An Interview With ESPN’s Katie Barnes on Trans Athletes, NIL Changes and More

The award-winning journalist also speaks about their upcoming book.

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.

There is no one I trust more when it comes to talking about gender and sports — and really culture, politics and sports — than ESPN writer Katie Barnes. You have probably read their work on some fantastic athlete or another — Maya Moore, Paige Bueckers, Layshia Clarendon and Azzi Fudd are just a few recent examples — but if you haven’t read their landmark pieces on trans athlete inclusion, you should probably rectify that sooner than later since (as we have discussed in this column) trans athletes and trans healthcare become increasingly popular political cudgels for conservatives across the country. Katie just published a new piece on transgender kids around the country who are fighting for their right to play, and appeared on ESPN Daily to speak more about the issue. Here, Katie talks a bit more about their work on trans athletes’ rights, but also about their upcoming book (!) and some broader gender and sports queries we’ve previously explored in this column. 

When did you first start thinking about writing about trans athletes? 

One of the first things that I did in terms of writing on the internet was a sports and pop culture column for Feministing.com. While I was doing that, I did a series around queer issues and sport. I touched on a lot of these broad issues of sport and gender, and ways that I think about them both big and small. By February 2016, I was a digital media associate at ESPN, and I had gotten wind that the high school association in Texas, the University Interscholastic league, was going to change its policy that would designate sex for the purposes of athletic competition in all of its events as being determined by your birth certificate. There was a little bit of local coverage about it, and I had been thinking about it, and some people that I’d been connected to through my previous participation in various LGBT sports organizations over the course of my collegiate and grad school years were talking about it.

At that point, I started looking for a transgender athlete in Texas. I tried everything — contacting as many people and organizations and listservs as I could think of. I was like, I mean, it’s Texas — this person exists. Then the news about Mack Beggs broke, and I had no idea and nobody that I knew had any idea that Mack Beggs existed. I was like, “What?!”

As trans athletes have become the centerpiece of whatever phase of cultural wars we’re in, what do you think is the thing that people misunderstand the most about this particular issue?

I think people conflate who it is that we’re talking about when we’re talking about transgender athletes. I think people hear that phrase, and they think a couple of things. One is that the discussion is being had about elite Olympians, when in reality we’re talking about high school and younger. But they think about Laurel Hubbard. Simultaneously, I think when folks hear transgender athletes — specifically transgender girls — what I think a lot of folks think is being discussed is someone who is a cisgender boy pretending to be a girl. 

Both of those things underpin the national conversation in ways that it’s really hard to cut through. One of the people that I have spoken to a lot about this topic said to me, “What the opposition says in one sentence, we have to say in three.” And I think that is the thing: this is a really nuanced and difficult conversation. When the argument for restricting transgender athletes’ ability to participate in sports is “Boys shouldn’t play girls sports,” it’s like, sure, but let’s unpack that. There’s a lot of unpacking that has to be done.

You’re in the middle of unpacking some of that by working on a book: The Determination of Sex, an “explosive exploration into the outsized impact of American sports on our cultural understanding of sex and gender.” Can you tell us what it’s about?

The book is truly a culmination of my career to this point. It explores, essentially, why it is that we’re fighting about sports in our current era, and the ways in which our ideas about gender and sports have made and remake each other.

I definitely have a section where I talk about science. There’s a fair amount about Title IX and sex segregation in general, how we’ve maintained that over time. There’s an interesting sort of detour into the ways in which our sports are coded in terms of the assumptions that we make — for example, softball being a “gay” sport. How our discourse around sports has culturally influenced us, and how those cultural assumptions have influenced the experiences of people in sports. I think the meat of the book sort of traces the last five years, but all of those things inform it.

Are there any surprising anecdotes from the sports world that you found in researching your book that you think most people wouldn’t know about?

Not that I can think of right now. But the policing of the non-male category has been present since its inception. Like there’s always been that part of women’s sports in particular, a fear of intersex athletes — also reverence of intersex athletes, which I think is important to note. That fear around folks who are intersex and competing in the women’s category, then also pervades in terms of a fear about trans people, a fear of deceptions… so much of it is just informed by literally the East Germans, it’s shocking to me.

That whole era is extremely important. But for as long as people have been competing in sports, there have been folks who have deviated from the norm competing in sports, and that has been dealt with with varying levels of policing and violence throughout history. Those waves kind of ebb and flow. 

I know we’ve talked about it a little bit before, but as we’re approaching questions about gender and sports from a critical perspective, where does the name, image and likeness stuff fit in, and how that seemingly inevitably is going to reward women who present as attractive in a kind of conventional, straight way on social media? 

I don’t know that it’s something that’s going to be answerable soon. There’s no question that female athletes in particular stand to make a bunch of money when it comes to NIL stuff. But there’s also this dichotomy between an athlete in women’s sports who is going to make money because she’s an athlete, versus an athlete in women’s sports who stands to make money because they’re an influencer. That divergence, I think, is going to be very important to look out for.

When we talk about the influencers that group is going to skew to conventional beauty standards, and gender expectations and presentation — just a way of saying straight and white and cis and conventionally beautiful. When we look at the athlete space, in terms of who the best athletes are in women’s basketball specifically, for example, there is some of that, but there’s a wider array of presentations. Who is going to be able to capitalize off of their athleticism and have access to that capital is going to be very interesting to see. Right now when we’re talking about name, image and likeness, all of those people are sort of lumped in together, when I think of them as being definitely distinct groups.

Where that [NIL] money goes is going to be interesting. Like, is the money going to go to folks who have huge TikTok followings regardless of whether or not they’re really good athletes? Does that matter? I don’t know. The thing about name, image and likeness is that, aside from rewarding really good athletes and allowing them to capitalize off of their athleticism and their skill, it also allows for college students who happen to play sports to make money in similar ways as all of their peers.

There are also college students who are not athletes who are influencers. I’m not sure what to do with that, and I think it’s really unclear how that dust is going to settle although I have some suspicions. In general, the women’s sports market has been artificially suppressed for a really long time, and that is seen specifically in college sports. However, if in the advent of this NIL era, we’re seeing all of those dollars go to people who are influencers who play sports and not prominent athletes in women’s sports, then that’s going to be a real problem. But I think it’s a little too early to say what that breakdown is going to look like — especially since the poster child for NIL is somebody like Paige Bueckers, who encompasses a little bit of both. 

It will be interesting. Thinking about Paige, Sue Bird, Sabrina Ionescu — people who have parlayed their achievements on the court into a lot of money off of it — I don’t know, is whiteness going to wind up being more important than, like, even wearing a lot of makeup or whatever? 

It’s tough, because Paige is one of the best players in the country.  We can talk about all kinds of things when it comes to whiteness, conventional attractiveness, assumptions made about gender presentation and sexual orientation, and all of those things. We can talk about that — and also, the fact that Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark, are very, very good basketball players. But like, if Azzi Fudd has a really great freshman season, unlike anything we’ve seen since Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark, but is unable to garner the same amount of attention, well…do we have that discussion then?

Will it be very noticeable that Aliyah Boston is not accessing media notoriety and NIL fame in the same ways as some of her collegiate counterparts? Time is going to allow us to have a better understanding of how these things are playing out.

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