For all the energy devoted to the Lia Thomas story, you’d think there was an army of transitioning athletes looking to snatch Division I titles from the women who rightfully won them. Laws have been written, passed, vetoed and passed again to prevent people assigned one sex at birth from competing with people who identify differently.
It’s all very agitating but the entire discussion overlooks a central point: We don’t always have to segregate sports by gender.
Why is it a given that the most important fact about an athlete isn’t how fast they are, how high they jump or how hard they train. It’s, “Are you a boy, or are you a girl?” That answer often determines the sports you are sorted into, who your teammates will be, the style of coaching and competitive characteristics that will be encouraged from you.
Certainly, men are generally stronger than women, and the fastest women couldn’t compete with the fastest men. There are times when it makes sense to hold competitions by gender, but we don’t need to take the criteria for the Olympics and work them back to Little League soccer.
With all of the opportunity that has come with Title IX, one of the less beneficial effects is to harden the boundaries between men’s sports and women’s sports. There are plenty of girls across the country playing on boys recreational or youth teams because of a lack of girls teams in a sport or region. Every day. If we were to be even more rigid about who can play where, it could mean that all those girls pitching in Little League or playing hockey on boys teams aren’t as welcome. And for the great majority of players, particularly those under 10, the physical differences aren’t big enough to make single-sex teams a requirement.
There are a lot of benefits of coed play, especially for kids.
Why aren’t coed sports more of the norm?
It doesn’t actually protect women to keep them from playing with or against men. Not at the Olympics or in a professional individual sport, but more generally, where most of us actually experience play. Why should what makes sense at the Olympics be the standard for all other forms of play?
An anecdote: When I was in my 20s and moved to New York City, I played a lot of pickup basketball games, often as the only woman in the game. My skills were well within the range of the average group of players on the court, and it would have been absurd to apply the rules of NBA eligibility to a recreational game like that.
Plenty of women’s college teams have practice teams made up of men. There’s no safety issue. Women aren’t in danger of playing with men, despite the subtext of this conversation around Thomas. Roller derby’s WFTDA has had an inclusive policy since 2010 and, having played a full-contact sport against trans and non-binary athletes in a team context, I can report that it was completely unremarkable. At the time, roller derby determined divisions based on wins and losses, so teams of similar skill competed against each other.
Yet in youth sports we often decide to segregate by sex or gender rather than by skill level. And it’s this kind of thinking that makes athletes like Lia Thomas a “problem” rather than just another young person who wants to play. In wrestling, athletes are grouped by weight class to ensure fairness. There are alternatives to pink and blue, like time trials to sort athletes into tiered final heats in racing, or dividing players by skill set. When we use sex as a shorthand at every level, it reinforces the stereotypes about the way genders interact.
Most of our time spent playing sports isn’t in the final heat of a championship meet. It’s the time spent practicing with our teammates, traveling on the bus to events, picking up friends and carpooling to practice. It’s in meetings and on a sideline waiting for things to get started.
And in our daily lives, our families and work lives are not filtered through the lens of gender anymore. Your boss or co-worker isn’t a role dictated by gender. And in basketball or softball or soccer or ultimate frisbee, your average male and female player aren’t worlds away in terms of skill. We can play a lot more together than we do. Follow the SportsCenter Instagram account, search YouTube and you’ll see video after video of young women besting boys in wrestling, basketball or weightlifting. These are presented as though they are unusual, but it only seems like that because we are told that women can’t compete with men. It’s why the average pickup player I knew was pretty sure he’d beat any WNBA player in 1-on-1. Spoiler: Nope.
The worst-case scenario is a version of this; that men will say they identify as women just to start playing in the WNBA. And certainly, a man might decide to do that with the goal of humiliating women and mocking the concept of inclusive rules. But in our culture, for a man to play against women is humiliating, particularly if he loses. There has been plenty of research into the privilege that is lost or gained when a person transitions, and any athlete deciding to genuinely play as a woman isn’t making that decision lightly.
Lia Thomas has become a Rorschach test for our cultural ideas of gender and how rigidly we want to enforce rules that are becoming less important to people of Thomas’ generation.
We shouldn’t let people exploit a rare event like Lia Thomas’ win as a reason to exclude transgender and non-binary people from sports teams. And we shouldn’t only include those athletes with the stipulation that they can’t win.
It may be reasonable at some point to have criteria for a championship meet that don’t apply to every lower-level competition, but this isn’t a large-enough scale issue to enforce a reactionary set of rules designed to keep people off teams and out of meets. And what it should do is prompt consideration of whether that’s really the best way to play.