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

    Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

    As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

    “I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

    Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

    “We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

    2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
    ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

    Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

    “It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

    2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

    Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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    The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

    Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

    This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


    How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

    Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

    • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
    • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
    • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
    • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

    Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

    Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

    • No. 2 Nelly Korda
    • No. 4 Lydia Ko
    • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
    • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
    • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
    • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

    A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


    Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

    YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
    2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
    2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
    2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
    2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
    2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

    Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

    South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

    It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


    More about Old American Golf Club

    Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.