Over the past decade we have learned more about how some aspects of American football are not just dangerous, but deadly. As a result, we are in a steady and rapidly evolving season of adapting rules and equipment of the game to fit the knowledge that we now have. Of course this isn’t new. The earliest football helmets were simple pieces of leather, only slightly more protective than a baseball cap. Now they are solid bubbles of protection made of space age technology. And they will continue to change as we learn more and as new technology is developed.
Our reactions to these adaptations follow predictable patterns. First, we bristle and recoil at the change, feeling that what the game is losing is worth more than what is being gained. Some of us stay in that stage, preferring football to be as dangerous and deadly as it has always been. But I’d wager that most of us move on to new stages of acceptance. We may look back with some degree of fondness to the bloodbaths of days gone by. But then we all kind of accept, reluctantly or not, that things like targeting– when a player uses the full force of their body to launch their helmet into the helmet of another player– probably should not be allowed. An act that thirty years ago would have earned a player a sticker on their helmet, now earns them an ejection from the game.
And then we learn that the new adaptations bring new challenges, and we adapt more. We evolve. We figure it out, because we’ve come to a consensus that perhaps it’s better for society the this game we love doesn’t kill people, either immediately or in slow motion over a lifetime.
I was reflecting on this when reactions to President Biden signed the Executive Order Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation. The EO doesn’t actually do anything aside from provide a framework for public institutions when making regulations that would exclude people based on gender identity or sexual orientation. But it gave many an opportunity to believe that the sky was falling.
The pushback centered on competition in sports, but also included the old standard locker room argument.
The concern about competition goes something like this, (I’m wording this with the most generous assumptions about people’s motives): Bodies with XX chromosomes (usually assigned female at birth) and bodies with XY chromosomes (usually assigned male at birth) tend to be better suited for certain activities than the other.* From an evolutionary standpoint, athletically-conditioned XY chromosomed bodies run faster, jump higher, and can lift more weight than comparable athletically-conditioned XX chromosomed bodies. To put it more succinctly- Usain Bolt at his fastest was faster than Florence Griffith-Joyner at her fastest. LeBron James can jump higher than Brittney Griner. And as joyful and mesmerizing as it is to watch Katie Ledecky swim, if she were to race against Michael Phelps, she’d still be in the pool while he was being interviewed by the press.
This concern about who competes against whom is a legitimate one, and shouldn’t be dismissed or diminished. But it should also be noted that this is an issue that goes beyond the subject of trans-inclusion in sports. Women have always had to compete with other women whose bodies were better suited to competition than theirs. But so have men. When I was a kid my dad took me to the Texas UIL state championship basketball tournament. In the 3A bracket was a team from San Antonio with a 17 year old kid named Shaquille O’Neal. He was at least 6 inches taller, and far superior than any other player on the court, all of whom represented the best teams in their classification in the state.
Michael Phelps is another example. No doubt his work ethic and training made him the most decorated Olympic medalist of all time. But his physiological makeup– from his long torso and his comparably “short” legs, to his wingspan– ensured that it was never going to be a fair fight when he went up against anyone else.
On a tangental, but still relevant note, there are class, caste, and economic differences that create competitive disparities. Over the past 15 years, almost every Texas State Championship 6A (pre-2014, 5A) football team came from a suburban or exurban school that had far superior resources than schools in the middle of large cities. And for individual sports, kids whose families can afford private trainers and elite teams from an early age have an unfair advantage over the comparably sized and gifted athletes whose families have to scrape together multiple jobs just to keep food on the table.
We have always struggled with how to group athletes and teams together in competition to account for fairness. And we are likely never going to come up with a perfect solution. For various reasons, it’s an easier endeavor with college and professional sports than with youth sports. But we figure it out. Then we adjust. Then we learn new things and adjust again. This is what civilized societies do.
What should be abundantly clear to any empathetic person, though, is that trans individuals don’t go through the agony of self-discovery and the very real potential for violence and marginalization in a world that doesn’t accept them, just so they can win a track meet or “beat the girls” in a basketball tournament.
We can figure it out in ways that both takes fairness AND inclusion in consideration.
The locker room solutions, I believe, are more easily enacted: Change the culture. Build facilities that give everyone the option to shower and change privately, but still retain common areas that build team unity.
Whether we know it or not, our trepidation around shared locker-room facilities is all tied up into culturally conditioned beliefs about the human body– what it is for and who gets to see all of it. It assumes that being naked in the locker room in front of other people is a divinely instituted right, but a right that we get to control all the variables. Since we aren’t likely to shed those beliefs anytime soon, the best way to adapt is to structurally change how we design our spaces.
Though it hasn’t been easy, we have a proud history of making similar structural changes in order to create a more inclusive world for everyone. Though we have called this phenomenon by different names, we have always recognized that some people get from point A to point B by different means than the rest of us.
Most of us physically get from point A to point B with our legs. But some people get from point A to point B on wheels or with crutches.
Intellectually, many of us get from point A to point B relatively quickly and in a linear fashion. But some people’s brains work in such a way that makes getting from point A to point B a more meandering and layered process. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two poles.
In earlier times we felt the only answer to these disparities in how people got from point A to point B was to discard the people who were in the minority. For those with physical differences, we required them to either stay out of our public buildings or find difficult and unsustainable ways to get in. For those with intellectual differences, we kept them home or in separate schools. In much earlier times, all of them could have been sent away to institutions or asylums, forever forgotten. But thanks to decades of their tireless advocacy for themselves and fighting to be seen, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act that demands us to take everyone, including the smaller numbers of people who get from point A to point B differently, into account when building our structures and institutions.
We figure it out. We adjust. Then we learn more, and adjust more.
As far as money– If something happened to the electrical or world-wide networking grids tomorrow that rendered every million-dollar scoreboard in a Texas high school football stadium obsolete, we would find a way to get another one up and running before August. We’d figure that out, so we can figure out how to build better changing facilities for a fraction of the cost.
And none of this adaptation is done to cater to one group over another. We figure these things out because figuring it out is at the heart of a kind and just society. And kindness and justice for all is good for all of us, not just a few. It’s also at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the ancient world, eunuchs were servants in the ancient courts of royalty. They were castrated, usually forcibly, and sometimes as punishment for homosexual acts, and thus seen outside the mainstream of sexual and gender identity. They aren’t a perfect analog to our understanding of gay and trans-identities, because they had little to no agency in their expression. But they were seen in the same way– as outsiders. This is what is so powerful about the story of the apostle Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. After hearing Phillip preach the good news of Jesus, the eunuch asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” Or, in other words, “What prevents me from being included in this life of God that you are being included in?”
The text doesn’t record a response from Phillip, other than that he baptized the eunuch. Regardless of whether he had objections or hurdles to jump, he made sure the eunuch was a full participant in the story of Jesus, on the level of everyone else who had been transformed by the gospel. He figured it out and made it happen.
*I understand that using chromosomal differences to broach the subject of gender and sex can become problematic when taking other factors into consideration.