On Trans Athletes and the Idea of Acceptable Advantages

With trans athletes like Lia Thomas, and always, a truly level playing field can only exist where there is true equality off of it.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

I want to fully dedicate this column to the very talented writer and thinker that I am lucky enough to call my good friend, Katie Barnes. I had the chance to see Katie for the first time in a long time this past week, and as per usual we got to talking about a lot of big picture sports questions. Katie is an expert on the history and state of current debates about trans athletes (and just did a great story about Lia Thomas, and has spoken with this column on that topic and others), and in the course of talking about those debates they used a phrase I had never really given much thought: acceptable advantages.

In the context of our conversation, Katie was using the phrase to explain people’s fears about trans women’s participation in sports — many people’s belief that trans women have an advantage over cisgender women in sports that is unacceptable. The way that belief tends elides the complexities of the issue — what level people are competing at, when they began transitioning, how long they’ve been taking hormones, etc. — betrays its bigoted core. 

But there is a core philosophical question there that stretches far beyond whether trans girls and women are permitted to compete in girls and women’s sports. If the idea of sports is that everyone starts competing from the same place and is trying to reach the same goal, what advantages are permissible, and which must be banned?

We tend to think about physical gifts as an acceptable advantage in sports. The wildly long limbs of swimmers, or the height of basketball players, or the quick twitch muscles of a sprinter or soccer player — if I were to play basketball against a 6’4” WNBA player, I couldn’t say it was not a fair fight because they were taller than I am (I would probably say it was unfair facetiously, though). That’s one reason why they’re a professional athlete and I’m not. 

But those gifts are supposed to come “naturally” and be supplemented by nothing more than hard work, determination, grit, etc. — all the words that are inescapable on coaches’ motivational posters. That is why doping is still such a huge taboo, why we would prefer to ignore the fact that older athletes like LeBron James and Tom Brady are almost certainly toeing the line with what kind of supplements and treatments they use to keep themselves dominant. Again, it means deciding on what constitutes an acceptable advantage. It is not a natural law, it is a set of rules that have to be made and have to evolve as the world does (although too often it does not).

lia thomas penn swimmer interview

What Katie brought up as the ultimate accepted advantage was money. Money is the most acute example of sports’ blithe unfairness; it can be more powerful, even, than physical gifts at facilitating success. Yet athletes lacking money is rarely received as an acute unfairness; instead, it is presented as an intractable challenge through which said athlete has an opportunity to further prove their grit/determination etc. — one for which the promise of a multimillion dollar professional contract is a suitable carrot instead of an aspiration so far-fetched as to be almost foolish. 

Sports media is addicted to these stories of sacrifice, fixated on how families with little try to support the ambitions of their children and how those children scrounge for the resources to practice and improve. Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo became the NCAA’s all time home run leader recently; the news was accompanied by the tidbit that her family had scrimped to save the $10,000 necessary for Alo to play travel softball far from her home in Hawaii. The intent of sharing this seems to be to demonstrate her family’s devotion; all I see, though, is how far gone youth sports in America are, how deeply stratified along race and class lines they already are and will continue to be. There is absolutely no accounting for how the opportunities a rich kid will take for granted, another family is compelled to view as a low-odds gamble of their life savings — or can’t pursue at all. That makes it an acceptable, tacit advantage. 

When it comes to trans athletes, the waters get even murkier. Lia Thomas just became the first known transgender athlete to win a Division I championship in any sport. Thomas would not be competing without having met the NCAA’s now shifting requirements for trans women, which include testing below a certain level of testosterone. But along with her success comes a chorus of people saying she has an unacceptable advantage, a declaration that seems to have less to do with the specifics of Thomas’ situation than the core belief that any trans girl or woman — regardless of when they transitioned and what choices they’ve made as a part of that transition — will have an unacceptable advantage competing against cisgender women. 

That assumption is not only insulting to cisgender women and based on a very narrow view of what makes someone a good athlete, it makes it essentially impossible to accept a trans girl or woman winning, ever, under any circumstances. If a trans girl or woman competes and loses, she is acceptable because she clearly doesn’t have an unacceptable advantage; if she wins, instantly she is deemed to be competing unfairly.

I don’t write this to make it seem like I’ve reached any conclusions, only to try to start parsing some of the stakes involved. Thinking about what advantages we accept and which are taboo is a good way to zoom out on these conversations, to think about why we play and watch sports. As ever, a truly level playing field can only exist where there is true equality off of it.